“1913 Massacre” by Woody Guthrie

As we have pointed out in the past, there was a time in American labor history that was marked by some major conflicts between the working class and those whom they worked for. This was around the turn of the century, when the union movement first really began gaining steam. 

You can view the lyrics, alternate interprations and sheet music for Woody Guthrie's 1913 Massacre at Lyrics.org.

These days, being part of a union as an employee is standard in many industries. But back then, many of our forefathers literally risked their lives in the name of demanding afforded fairer treatment from employers. 

In response, a lot of the bigwigs did not take kindly to such organizing, which is an aspect of American history that you don’t commonly come across in history books.

“1916 Massacre”

It’s the above reality which makes the conspiracy theory that lies at the heart of this song a credible one. The lyrics of this song (“1913 Massacre”) are based on an event which transpired in the titular year that is more commonly known as the Italian Hall Disaster. 

What happened, horrifically enough, is that over 70 people – the overwhelming majority of them being children – died during a stampede at a Christmas party, and said party was organized by a mining-labor union. Those are historical facts. But where the conspiratorial aspect comes into play is in terms of what started the stampede to begin with.

Well actually, we also have firm knowledge of what caused it, which was someone wildin’ out like there was a fire in the venue, even though there wasn’t. Those two are considered historical facts, that someone did indeed yell that the place was ablaze, but in actuality there was no type of flame, at least not of the dangerous variety, present. 

So now the question becomes who made that false claim, caused all those people to panic and was subsequently responsible for such a massive loss of life?

You see, the venue they had the party in is one which probably wouldn’t be considered fire safe by today’s standards. In other words, there was only one way in (and out for the most part), and that being a staircase. And you know that when people are panicking, like when we’re freaking out, we don’t pay much attention to detail. 

So in the aftermath a number of stories began circulating as to what exactly transpired, concerning the doors for instance. And it looks like the media itself may have made some up or ran with others for clickbaiting purposes.

The Lyrics

Meanwhile, Woody Guthrie himself was not there. But he based these lyrics on the account of someone who reportedly was. The person in question was a prominent labor activist by the name of Ella Reeve Bloor. Guthrie was intrigued with Bloor as the result of being personally associated with the husband of her granddaughter. 

So it is from the 1940 autobiography of Mother Bloor, as she was called, that he based this story on. And to reiterate, Bloor was a labor activist. So it really shouldn’t surprise anyone that, as inferred by the 1913 Massacre, she put the blame for the aforenoted false alarm on “the copper boss’ thugs”. These thugs would be those who were against the workers present at the party unionizing.

And that’s where the conspiratorial aspect of the Italian Hall Disaster comes into play. Why? Because even to this day, about a century later, no one knows who it was that feigned an emergency and caused the stampede. 

Yes, some of the surviving attendees who were most likely associated with the union themselves did go on to accuse an opposing anti-union organization of doing so. And that’s a claim which Mother Bloor corroborated in her book. However, it has been noted that there were holes in her recount.

And so it is with this track. To make a long story short, the vocalist doesn’t really harp on who caused the disaster. Most of the lyrical focus is rather on how much of a tragedy it truly was for so many people, especially children we may say, to lose their lives at a Christmas party. 

In Conclusion

The above said, the song does conclude with the “the parents… and… miners” blaming the tragedy on the “greed for money”, which would logically be a characteristic of their employers. Furthermore, it can be said that this song was dropped at a time when such issues, i.e. workers’ rights in America, were bigger talking points than they are now. 

So it’s obvious that Guthrie is likewise meaning to get such a message across, for example when you take into account that he actually classified the stampede as a “massacre”. And that would be something along the lines of when the capitalist powers that be become too ambitious, it’s the most-innocent amongst us who can end up paying the price.

Woody Guthrie and “1913 Massacre”

The late Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) is considered to be one of the most pertinent musicians in American history. “1913 Massacre” does not rank amongst his signature tunes. But it is notable due to it containing what many deem the credible analysis of a disputed historical event.

Woody wrote this song himself. He released it for the first time in the early 1940s. The exact year of release is reportedly in 1941. The song was later included on a posthumous album of Woody titled “Struggle”. The album along with the song was put out via Folkways Records in 1976.

There is also a rendition of “1913 Massacre” to be found on a 2007 release known as “The Live Wire: Woody Guthrie in Performance 1949”. This project reportedly contains the only live recordings of Guthrie’s music.

Since Guthrie released this piece in the mid 1960s, it has been covered quite extensively. One of the most popular covers was done by Guthrie’s own son, Arlo Guthrie.

1913 Massacre
Cover art for “1913 Massacre”

The Italian Hall Disaster of 1913

The Italian Hall disaster is also sometimes remembered as the 1913 Massacre. This horrible incident took place on Wednesday December 24, 1913, in Calumet, Michigan. A total of seventy-three men, women, and children, were tragically crushed to death in the incident. This disaster was caused by a stampede which started after someone raised a false alarm in a crowded Christmas party. Most of the victims were the children of striking mineworkers.

On the day of the disaster, a crowd of striking miners and their families had gathered for a party. The Christmas party was sponsored by the Ladies Auxiliary of the Western Federation of Miners at the Italian hall. Apparently, the only way out of the hall was a steep stairway that led to the second floor and a poorly marked fire escape route which could only be accessed by climbing through windows.

The stampede took place when someone yelled “fire” in a room of more than four hundred people, even though there was no fire. The panic led hundreds of people to rush to the stairway. In the end, seventy-three people (including fifty-nine children) were crushed to death.

To date, there have been several speculations about who screamed fire and their reason behind it. Meanwhile, some eight witnesses testified that they saw the man who caused the stampede with his “fire” scream. According to these witnesses, this man had a Citizens’ Alliance button fixed on his coat.

Another story related to the tragedy is that the doors were inward-opening doors. Owing to this, it was impossible for the doors to be opened when in their panic, the party attendees pressed against these doors.

In October 1984, the Italian Hall was demolished, leaving an archway and a historical marker which was erected in 1987.

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