Sixty years ago, folk balladeer Woody Guthrie penned “1913 Massacre,” a solemn song about a Christmas Eve tragedy in Michigan. The recording, much like the labor history behind it, is not as well known as it deserves to be. Hoping to bring both to greater attention, filmmakers inspired by “1913 Massacre” have completed an in-depth hour long documentary going by the same title as the song.
Right before Christmas last year, I wrote a historical post that went into what is alternately known as the Italian Hall Disaster. To briefly recap, striking copper miners had gathered together with their families in Calumet for a holiday party put on by the Western Federation of Miners on December 24th, 1913 when an unknown culprit yelled 'fire!' causing a stampede to ensue. By the end of the chaos, seventy-three people lay dead after the disaster, the vast majority being children.
The massacre and the funeral that ensued led Guthrie, who blamed the Copper bosses, to write his lamenting lyrics in 1941 closing the song with, “The piano played a slow funeral tune /And the town was lit up by a cold Christmas moon /The parents they cried and the miners they moaned / “See what your greed for money has done,” to ensure that the memory would not be entombed.
The documentary 1913 Massacre follows Woody Guthrie's son, Arlo Guthrie, himself a folk singer, through the town of Calumet. Bringing the tragic history to the present day, the film presents the last living witnesses of that night at Italian Hall in an effort to reconstruct the painful chapter of the still divided town. 1913 Massacre also explores the question as to why the landmark building central to an important episode in the centuries long struggle between labor and capital was torn down in 1984.
With the centennial of Guthrie occurring next year and the 100th anniversary of the Italian Hall Disaster set for 2013, filmmakers are readying to soon present their work to the public and a trailer has already been released in the meantime.
Gabriel San Roman is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and tallest Mexican in OC.