Tommy James: The Rocker who Tried to Influence a Presidential Election



The presidential campaign shifts into super-high gear Monday, when the Democratic National Convention begins in Denver.

And if presumptive nominee Barack Obama emerges from Denver as the party’s standard-bearer, he will be able to count on active support from many Rock and Pop stars. Already, according to Wikipedia, such names as 50 Cent, Arcade Fire, Sheryl Crow, The Decemberists, Wyclef Jean, John Mellencamp, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., Bruce Springsteen, Rufus Wainwright, Kanye West — even Bob Dylan — have endorsed Obama.

While Obama is bringing it to a new level, support for Democratic presidential candidates by Rock stars (as well as other performers of youth-oriented or -originated music) is hardly new. But one man who could make a strong case for pioneering it, were he alive today, would be Hubert Horatio Humphrey.

In 1968, while serving as Vice President and running for President, Humphrey campaigned with Tommy James & the Shondells, whose Garage-Rock-tinged dance tunes like “Hanky Panky” and “Mony Mony” had brought them Top 40 fame at the time. The band played at numerous Humphrey campaign stops. (Humphrey also received an endorsement from James Brown that year.)

The year 1968 was when Boomer-generation young people made their voices heard in politics — usually in protest, sometimes violently. Though a Democrat and mainstream liberal, then-57-year-old Humphrey was the target for a lot of that protest.

Humphrey had trouble breaking with President Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War and was nominated amid the police riot against youthful demonstrators during the infamous Chicago Democratic convention. As a result, he couldn’t quite unite his party and just barely lost to Richard Nixon.

As The Charlotte Observer reported when the Shondells opened for Humphrey in October, “For the first time, presidential candidates are catering to the growing bloc of young people just under 21, or over the 18-year-old voting age in some states.” (This was before the 1971 federal law giving 18-year-olds the right to vote.)

Today, James — a Dayton native — is a youthful-looking 61 and on the oldies circuit. A few months ago, he played a sweaty, vigorous set at Grand Victoria Casino in Rising Sun, Ind., working loudly with a younger band — to an older crowd — through his late-1960s hits, which also included “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Mirage” and “Sweet Cherry Wine.”

Backstage before the show, dressed in a “Censorship Off/Free Speech On” T-shirt, James eagerly recalled his work for Humphrey in 1968. With him was an original Shondell, bassist Mike Vale, who had come to visit.

“We had been asked to play (in May) for the Democratic Party at a generic rally,” he says. “We weren’t endorsing any candidate. We played in the afternoon and there war protesters calling us sellouts.” (James says he believes the Lovin’ Spoonful also played.)

After Sen. Robert Kennedy was assassinated on the night of the June California Democratic primary, James says he went into a funk for several weeks. That was broken when Humphrey’s secretary called his record label to see if he might be able to appear with the Vice President after the convention, assuming Humphrey won the nomination. James agreed, thinking anyone would be better than Nixon.

The Shondells first opened for Humphrey at a rally in Wheeling, W. Va., and met the candidate and his wife, Muriel. “We became his opening act,” James says.

For Humphrey, James figured, his band was a way to attract young people and increase crowds. But, he now surmises, there was more to it than that.

“He wanted very much to be taken seriously by young people,” James says. “He wanted to know how he was viewed, and I was 21 years old.”

As a result, James says, a friendship developed that included late-night, post-rally talks on a variety of topics. At one point, he says, Humphrey asked his take on calling for a national referendum on ending the war. Another time, James says, he was asked to become Humphrey’s advisor on youth affairs if he won the election.

“He wanted everything from Rock festivals to an open dialogue with young people,” James says. “It really bothered him he was thought of in such a terrible way, as a warmonger.”

After the election, the Shondells made a splash with a new sound, the neo-psychedelic Pop Rock of “Crimson and Clover” and “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” Humphrey wrote the liner notes to the resulting album, Crimson & Clover.

Hubert Horatio “Skip” Humphrey III, 66, the vice president’s son and a former Minnesota elected official himself, was eager to talk about James’ relationship with his father.

“I know that Tommy James and his group were helpful in the 1968 campaign,” he says in a phone interview from his Minnesota home. “My wife and I had an opportunity to be with them a couple of times. I don’t recall the specifics, but I can assure you that Tommy James and his group were supportive of Dad and helpful.”

Also eager to speak about the relationship was the late vice president himself — courtesy of a tape of a post-election radio interview sent by James in a package of newspaper clips and other corroborative materials.

“We used to sit up late at night and discuss politics after they’d entertain for us,” Humphrey says on the tape. “Gee, they’re fine young men. At midnight, we’d sit around and have a visit and talk about what had happened during the day. These are bright young men that want to know a lot about their country.”

Incidentally, James now favors Obama.

“What we need is a breath of fresh air,” he says. “I really believe what we need most is somebody to make us feel good about ourselves.”




The Cincinnati/Weegee Connection and Other Discoveries During a Trip to L.A. Art Shows


(Nam June Paik’s “Video Flag Z”)

Sometimes you have to leave Ohio — and Cincinnati — to discover how many interesting and unusual connections there are between the Buckeye State and the larger world of modern/contemporary arts and design.

That was brought home to me, in varied and stimulating ways, when I ventured to Los Angeles recently to see Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980. This massive show, years in the planning, involved 60-some cultural institutions and looked at the evolution and worldwide impact of Southern California art and design. Going to Los Angeles for the show also gave me the opportunity to see one major museum building, new since I moved from there in 2007 — the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at Los Angeles County Museum of Art. 

The Broad displays some of the largest contemporary pieces in L.A. public collections. And on the main floor was Nam June Paik’s 1987 “Video Flag Z.” This museum-owned work, in which TV monitors show video images that comprise a large American flag, has pride of place on a central wall — at least during a show called Human Nature — because it has just undergone restoration. 

“Video Flag Z,” it turns out, exists because of a working relationship Paik had with Cincinnati’s Carl Solway at the time. 

“The piece was built in Cincinnati, first exhibited at Chicago Art Fair in 1985,” Solway explained in an email. “There were three versions — ‘Flag X,’ the Chicago-exhibited version, sold to Detroit Art Institute; the Chase Bank purchased ‘Flag Y’ for their collection; and LA County Museum purchased ‘Flag Z.’ ”

Moving from that into LACMA’s Pacific Standard Time-related show, California Design 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way, I quickly was confronted with another Ohio connection. Perhaps the key iconic piece in the exhibit is from an Ohio company, Airstream of Jackson Center. Modernist in form and in its vision of the American open road, the 1936 aluminum-body Airstream Clipper on display was designed by the company’s founder, Wally Byam. He created Airstream trailers in L.A., where they were manufactured from 1932-1979. But the company opened its Ohio plant in 1952, part of its post-World War II expansion. In an odd case of reverse migration, that’s where it is located today.

Probably the most interesting connection of all — another Cincinnati one — occurred at the downtown Museum of Contemporary Art’s Pacific Standard Time entry, Naked Hollywood: Weegee in Los Angeles. Weegee (Arthur Fellig), the New York crime/street-life photographer who was propelled to fame after a 1945 book, Naked City, became a best-seller and prompted a movie, used the proceeds to move to L.A. and pursue a career.

I was struck by the fact that the 1945 clothbound copy of Naked City on display — the edition that triggered his fame — had been published by Zebra Picture Books of Cincinnati. According to MOCA, it sold through six printings, at 25 cents a copy, in its first year. (The unabridged hardbound version, also published in 1945, was from New York’s Essential Books.) 

And in trying to learn about Zebra Picture Books, I discovered George S. Rosenthal, part of the printing/publishing family that owned S. Rosenthal & Co. (Richard Rosenthal was his cousin.) He died young, not yet 45, in 1967, but his legacy is preserved by his wife, Jean Bloch of Cincinnati. She has provided his work to Cincinnati Historical Society and recently spoke to me about him in a phone call.

In 1944, when he was about to enter the family business and already interested in photography, he attended a summer session at Chicago’s Bauhaus-inspired Institute of Design under photographer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, which inspired his subsequent work. 

Collaborating with editor Frank Zachary, soon after the war he published a beautiful one-time magazine/yearbook called Jazzways. It was followed by the way-ahead-of-its-time graphic-arts magazine Portfolio, which apparently lasted three issues and featured work by Charles Eames, Alexander Calder, Richard Avedon, Saul Steinberg, Ben Shahn and others.

Rosenthal, meanwhile, pursued his own photo projects, such as one of Mexican ruins and another documenting the pre-expressway architecture of the West End. The Historical Society has these. 

Zebra Picture Books seems to have been more pop-oriented — besides Naked City, other titles were Life and Death in Hollywood and Murder Incorporated (about the Mafia). I looked through Jazzways at the Historical Society and it’s extremely impressive, with articles and photographs devoted to New Orleans, Chicago and elsewhere.

I look forward to finding out more about his work — he deserves renewed attention. Thanks, L.A., for introducing him to me


The Mystery of Woody Guthrie’s “Ludlow Massacre”

Above: A portrait of folk singer Woody Guthrie by artist Charles Banks Wilson hangs in the Oklahoma state Capitol. Left: Guthrie was a song- writer who employed patriotism and protest.
Above: A portrait of folk singer Woody Guthrie by artist Charles Banks Wilson hangs in the Oklahoma state Capitol. Guthrie was a song- writer who employed patriotism and protest.

“My Dusty Road,” a boxed set of songs that the hard-travelin’, populist singer-songwriter of “This Land Is Your Land” recorded in the early 1940s, is a candidate for 2009’s best reissue. It recently received Grammy nominations for best historical album and best album notes.

Guthrie, who died at age 55 in 1967 after a long, debilitating illness, is considered the greatest of American folk singers, mixing anti- status-quo political protest with humor and patriotism. He was a key influence on Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and their followers.

Among his songs is the poetic Depression-era anthem “This Land Is Your Land,” included in “My Dusty Road.” (A recent version, by Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, opens the current film “Up In the Air,” a top Oscar candidate about job loss in today’s America.)

“My Dusty Road” has been especially heralded for the way its pristine source material — metal master recordings recently discovered in a Brooklyn basement — afford a vitality missing from other versions of its songs.

But for all the improved sonic clarity, the record’s inclusion of the song “The Ludlow Massacre” only heightens the mystery about the tune. Guthrie recorded the vividly descriptive, pro-union song in 1944, when he was just past 30, and three decades after the infamous event in southern Colorado.

During a 15-month strike by coal miners against Colorado Fuel & Iron Co. of Trinidad, the Colorado National Guard on April 20, 1914, engaged strikers in a gun battle at a tent colony in Ludlow, killing seven men and a boy. Then, the Guard set fire to the camp, killing two mothers and 11 children hiding in a dirt bunker. That launched a rebellion that the U.S. Army had to come in and control.

Overall, according to author Scott Martelle of “Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West,” some 75 people died in the battles. The United Mine Workers put a monument at Ludlow in 1918. In 2003, vandals defaced it. The UMW repaired the damaged statuary, and last June the site was declared a National Historic Landmark.

Guthrie’s pro-union song, from the miners’ point-of-view, recalls the horrors of the massacre yet also exhibits their pride at exacting revenge

“The state soldiers jumped us in wire fence corner,

They did not know that we had these guns,

And the red neck miners mowed down those troopers,

You should have seen those poor boys run.”

Yet at the time the recording first came out, the U.S. was in the middle of a war against the Nazis (and the Japanese) that the patriotic leftist Guthrie so enthusiastically supported he placed a “This machine kills fascists” sign on his guitar. (“My Dusty Road” also has the intensely pro-American “Talking Sailor,” for instance.) It would be like Bruce Springsteen or Steve Earle — two Guthrie-influenced singers — railing against the 1970 Kent State shootings after 9/11.

“Mother” Bloor’s influence

“The right to belong in a union was so recent, with the New Deal, that (activists) wanted to honor people for their part in the struggle,” says Kathleen Nutter, a history lecturer at Stony Brook University. “So to identify with something like that from 30 years earlier wasn’t that unusual.”

Much of Guthrie’s motivation for writing “Ludlow Massacre” had to do with his admiration for a remarkably colorful but now-forgotten, rabble-rousing figure in American — especially Western American — labor history named Ella Reeve “Mother” Bloor. She was a founder of the Socialist Democratic Party in 1897, then joined the Socialist Party, and was a founder of the American Communist Party in 1919. She tirelessly campaigned on behalf of striking workers.

Guthrie was a communist sympathizer. He sang in the early 1940s with the Almanac Singers, a political/protest/pro-union folk group that included then-communist-influenced Seeger.

“Was Woody a member of the Communist Party? No,” says Ed Cray, his biographer, who also wrote “My Dusty Road’s” Grammy-nominated liner notes. “Did he sympathize generally with communist philosophy? No.

“But he did feel strongly that Communists were the only people doing anything about the things he cared a great deal about. Woody was a very early civil-rights advocate.”

Cray says Guthrie was moved to write “Ludlow Massacre” around 1941, after reading Bloor’s 1940 autobiography, “We Are Many.” In her book, Bloor recounts being in Trinidad, in the thick of Ludlow strike planning, on behalf of the socialists. After the massacre, she writes, she attended a dinner for the strikers in Trinidad: “Miners from Ludlow were there, fathers of the murdered children. As they went out after supper, the women quietly put a gun in the hand of each man.”

Only a legend

Guthrie uses her account for his lyrics. There’s just one problem. Martelle (told about Bloor’s account by this reporter) called it false. If she played any role at Ludlow, it was minor, he says. And Nutter, who studied Bloor’s archives at Smith College, says Ann Barton ghostwrote Bloor’s book when the activist was in her late 70s.

“It is quite embellished,” Nutter says. “It’s more ‘as told to,’ and her memory is not the best, and she’s a little like the Woody Allen character Zelig who is at every important moment in labor movement.”

Bloor and Guthrie were already friends before he read her book. In the 1930s, she gave fundraising hootenannies, known as Mother Bloor’s Birthday Party, at her farm in Pennsylvania, and Guthrie performed there.

“One of my favorite pieces in her papers at Smith is a crumpled-up old brown paper bag, and in red lettering it says ‘better red than dead — love, Woody,’ ” Nutter says.

“He had given her something in the bag and she had saved it. It was part of her papers. I’ve always wondered what was in that bag.”