Thursday, April 20, 2017

A Wobbly Railroader’s Brush With Islamic Mystic

John Paul Wright--musician, poet, union activist.

No two ways about it, John Paul Wright is an interesting cat.  The Kentuckian has spent the last several years as an engineer on CSX—the former Chesapeake & Ohio and the various lines it merged with or swallowed.  A dedicated union man he was a leading member and co-chair of Railroad Workers United, a national organization of rail workers dedicated to promoting safety and justice on the job and was an active member of the old Brotherhood of Railway Locomotive Engineers, the United Transportation Union (UTU) and of rank-and-file groups in it.  But Wright, steeped in labor lore from a union household is also a Red card carrying member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)—the radical industrial union co-founded by his hero Eugene V. Debs.
But Wright is not just a labor militant—he is an accomplished artist, a folk singer, song writer, poet, and story teller.  He draws inspiration for his music from IWW martyr Joe Hill, more recent Wobbly Bard and Keeper of the Long Memory Utah Phillips, Anne Feeney, and the Kentucky miners’ music by Florence Reese and others. In 2015 Wright helped organize and perform in the Joe Hill Road Show concerts which commemorated the centennial of Hill’s execution by a Utah firing Squad.
Through his own Railroadmusic label he has released three CDs of cover and original material—Music for Modern Railroaders (2007), Born Union (2011), and Singing to the Choir (2013).  In addition Wright often posts songs, storytelling, and observations in video clips on his Facebook page.  His music can be found on Railroad Music – The Thread In The Quilt That is Americana … 
John Paul Wright--Born Union CD.

But Wright’s interests and influences are surprisingly wide and deep.  Besides Appalachian folk and blues, he studied congasWest African Djembe and tribal dancing while working with the Pigeon Nest Education Urban Ministry and Arts in the early ‘90’s and looks forward to reconnecting with this part of his musical heritage.
An activist since high school, he self-educated himself on working people’s struggles including not only the work of Debs and the IWW, but less well known things like Upton Sinclair’s End Poverty In California (EPIC) program.  More recently he has connected with farmer/eco-activist/poet Wendell Berry and Bernie Sanders’s democratic socialism. 
The family-- Jonah William-Malik Wright, Donna Wright Brown, and John Paul Wright.

Wright is deeply devoted to his wife and sometime musical collaborator Donna Wright Brown and his teenage son Jonah William-Malik.  Because life on the railroad call board often kept them separated, Wright recently resigned from the railroad to spend more time with them and to study and work on his music and poetry.  The family plans to leave Kentucky for a new life on the west coast.
Speaking of his poetry, most of which is unpublished but which he shares on Facebook, it shows the astonishing breadth of reading and deep probing of life’s mysteries.  This wonderful piece is like peeling an onion of discovery
Rumi the academic scholar…
Rumi the academic scholar one day meets
his match. A merchant, Shams.
They fall in love.
They fall to desire—
and burn in midnight conversation.
Rumi’s students? They are jealous.
To be romantically involved?
The musicians are just as guilty!
The reed flute is just a stick,
until breath finds pleasure.
Mountains of words get written.
Contemplation documented,
and a friendship solidified.
Bound in volumes. Redistributed
over years—a man in Tennessee
is then told by another to re tell
this tale, rekindle this friendship.
I fell for it. Like millions who did—
who understand this language?
of love—I found myself in prayer.
I found my temple. Barks and Bly?
brothers... Now—you are old men.
I stand in your shadow, and laugh
at your followers, even though—my
drum is in kind. The forest that is you?
The movement of men?
The cult of spinners?
Shams were a worker. Dirty and foul
mouthed. He did not wish to be a saint.
A friend is an easy thing to be.
A partner is more favorable.
So, to bring this forward into creation?
I am just a man. Like all the rest, burning—
working for a crazy woman. In love and
dedication, my every footstep is prayer—
once a teacher told me that every step to
the prayer rug, was a lamentation, and I was
to make intention. He asked, “for who do you
pray?” I said, “for my brothers, that they may
know Jesus!” I married a woman twenty
years ago in that tavern. I drank all the wine,
we made resolution. A monk? Can not preach
to this man! Until he has driven himself crazy
In love with the ultimate creator. When my own
mother was about to pass, when death was
swirling around her existence
 I asked “to whom do you pray?” She said,
 “to Mary.” “Because no mother should ever see her child executed.”
And was this sacred? Was she scared? What
would the friend recognize? Is this the divine?
My exploration finds me romantically involved
with mythology, in a school not made by hands.
No diploma nor credentials. Yet you rebel like
reformers do? You are forgetting to design
your replacement. Who will do your work when
only books are left to be discovered? Alone, I sit.
Waiting for a scribe? Just like Rumi to his Shams
like Black Elk and his vision. Like Sun Ra and his
vibrations. I can name drop all day ... and be no

Amen. Many ... Of them.

—John Paul Wright

No comments:

Post a Comment