Woody Guthrie's Forgotten Christmas Song

American folk treasure Woody Guthrie is said to have written more than one-thousand songs in his lifetime. “Deportee,” “This Land is Your Land” and “Do-Re-Mi” are among his essential classics, but did you know the musician also recorded a Christmas song as well? Guthrie's “1913 Massacre” retelling the tragic history of a Christmas Eve stampede in Calumet, Michigan, doesn't exactly appear in heavy rotation on most holiday music radio playlists, so don't feel too bad if this is the first you've heard of it.


If not for the folk singer's simple, somber song lyrics, the needless deaths that occurred on 1913 might have faded into historical oblivion. On that fateful day, striking copper miners gathered with their families on the second floor of the Italian Hall in Calumet, also known as Red Jacket, for a Christmas party sponsored by the Western Federation of Miners, when someone yelled, “fire!” three times into the crowd. A chaotic stampede ensued in which seventy-three people tragically died trying to escape down the sole staircase leading to the exit doors of the first floor. Of those who lost their lives, 62 of which were children. There was no fire.

The historical import of the tragedy still lingers today. A story earlier this month in the Detroit Free Press declared in its headline “You haven't lived here until … you pay your respects at the 1913 stampede monument in Calumet.” Prior to the mayhem wrought upon the holiday gathering at Italian Hall, copper miners in Michigan had been seeking an eight-hour day, living wages and union recognition. Organized by the WFM, miners authorized a strike against the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company in the summer of 1913 to achieve desired improvements in their daily working conditions.

During their months-long strike, an organization known as the Citizens' Alliance came into existence in the month before the massacre. As historian Phillip S. Foner noted in his history of the labor movement in the United States, the Alliance was comprised of pro-copper company merchants who desired to see Calumet rid of unionism. Many miners on strike at the time viewed the Christmas Eve disaster at Italian Hall as a principle means to that end.

Of course, the identity of the criminally culpable person who sent the crowded hall into panic might never be known, thanks in part to the lackadaisical investigative efforts of the authorities. The anti-strike, anti-union Citizens' Alliance was publicly accused, however, by WFM leader Charles Moyer, as well as by the editors of the Finnish language newspaper Tyomies (The Worker). In this case, the authorities acted much more judiciously in arresting the staffers of the paper and effectively shut down its operations for its proclamation. Moyer, for his part, was reportedly beaten, shot, and forced out of town in retaliation, though no one was ever held responsible for that assault either.

Despite the assailant of Italian Hall escaping justice, Woody Guthrie, in an effort to ensure that the history of the miners and their families would live on, penned the song “1913 Massacre,” in 1941 (two years before the Calumet and Hecla Mines finally recognized the union). He paints a masterful portrait of a recreated history singing, “I'll take you to a place called Italian Hall / Where the miners are having their big Christmas ball / I'll take you through a door, and up a high stairs / Singing and dancing is heard everywhere/ I will let you shake hands with the people you see / And watch the kids dance round that big Christmas tree / You ask about work and you ask about pay;
They'll tell you that they make less than a dollar a day.”

Ending the song, Guthrie, in capturing the scene of the somber mass funeral for the victims, sang, “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.” “Such lyrics motivated a reader to suggest “1913 Massacre” last year to the Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan's solicitations for “Depressing Christmas Songs.”

Filmmakers editing a rough cut of a documentary about the history disagreed about the characterization writing on their website, “We beg to differ. In the course of working on this film, we've discovered that while “1913 Massacre” tells a tragic Christmas story, it's also a song that continues to inspire us to hope for better things– as Woody would have us do.”

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