Old school troubadour and modern Joe Hill among top labor artists and activists

Jimmy Kelly comes from a union family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where his grandfather, father and two brothers were all union members. “I grew up in a different era, in a town that traced the origin of its labor movement to the great strikes in the steel mills,” he recalls. “We learned labor terms in fourth grade.”

That intimate connection to labor history has always been a big part of Kelly’s life, and this year he’s being honored for handing that connection down to a new generation of working people. At the Great Labor Arts Exchange, an annual celebration of labor culture and history, he will be given the Joe Hill Lifetime Achievement Award.

“My students call me ‘old school.’ But older folks like me can help them make the connection between social media and the labor and political context they’re only just discovering.”

— Jimmy Kelly, Folksinger

Joe Hill was a radical member of the Industrial Workers of the World at the beginning of the 20th century. Amid the bitter labor wars of the hard rock miners, Hill was jailed and executed in Salt Lake City. The song, “Joe Hill,” by Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson, accuses the “copper bosses” of murdering him, and then imagines Hill singing defiantly “From San Diego up to Maine/In every mine and mill/Where workers strike and organize/It’s there you’ll find Joe Hill.”

That could easily have been written about Jimmy Kelly, who for decades brought his voice and guitar to picket lines and demonstrations for workers’ rights. Thirty-five years ago he came to California and got a job with the Postal Service in Santa Cruz, and eventually became president of Local 1427 of the National Association of Letter Carriers. He often called himself “a letter carrier who sings.”

After carrying the mail for 27 years, Kelly got a job teaching labor studies at San Jose City College, and became an active member of the San Jose/Evergreen Federation of Teachers, AFT Local 6157.

As both carrier and teacher, Kelly was also a founder of the Western Workers Labor Heritage Festival. He conceived the idea of the annual gathering after attending the Labor Arts Exchange in 1985. He was enthralled with the music and roomed with John Handcox.

Handcox had been an organizer of black sharecroppers and tenant farmers in the South during the Depression, using songs and music to give people courage and hope. Kelly came back to California and organized the first Western Workers festival the following year. He and Handcox shared the stage, singing Handcox’s famous song, “Roll the Union On.”

“My idea,” Kelly explains, “was to celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, who was killed supporting a garbage workers strike. To King, civil rights and labor was one movement — and it was 1986, the first year his birthday was a holiday. The festival seemed a good way to keep it from being commercialized and its political content from being erased.”

Kelly remembers that the AFL-CIO had begun a campaign called “Union Yes!” during this period. “We tried to channel this idea through culture,” he says. The festival brings together musicians to sing old labor songs and write new ones, and showcases photographs, graphic design, drama, and other forms of labor art.

Kelly also helped start an annual film festival in Santa Cruz called Reel Work. In his classes at San Jose City College, he used it to help students learn to analyze content, choose films, interact with producers, and market the festivals.

“My students call me ‘old school,’” he says with a smile. “But older folks like me can help them make the connection between social media and the labor and political context they’re only just discovering.”

In the meantime, Kelly still takes his guitar wherever he goes. He sang to the occupiers in Berkeley, trying to stop the privatization of its post office building. He brings his songs to the CFT. “At our last Convention, I sang David Welch’s ‘Voting Blues’ til they pulled me away from the microphone,” he laughs.

— By David Bacon, CFT Reporter

Learn More

> Get inspired! Learn more about the annual Great Labor Arts Exchange that will be held June 23-26 in Silver Spring, Maryland. Learn about the Western Workers Labor Heritage Festival held the weekend of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in Burlingame.