As we near the end of National Poetry Month and approach May Day, the true International Labor Day it is appropriate we turn to a representative of a truly overlooked demographic—working class white men. John Paul Wright certainly fits the bill, but he also stretches and confounds all preconceptions and stereotypes.
Wright comes from a family of working class radicals and activists including his father and immigrant mother and a stepfather. Mom came out as lesbian in a hostile border state Kentucky community and imbued her son with a love of music, verse, and a daring to explore.
An activist since high school, he self-educated himself on working people’s struggles including not only the work of Eugene Debs and the radical labor union he joined—the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), but less well known things like Upton Sinclair’s End Poverty In California (EPIC) program. More recently he connected with farmer/eco-activist/poet Wendell Berry and Bernie Sanders’s democratic socialism.John Paul Wright, second from right standing, and the Board of Railroad Workers United,
The Kentuckian has spent several years as an engineer on CSX—the former Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad 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), the Teamsters and of rank-and-file groups in them. But Wright, steeped in labor lore from a union household is also a Red card carrying member of the IWW—the radical industrial union co-founded by his hero Eugene V. Debs.
More recently he has been the fireman and watchman while in port of the Belle of Louisville, last surviving Western Rivers Paddlewheel Steamboat left operating in the United States.The Bell of Louisville at dock in the evening.
But Wright’s interests and influences are surprisingly wide and deep. Besides Appalachian folk and blues, he studied congas, West African Djembe drums, and tribal dancing while working with the Pigeon Nest Education Urban Ministry and Arts in the early ‘90’s.Wright playing the West African Djembe.
He has also seen some bleak times, especially after the break-up of his long-time marriage to his wife and sometime musical collaborator Donna Wright Brown. He remained close to his son Jonah William-Malik Wright who recently moved to the West Coast. Wright has suffered from periods of depression and near homelessness.
But he has been artistically productive. Through his own Railroadmusic label he has released three CDs of cover and original material—Music for Modern Railroaders in 2007, Born Union in 2011, and Singing to the Choir in 2013. On his Long Steel Rail Press imprint, he has published four books of poetry—Reading the Rails and The Table both in 2017, Even Further: Collected Poems 2015-2017 the next year, and Sabbatical of the Belle in 2019.
In addition, Wright often posts songs, storytelling, and observations in video clips on his Facebook page. His work can also be found on his website The Thread in the Quilt.
Wright recently told something of his own story in this Facebook post.
This body of work. This folder of well worn
papers-dog eared, active real folk songs about
union organizing, some of this body on a
hard drive or some post off Instagram,
digitally stored for later—agony filled edits
copy and pasted. This work that inspires
long nights alone - river walking ghosts
whisper metaphoric renderings of reality
lost and found. This body half broken—
worn down from a past job that found me
gone five hundred miles when the day was.
And was now, is many songs about pride
in work, traditions lost forever, workplace
injury, hardship, families broken, union
battles won, lost, a real life railroad blues.
A body of work self published under stress
from cover to cover about going to the
source, till death did us part, a blues of
impermanence that transformed into
downstream river lore, alone again,
growing harder and on the verge of tears
with age bonded like father and son.
Laughing inside every time I hear another
college educated writer talk about the stale
academic—inside the box problem, however
hard it is to accredit the darkness of a
mental breakdown. Can’t we all agree that
shit rises to the top? But don’t take me
ungrateful. Don’t think me on’ry and mean.
My heroes have always been outlaws,
like Debs, jailed, his union smashed by the
state, or Anne and Carl, white folks willing
to trade their lives over to the cause. My
Father and Mother, Step-Father, radical
working people, Dad married an immigrant's
kid, Mom came out when being Gay was
not all rainbows and an alphabet maze of
community, step-father, and mother union
retirees now raising grand-babies. This
body of work electric like the fair trade
of a good day’s work—for all wealth is made
by labor! This body is creative and tired ...
sometimes I just wanna lay down and
die, but what would be the point of that
when a new love is so delicious and fine!
—John Paul Wright
In December 2020 Wright explained his mission.
I Am Not An Influencer . . .
I am not an Influencer . . .
only here on the take.
I am not here to play a gig—a
we are the frogs in that e-conomy.
because that is what
we were taught as children.
because good work deserves
attention and praise.
because it is
an open invitation.
As desperate as it may seem—a
to live a quiet life goes against
inner workings instilled.
This is my orchard.
I offer these words like
apples, pears and wild flowers.
This music – my peaches.
These images collected were born
of many a harvest.
You are the bee to this creative
fire . . . I grow from your consumption.
Enjoy . . .
You are the thread in
the quilt that holds together
The Folk Tradition.
—John Paul Wright
Finally, consider this one:
Ode to a Simple Man
Honey Nut toasted oats late at night
work boots under the desk, no reason
to get all worked up about nothing anymore.
This is an ode to all the things I did not say.
All the things I knew, but better not contradict
the stone throwers in these so-called times.
Coming straight home and going to bed with
time well spent doing something, anything
productive other than having nothing to say.
In crazy love with the analog moon tonight!
How the thin clouds covered her like a see-
through nightgown full-bodied and bright.
—John Paul Wright