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We Gotta Get Outta This Place

CounterPunch: 2013


In America, we have a seemingly incurable case of Anglophilia. We worship all things British, except the food. We even venerate their politicians, about whom we know nothing. The royals, who are really just a part of the British one per cent (albeit one with a unique hustle), contend with the Kardashians for top spot on the front page of American supermarket tabloids.


If our vision of the present is so cloudy and narrow, an accurate version of history has no chance of sitting at our national table in anything but an Uncle Sam costume. Each summer, we celebrate the Fourth of July with picnics and fireworks and a day off from work yet we seldom pause to take note of the fact that this holiday exists only because of a violent uprising against the British royal family.


It was a different class of people who made a vast North American woodland economically prosperous enough to create the demand for independence in the first place. Why did so many English people cross the ocean to seek a better life here? Was it really because of the push of religious persecution or the pull of North America as a land of opportunity?


"It was not the magnetic attraction of the land of opportunity that pulled my ancestors from their homes,” Joanna Brooks writes in her new book, Why We Left: Untold Songs and Stories of America’s First Immigrants (University of Minnesota Press, $22.95).  “These are just the anachronistic fables Andrew Carnegie and Charles Schwab invented about my ancestors...I need a story…with a broken back and missing fingers; no apologies, no nostalgia."  


Brooks, whose ancestors first arrived in North America on debtor ships, tells that story, answering her own questions:  “Who are we? Who were we? Have we always been the ‘weeds of mankind’”? 


It was the rise of industry, not religious or ethnic strife, which dominated England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Rural land that had been held in common for centuries was fenced off by a nascent one per cent in an illegal process known as enclosure. Land became part of a growing market economy which drove former tenant farmers and their families into the cities to work for starvation wages. What today we might recognize as corporate farms emerged to meet the cities’ demand for food.


Besides enclosure, the British Empire needed warships and this required wood, wood from forests that once sustained rural communities. Brooks notes that “Each ship built required the clear cutting of at least 100 acres of woodlands.” Industry, war, and environmental destruction have been linked ever since.


The proportion of landless laborers grew nearly 500 per cent from the sixteenth to the seventeenth centuries. Their protests were nearly constant: Food riots, pulling down the hedges that demarcated their former homelands, attempts to restore their communal ways of life. In 1629, dozens of women stormed grain barges and made off with as much food as they could carry. The response of the British royal government, the predecessors of those who grace People Magazine covers today, was to arrest women who broke the law and brand them with hot irons.


Brooks describes why her ancestors left: “The unworthy poor were criminalized by early sixteenth century statutes: stripped naked, tied to carts, whipped through town, and returned to the places of their last residence or prosecuted as felons for vagrancy, or bound as slaves for two years to willing masters, or put in stocks or branded.” 


The pressure, the chaos, the misery was too great. The surplus population had to go somewhere. And so it did.


Desperate men and women were enticed by a carrot of lies about a wondrous new world, a carrot waved avidly by singers of “advertisement ballads.” But the use of the carrot paled beside the wielding of the stick. People convicted of crimes of poverty were forced to immigrate to the North American colonies. Press gangs roamed England’s port cities, spiriting away victims. The word “kidnapping” comes to us from the abduction of Irish children, often pulled from their beds while asleep to be put on westbound ships, never to see their parents again. Above all there was the stick of extreme poverty, which all too often convinced many of England’s displaced to take their chances as indentured servants.


Here in America we are taught to revere entrepreneurs who, through pluck and hard work and ingenuity, amass their fortunes and make us all proud of our country. But whether it’s the early colonial barons or Bill Gates, all are the beneficiaries of a system the one per cent built with the advantages of free land and free labor. You don’t need to be the sharpest tool in the shed to take advantage of that. Joanna Brooks mocks the histories of colonization with their “celebratory accounts of conscience-bound Puritans and courtly Virginia adventurers.” And she does so with good reason.


Embarking from English ships after a lengthy and brutal ocean crossing, the emigrants found themselves in a world in which they were expected to work from before dawn til after sunset, a world where trivial offenses resulted in ears and toes being cut off and the clock on the seven year term of “apprenticeship” being reset to zero. The death penalty was enforced for adultery, theft, lying, and sacrilege. To borrow an ear of corn or a bunch of grapes from a garden was a capital crime.


A maidservant who had a child served two extra years for it, even though she was providing her master with a new source of child labor. It was common for an indentured servant to bind himself over to his doctor for a year in order to receive medical treatment. He probably needed it, since diseases such as dysentery and malaria were rampant. According to Edmund S. Morgan, author of American Slavery / American Freedom, only one in fourteen indentured servants ever received the land they had been promised in return for their years of harsh unpaid labor.


Such conditions caused indentured servants to run away or to stage rebellions, sometimes in concert with African slaves. Since the lives of slaves and indentured servants were so similar, there were few if any social barriers between them. They worked together, ate together, and made love together. The master class eventually had to pass laws to keep them apart. Certain privileges were dispensed to the whites to ensure that the previous unity was broken.


Meanwhile, in England a culture of protest was emerging. As Brooks notes, it “sometimes found literary form in the custom of writing seditious rhymes known as libels.” And there were ballads, ballads everywhere. Like forms of music which would come later in history, from the field holler to hip-hop ciphers, no equipment or band rehearsal was required. Just think it, sing it, watch others pick it up and add to it.


These ballads ranged from “Edward,” which detailed the role of deforestation in pushing the rural poor inexorably toward waiting ships to “Well Met Neighbor,” which mocked the wearing of beaver-skin hats by a merchant class which took advantage of new arrivals from the countryside.


“The Trapped Maiden” was a smart rebuke to the seductive lies of advertisement ballads, an “answer song” in which a woman describes her time as an indentured servant as “sorrow, grief, and woe,” of “thin” clothes and beds of straw.


Yet we are taught as schoolchildren to revere those who caused such “sorrow, grief, and woe” for our ancestors. For instance, we know Sir Walter Raleigh, featured in a 2002 BBC poll as one of the 100 Greatest Britons, primarily as the gallant man who laid his cloak over a puddle in order to prevent Queen Elizabeth I from muddying her shoes. Raleigh was actually a man who suppressed rebellions in Ireland and then became the landlord of property confiscated from the Irish. He was an entrepreneur who helped to popularize the smoking of tobacco. Raleigh used press gangs to muster crews for his expeditions to colonial Virginia and was widely hated for it.  One popular ballad, “Sir Walter Raleigh Sailing in the Lowlands,” repeatedly cries out “You promised me gold” and details his sins:


Raleigh doth time bestride

He sits twixt wind and tide

Yet uphill he cannot ride

For all his bloody pride

He seeks taxes in the tin

He polls the poor to the skin

Yet he vows ‘tis no sin  


It wasn’t just what happened in England or North America that became the subject of ballads, but the daily exploitation which took place in transit. For instance:


Our sailors they work night and day

Their manhood for to try

When landed men and rustling Jacks

Do in their cabins lie  


In “The Golden Vanity,” a classic ballad which existed in many versions, a cruel captain refuses to allow the cabin boy he had sent on a military mission back on board, leaving him at the mercy of the open ocean. The cabin boy contemplates using an augur to drill holes in the side of The Golden Vanity to sink it as an act of revenge, but he decides not to because he can’t bear to harm his fellow sailors. He drowns.


Brooks summarizes the ballads: “The story they tell is this one: English peasant migrants did not come here as appointed keepers of ancient customs; we came here as the rejected ones, pushed into the water or across the seas.”


All this may sound like dusty ancient history but it isn’t. For instance, between 1935 and 1937, 221,000 Okies entered California. Just as had happened to English emigrants three hundred years earlier, their rural homeland had suffered from environmental disaster and the depredation of economic elites. They too were encouraged to move west by tales of sunny prosperity. But that’s not what they found. As David Cantwell writes in Merle Haggard: The Running Kind, “he knows that the truth of that dream wasn’t going to be a paradise at all but ‘labor camps….filled with worried men with broken dreams.’ He knows California would likely offer the man, at best, only backbreaking work at crap wages. And that some rich man’s cotton fields would be ‘as close to wealth as Daddy ever came.’”


Haggard’s mother Flossie added: “We found many of our friends living in shacks made of cardboard or anything that could make a shelter from the sun, and provide a place to call home. They were working people, they did anything they could find to do, mostly picking fruit until cotton-picking time.” 


The venerable English ballads find an echo in Merle Haggard songs like “Tulare Dust,” on which he sings: “I can see Mom and Dad with shoulders low, both of them working a double row.”


Black Rose, the inventor of unlicensed radio, spent much of his childhood in a California cotton camp similar to the ones the Haggard family knew. He told me that “The camp scene was basically white, black, and Hispanic. The Okies, the whites who came out, lived in shanties. At first, according to my father, their lives were hell. Many of them had nothing to eat.” Living such similar lives, the cotton pickers of all races got along well, socializing together just as had happened in seventeenth century Virginia. That moment was symbolized by the signs in Depression-era movie theaters in Bakersfield: “Negroes and Okies upstairs.”


But that moment didn’t last. Black Rose explains: “After a while the whites were able to assimilate into the cities and some were promoted to field bosses, irrigators, or tractor drivers, jobs that paid more than picking cotton.”


A few generations later, the destruction of the communal land-owning ejido system in Mexico had the same effect as the enclosures did in rural England or the Dust Bowl did in Oklahoma, driving a mass rural emigration toward a “land of opportunity.” NAFTA made it worse when it opened up Mexican agricultural markets to U.S. agribusiness and ruined millions of Mexican small farmers. While many did find jobs in the United States, that outcome is tempered by borderlands littered with the corpses of those who didn’t make it, much like the thousands of English emigrants in seventeenth century Virginia who died less than a year after landing.  Those Mexicans who did manage to successfully cross the U.S. border immediately encountered a pervasive surveillance state that operates in the spirit of antebellum fugitive slave laws. Given the history of other migrants, it’s not surprising that countless ballads are written about these experiences.


In 2013 it is a crime to be homeless, just as it was in post-feudal England. In Columbia, South Carolina the homeless are now arrested on sight and the city operates a hotline to encourage reporting the homeless to police. In Raleigh, North Carolina, police have told church volunteers they will be jailed if they keep feeding the homeless and in New York City it is now illegal to donate food directly to homeless shelters. All this shows how far we haven’t come. In 1597, English cottage communities built by landless laborers, the equivalent of the twenty-first century’s outlawed tent cities, were destroyed by local officials.


Similarly, the protest ballads of colonial times still have a connection to the present. Today’s rural-themed music often explores the subject of coal, the mining of which is another idea we got from England. Country music stars such as Brad Paisley, Dierks Bentley, and Kathy Mattea have recorded chilling songs, mostly ballads, about life and death in America’s mines.


But unlike past times, today is there is nowhere for those pushed out of the economy to go. In a high-tech world, there is no place to emigrate to which can make use of surplus labor. The only place to go is back in time, which both the Tea Party and the Democrats, with their babble about reinvigorating the middle class, urge us to do. Pending the invention of a time machine, that alternative is a dead end.


More realistic alternatives can emerge now that the walls of racial separation are, as they once did in Virginia and in California’s Central Valley, beginning to crumble. This was exemplified by this past summer’s epic California prison hunger strike, where long-standing prisoner-on-prisoner beefs, often racial in nature, were set aside by a unified leadership seeking to solve problems all prisoners had in common.


Unlike colonial Virginia or the United States of the Great Depression, today’s economy isn’t poised for expansion so it can’t separate people with the carefully-doled out crumbs expansion makes possible. The silver lining to that dark cloud may be that, forced to deal with each other as equals in fact, if not always in sentiment, we may find new pathways to a land of opportunity that will exist not just in word but in deed.


Lee Ballinger:

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