Friday, May 15, 2015

T-Bone Slim’s Mysterious Demise

Barges like the Casey tied up at the East River Terminal in New York City.

On May 15, 1942 the bloated body of a 60-something year old man was pulled from the East River in New York City.  The event was hardly noticed.  There were other things going on in the world.  Heading the news that day was word that Australian troops had hastily reinforced Port Moresby, New Guinea in the face of Japanese advances, gas rationing went into effect in 27 eastern states, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation creating the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC).  A practically anonymous stiff did not bear mention, especially because bodies turning up in the River were an almost daily occurrence.
It turned out that the man was Matt Valentine Huhta, a barge captain and master of the Casey. The police report surmised that about four days earlier he had gotten drunk and fallen into the river.  No marks of violence were found and no autopsy was performed.  The trouble was that Huhta had been a non-drinker for more than 40 years.  And working on and around the docks and ships much of his life, he was known to be very careful around water.  He was a strong swimmer.
Did he have enemies?  Perhaps.  He was active in the Barge Captain’s Local of the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA), a union notoriously infected by corruption and ties to the Mob.  Huhta also still carried his red card in the Marine Transport Workers of the radical Industrial Workers of the World.  He fought for the IWW values of member controlled democratic unionism in the ILA.  Did he rock the boat one time too many?
As Wobbly he may also have made enemies with Communists in the often fractious ethnic Finnish left. 
Without any family in New York, no one claimed Hunta’s body and he was buried in an unmarked grave in a potter’s field.

Masthead of T-Bone Slim's long time home, the Industrial Worker
It was not until word of his death was published sometime later in the Industrial Worker that his friends and fellow workers got to mourn the man best known to Wobblies a T-Bone Slim.
Huhta was born to working class Finnish immigrants about 1880 in Ashtabula, Ohio.  He married young and quickly fathered four children with his wife Rose but for what ever reason the couple split.  Rose got a divorce and her ex-husband left town.  His children never heard from him again.  He reportedly traveled the country as an itinerant worker—a Hobo.
By some accounts he was working as a reporter on the News-Telegram in Duluth, Minnesota, where many Finns settled as iron miners and smelters.  They were among the most militant of the ethnic groups on the Iron Range.  Huhta reputedly threw up his newspaper job when an article on an mass meeting of the IWW was “balled up” with misquotes.  It is unclear if He was already a Wobbly himself at the time, or if this incident was the impetus for him to join.
His first contribution to Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent, the famous Little Red Song Book, came in the 17th edition published in 1920.  The song lyric The Popular Wobbly was signed at T-Bone Slim, a moniker he would continue to use for almost all of his printed work. 

The Little Red Song Book

By 1921 T-Bone Slim was a regular writer, cartoonist, and eventually a columnist for, the IWW paper Industrial Solidarity and its successor the Industrial Worker for the rest of his life.  He also contributed to the monthly magazine Industrial Pioneer and to the IWW Finnish language paper Industrialisti.  He specialized in poems and ditties, folksy but pointed yarns, and irreverent satire.
T-Bone didn’t work from any office.  He filed his stories on the fly.  He could be found among lumberjacks of the Pacific Northwest, among the harvest stiffs on the Great Plains, in hobo jungles around the country, on the San Pedro docks, and wintering up on Skid Roads from Seattle to Chicago.  He would occasionally show up a Work People’s College in his old stomping ground of Duluth. 
Never photographed he was described by those who knew him as a slender man about 5’10” who was quiet and shy, always writing.  He lived the life of a true footloose Wobbly.
The T-Bone slim anthology.
 About 1930 T-Bone gravitated to New York City where he found work on the water front.  Eventually he earned his barge captain’s license and became master of the Casey

T-Bone Slim is hardly remembered outside the IWW.  The fame outside the union that attached themselves to other Wobbly poet/songwriters like Joe Hill, Ralph Chaplain, and Haywire Mac McClintock eluded him.  But he was beloved by Wobblies who still sing his songs and recite his poems.  The American Surrealist Movement has adopted him as one of their own and an inspiration.  The only book on T-Bone Slim is the late Franklin Rosemont’s Juice Is Stranger Than Fiction, a collection of selected writings with a brief biographical sketch in its introduction.\

The Lumberjack’s Prayer
Tune: the Doxology

I pray dear Lord for Jesus’ sake,
Give us this day a T-Bone Steak,
Hallowed be thy Holy name,
But don’t forget to send the same.

Oh, hear my humble cry, Oh Lord,
And send us down some decent board,
Brown gravy and some German fried,
With sliced tomatoes on the side.

Observe me on my bended legs,
I’m asking you for Ham and Eggs,
And if thou havest custard pies,
I like, dear Lord, the largest size.

Oh, hear my cry, All Mighty Host,
I quite forgot the Quail on Toast,
Let your kindly heart be stirred,
And stuff some oysters in that bird.

Dear Lord, we know your Holy wish,
On Friday we must have a fish,
Our flesh is weak and spirit stale,
You better make that fish a whale.

Oh, hear me Lord, remove these “Dogs,”
These sausages of powder’d logs,
Your bull beef hash and bearded Snouts.
Take them to hell or thereabouts.

With Alum bread and Pressed-Beef butts,
Dear Lord you damn near ruin’d my guts,
Your white-wash milk and Oleorine,
I wish to Christ I’d never seen.

Oh, hear me Lord, I am praying still,
But if you won’t, our union will,
Put pork chops on the bill of fare,
And starve no workers anywhere.

I am happy to say this prayer has been answered—by the “old man” himself. He tells me He has furnished—plenty for all—and that if I am not getting mine it’s because I am not organized SUFFICIENTLY strong to force the master to loosen up.
He tells me he has no knowledge on Dogs, Pressed-Beef Butts, etc., and that they probably are products of the Devil. He further informs me the Capitalists are children of Hisn—and that He absolutely refuses to participate in any children’s squabbles. He believes in letting us fight it out along the lines of Industrial Unionism.
Yours in faith,
T-Bone Slim

Mysteries of a Hobo’s Life
Tune: The Girl I Left Behind Me

I took a job on an extra gang,
Way up in the mountain,
I paid my fee and the shark shipped me
And the ties I soon was counting.

The boss he put me driving spikes
And the sweat was enough to blind me,
He didn’t seem to like my pace,
So I left the job behind me.

I grabbed a hold of an old freight train
And around the country traveled,
The mysteries of a hobo’s life
To me were soon unraveled.

I traveled east and I traveled west
And the shacks could never find me,
Next morning I was miles away
From the job I left behind me.

I ran across a bunch of stiffs
Who were known as Industrial Workers.
They taught me how to be a man
And how to fight the shirkers.

I kicked right in and joined the bunch
And now in the ranks you’ll find me,
Hurrah for the cause—To hell with the boss
And the job I left behind me.

—T-Bone Slim

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