Saturday, December 12, 2009

Ship Out Of Luck

"The Mermaid Song", as recorded by Bascom Lamar Lunsford, was the inspiration for this song. I couldn't get the verses or chorus out of my head so I listened to it on repeat until changed the lyrics in my head and started to sing about pirates and mutiny...

It is a lovely sea shanty in its original form. For The Union Electric, it is yet another song about economic woe. The tune and part of the shipwreck story is borrowed from Lunsford's recording. The traditional folk song was also the basis of a Carter Family song. The Union Electric version takes the sailors and storms and throws in an anti-imperialist theme. This song will eventually be part of a May Day Orchestra folk opera about colonialism, imperialism and piracy.


it was a dark black night when we set sail,
off on this journey of ours
the captain, he spied some golden thing
off on a foreign shore
up spoke the captain of this pirate ship,
what kind of man was he?
he said he'd seen a rich land on the distant shore and
tonight we will plunder that town
oh, the ocean waves may roll and the stormy winds may blow,
while we poor sailors are raiding the town
and haul the loot back to the ship

it was another dark night when we set sail,
then we was plundering again
we the sailors sit up on the mast
and the rest of the world rests below
up spoke the cook of this hungry ship,
said it's been days since we ate
beware the merchants and the tides
but we must find something to eat
oh, the ocean waves may roll and the stormy winds may blow,
while we poor sailors go towing the lines
while the treasure weighs the whole ship down

another black night when we set sail,
saw a port with many ships
it was the trade fleet of the king of the land,
those ships protected by the law
up spoke the mate of this gallant ship,
a well-spoken man was he
he said in these waters, once you launch,
there will be no going back
oh, the ocean waves may roll
and the stormy winds may blow
while we poor sailors are caught on board
while the ship is sinking down
throw the treasure overboard,
the ship is sinking down

Friday, December 4, 2009

You Have Been Served

I found Lincoln Steffens' collection of articles, bound under the title "The Shame Of The Cities", in the Saint Louis Public Library. It's hidden away amidst the 7-story shelves, pneumatic tubes and glass floors of the stacks.
The story reminded me of the more recent scam to get the tax-payers of Saint Louis to fund a baseball stadium but this turn-of-the-last-century setting is more suited to the song. Either way, not much changes in Saint Louis politics.

It was still the era of Stagger Lee when the Suburban Railway scandal broke. Joseph Folk was elected circuit attorney of Saint Louis in 1900. During his campaign, he promised to fight corruption and those in power backed his appointment. In early 1903, he used an article by newspaper reporter Red Galvin to begin an invesitgation of the Suburban Railway Company. The embezzlement scheme involved in this business began to unravel and expose other corrupt operations. Folk prosecuted the very business leaders and law-makers that had encouraged his anti-corruption promises.

Joseph W. Folk (1869–1923) was elected Governor of Missouri for one term after his weeding of corrupt machine politics in the river city. Like John P. Altgeld, the Illinois politician, Folk also ruined his government career by doing the right thing. In Altgeld's case, he pardoned the three surviving Haymarket martyrs and had them released from jail.

You Have Been Served

no one on the farm, they've all gone to town
no one in the factory, the factory closed down
if you want a job, it's the service industry
all kinds of service with looting on the side
just another day in this shameful town,
we stand around and watch the whole rotten deal go down
they meet in south Saint Louis to pool their wealth,
enough to fix all the elections
a new standard of a honest man is one that stays bought once you pay him

corruption to the breaking point
Red Galvin take the lid off, look at this mess inside
the circuit attorney is hired to fight the criminals,
the easiest ones to find float right up to the top
a man named Folk stands alone, stand down they say,
let the status quo continue, let things go their way
selling out the people, that's bribery
the oldest tradition in our democracy

lick up and spit down, lick up and spit down,
now you have been served, you have been served
set the bribe-givers against the bribe-takers
take the whole thing down because bribery is treason

Thursday, December 3, 2009


This song was originally recorded by the May Day Orchestra, with lyrics based on the testimony of Louis Lingg at his trial for his role in the Haymarket incident. His speech in court, delivered in his native German at his sentencing, included the line ending in "I despise you, hang me for it". Though four of the other convicted anarchists were hung in 1887, Lingg blew himself up in his jail cell before he could be executed. Several other lines in the song are adapted from quotes by either Lingg or one of the seven other Haymarket martyrs.


if they didn't surpress us, we wouldn't have to speak up
if they didn't attack us, we wouldn't have to fight back
if our rights weren't violated there'd be no reason to rebel
this land is not free, only for fools
I don't recognize your law
I don't find you honorable
I despise you, hang me for it

The system is brutal and so are its thugs
they only know force, they only know violence
this land is not free, only for fools
why waste words, like carrying water to the sea
learn to use explosives and set yourself free

The First Union Electric Record

The Union Electric's first recording will be available this month. The official release show is Wednesday, December 23 at Off Broadway in scenic Saint Louis, MO.
Just in time for the holiday-shopping season, this handsome 3-song, 7-inch record features a custom painted cover by local artist Dana Smith. His art is viewable at his website or

A limited number of transparent yellow copies will be available at the live shows. Standard black vinyl copies are also available at local record stores and digital downloads of the tracks are available on itunes and through bandcamp.

The record features a re-working of the song "Sentence", originally written for the May Day Orchestra as well as two others. "You Have Been Served" fills out Side A with a tale of economic woe and corruption. Side B features "Ship Out Of Luck", a folk song about pirates and economic woe. Members of Grace Basement, Ben Phillips and Kevin Buckley (who also recorded the tracks), play on this song.
A blog posting about each song will follow this one.

advance copies available
through the mail:
PO BOX 63098