Book Review: Triangle The Fire That Changed America by David Von Drehle


Author: David Von Drehle
Title: Triangle:The Fire That Changed America
Narrator: Barrett Whitener
Publication Info: New York : Atlantic Monthly Press, [2003]
Summary/Review:

At closing time on Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire started at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of the Asch Building in New York’s Greenwich Village.  146 people – mostly young women and girls – died as result of the fire, many of them jumping to their deaths because locked doorways prevented their exit.  The fire proved pivotal in leading to legislation for factory safety and the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), a union that lives on today in UNITE HERE.

Von Drehle provides a thorough but concise history of the fire, with all the grim details, and the ensuing trial which failed to find the company owners guilty of manslaughter. There’s also a lot of background before the fire.  This includes the history of the factory owners, themselves immigrant strivers who rose to wealth and prominence.  The stories of many of the garment workers are also included, most of them immigrants from Eastern Europe and Italy, who had survived pogroms in Poland and volcanic eruptions in Italy before seemingly finding stability in New York.  A massive strike lead by the ILGWU in 1909 is also covered in some detail.

If there’s any flaw in this book it is that it doesn’t quite live up to it’s subtitle “The Fire That Changed America.”  For the aftereffects of the fire, Von Drehle emphasizes the rise of progressive Tammany Hall politicians Alfred E. Smith and Robert F. Wagner, and how they brought about an urban liberalism that lead to the New Deal.  I wouldn’t say this is a stretch but I think it’s a more high-level approach to history than it would be to detail what women and immigrant communities did in response to the fire.  Nevertheless, I did find the book to be very interesting and informative.  The building that housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory still stands and I paid my respects to the workers killed in the fire on a visit to New York in 2007.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: On the Waterfront (1954)


Title: On the Waterfront
Release Date: July 28, 1954
Director: Elia Kazan
Production Company: Horizon Pictures
Summary/Review:

Today’s classic film is too fancy for Hoboken and too hot for church. On the Waterfront introduced a new style of naturalistic acting and pioneered a filmmaking style that inspired the New Hollywood movement a generation later.  It’s most famous for an oft-quoted monologue, but I don’t think that scene is quite so great without the context of the film around it.

Marlon Brando stars in this film as Terry Malloy, a former prizefighter who now works as a longshoreman in Hoboken, New Jersey and sometimes serves as “muscle” for the mob-connected union boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb, once again being George C. Scott’s doppelgänger).  Terry’s brother Charley (Rod Steiger) is Friendly’s right-hand man, so Terry gets special treatment in assignments.

Terry begins to be aware that his good life is built on lies and must make difficult decisions after inadvertently playing a part in the murder of a longshoreman who was willing to talk to the police.  The victim’s sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint) is outraged by everyone willing to be “deaf and dumb” about the crime and inspires the parish priest Father Barry (Karl Malden) to take action. Edie and Terry also grow close which affects his changing heart.

The romance between Edie and Terry is the one thing I don’t really buy about this movie because Terry gives off a million red flags that someone like Edie would see right away.  Other than that this film is a compelling drama with terrific acting by all the leads and interesting staging and camera angles that take advantage of the gritty Hoboken locations.  Not only is this a great movie that realistically depicts the issues of working class people but it also reminds me of how Catholic social justice activists like Dorothy Day and Daniel Berrigan stood with the people like Father Barry in the mid-20th century.

The movie is great drama, but it also metaphorical.  There are all too many real life examples of organizations, even ones that should have positive uses like unions, falling victim to corruption. In more recent years things like the push for Iraq War, the rise of Trump, and the current efforts of the Republican party to suppress voting rights are all built on the ability of people in power to use fear, greed, and indifference to manipulate people into going along with something that they know is wrong. Unfortunately, director Elia Kazan also made this film to justify his testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee, ruining the lives and careers of  several people who ended up being blacklisted for being labeled “Communists.” Comparing so-called “Communists,” usually people who tried advocating for economic equality and against racial discrimination to the murderous mobsters who were American capitalists at heart is just wrong.

On the Waterfront is a case where the art is greater than the artist, but it remains a spectacular film.

Rating: ****1/2

Podcasts of the Week Ending April 3


Fresh Air :: The High Stakes Of Amazon’s ‘One-Click America’

The vote to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Alabama and what that means for labor in America.

Planet Money ::  Socialism 101

A primer on a widely misunderstood economic theory.

Radio Boston ::  New Study Supports Suffolk DA Rollins’ Focus More On Serious, Violent Crimes

Rachael Rollins ran for and was elected as Suffolk County District Attorney promising not to prosecute many nonviolent offenses and focus on more serious crimes.  Newly released data is proving her approach to be correct.

Radiolab :: What Up, Holmes?

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes originated a metaphor for free speech as “the marketplace of ideas,” but is there a better way to conceptualize freedom of speech?

This Day in Esoteric Political History :: Three Mile Meltdown

A partial nuclear meltdown at a nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania was apparently not as bad as it is always made out to be.

Throughline :: Our Own People

The story of a social justice activist I’ve never heard of before, Yuri Kochiyama. A Japanese-American woman who fought for Asian American equality, Kochiyama allied herself with numerous liberation movements. She was friends was Malcolm X and held him as he died.

What Next :: Can a Highway Be Racist?

There’s a long history in the United States of working class BIPOC communities being leveled to build and enlarge highways.  The freeway revolt against this practice continues in Houston.

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Awards for 2021

Podcasts of the Week Ending April 18


All Songs Considered :: John Prine’s Life In 10 Songs

Folk singer-songwriter John Prine recently died of COVID-19.  I wasn’t ignorant of his music so this was a good introduction to his magnificent talent.

Code Switch :: Why The Coronavirus Is Hitting Black Communities Hardest

American inequality and racism don’t go away during a pandemic.

Twenty Thousand Hertz -:: What’s Up, Doc?

The story of Mel Blanc, the man of a thousand voices.

What Next :: What America’s Biggest Nursing Union Wants

Fighting on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses are also fighting for better conditions for themselves and their patients.

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Appearances in 2020

Documentary Movie Review: Harlan County, USA (1976) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “H” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “H” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Harvard Beats Yale 29 to 29HeimaHelveticaHieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil, High SchoolHillsboroughThe Historic Pubs of Dublin, and The Hollywood Librarian.

Title: Harlan County, USA
Release Date: October 15, 1976
Director: Barbara Kopple
Production Company: Cabin Creek Films
Summary/Review:

I have an affinity for coal miners because my grandfather and his father and brothers all worked for mining companies in Pennsylvania.  My grandfather never went down in the mines but worked as a coal breaker which made him all the more vulnerable to inhaling dust and coal particles.  Coal miners, whether below the ground or in the processing facilities, face a great risk of instant death and horrible injuries. Those who make it through okay will inevitably suffer respirator problems like black lung.  And yet the work of a coal miner could also offer great dignity and pride.

In the 1970s in Harlan County, Kentucky, over 180 coal miners from the Brookside Mine joined the United Mine Workers of America and went on strike against the Duke Power Company.  Young filmmaker Barbara Kopple (who later directed Miss Sharon Jones!) filmed the strike over the course of its 11 months, including planning meetings, pickets, and conflicts with company’s “gun thugs” that lead to violence. The protests spread to New York where UMWA picketers inform Wall Street investors about Duke Power’s mistreatment of workers, and one of them talks with a progressive New York City cop. A particularly strong part of this film is the organization of Harlan County’s women, mostly miners’ wives, who play a significant role in the strike. Lois Scott stands out as a women who uses encouragement and shame to keep people motivated on the end goal of the strike.

In addition to the linear narrative of the strike, Kopple also includes historical footage from Harlan County coal mines and earlier labor conflicts.  The struggle of miners in Appalachia in general is seen in coverage of the Farmington Mine explosion in West Virginia in 1968 that left 78 miners dead.  There was conflict even within the UMWA.  In the 1960s, Tony Boyle became president of the union, but many rank-and-file miners saw him as too cozy with mine owners.  He was challenged by Jock Yablonski in 1969, and despite winning reelection had Yablonski and several of his family murdered a month later. At the time of the Harlan County strike, Boyle had been replaced by a former miner, Arnold Miller, and was convicted for the murder of the Yablonski.

Apart from some informative text on the screen, this movie has no narration.  Instead the miners tell their story and the stories of those who came before them.  The story is also told through song, as the soundtrack features several folk songs including many specifically about Harlan County.  At one point, Florence Reece appears to sing a new version of her famous song “Which Side Are You On?” which she originally wrote for the Harlan County War in 1931.

This is a beautiful, moving, and enraging movie that tells a story that’s all too familiar through our nation’s history.

Rating: *****

Podcasts of the Week Ending September 7


More or Less :: Amazon Forest Fires

Statistics cited regarding the Amazon forest fires are not accurate, but the true story is more alarming.

Hit Parade :: We Are Stardust, We Are Gold-Certified

Counting down the artists and bands that got a boost (and those that didn’t) after their performances at the Woodstock festival.

BackStory :: Labor Day Special: A History of Work and Labor Relations in the U.S.

Overlooked history of women, children, and Mexican-Americans in the American labor pool.

Radiolab / Memory Palace :: Memory Palace

I’ve been listening to podcasts for close to 15 years now, and Memory Palace and Radiolab have been longtime favorites.  This special episode of Radiolab features highlights from classic Memory Palace episodes and a new story about scrub bulls.

Hub History :: Mayor Curley’s Plan to Ban the Klan 

Back in the 1920s, white supremacists hoped to expand their operations into Boston, but faced fierce opposition from Boston mayor James Michael Curley.  If only Boston’s mayor in 2019 was not a coward who appeases white supremacists.

Throughline :: The Litter Myth

The history of the successful campaign in the 1960s and 1970s to shift responsibility for environmental destruction from big corporations to individuals, with the help of a fake Native American.


Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances:

Podcasts of the Week Ending February 16


There’s a rich crop of podcasts this week!  I wont be posting any podcasts next Saturday, so if you hear any good ones I shouldn’t miss, let me know in the comments.

Throughline :: How The CIA Overthrew Iran’s Democracy In 4 Days

The overlooked history of one of the worst crimes ever committed by the United States government.

Hub History :: Apocalypse on Boston Bay 

The indigenous population of New England suffered significant casualties from epidemics of infectious disease that swept their communities in the 1620.  The colonizing English saw these plagues as the grace of God to their settlement.

Tomorrow Society :: Peggie Farris on 50 Years at Disney and Producing Spaceship Earth

An interview with a remarkable woman who rose from being a ride operator at Disneyland to an influential Imagineer at Disney Parks across the world.

99% Invisible :: National Sword

China has enacted a program to no longer import recycled materials, which means that recycling collected from many US communities no longer is actually being recycled.  This podcasts prods consumers to “reduce and reuse” more than they recycle, but also questions placing the burden on the consumer and suggest industry needs to reduce the material created in the first place.

Smithsonian Sidedoor :: Cheech Marin Gets Antsy

Cheech Marin, famed for starring in stoner comedies, now works to bring attention to Chicano art in galleries and museums.

Planet Money: The Indicator :: The Strike That Changed U.S. Labor

The 1937 General Motors strike presaged a highpoint for union membership in the United States and a period of shared prosperity.  This podcast discusses how we got from there to today with record low union participation.

The Truth :: Meet Cute

A romantic comedy where one the members of the couple dies before the first date.  There’s a lot of clever twists in this story.


Running tally of Podcast of the Week appearances:

Podcasts of the Week Ending December 8


On the Media :: Whose Streets?

An expose on news media coverage that biases the priority of the automobile and questions the “heartwarming” stories of people walking long ways to work and transit inequality.

BackStory :: Forgotten Flu

100 years ago, a deadly influenza tore through the United States killing people in their peak of health.

Code Switch :: The Story of Mine Mill

The history of a radical leftist union that organized miners and millworkers in Birminham, Alabama, bringing together Black and white workers at the height of Jim Crow in the 1930s-1960s.

The Memory Palace :: Revolutions

A tribute to the humble – and noisy – washing machine.

99% Invisible :: Oñate’s Foot

The controversy over how Albuquerque would commemorate the conquistador who some see as New Mexico’s founding father and others see as a mass murderer

Nobody’s Home :: “Brown in a Different Way:” The Gentrification Dilemma

Nobody’s Home is a miniseries focusing on the problem of vacant housing in the United States.  It’s strange to listen to in Boston where the shortage of housing is the big problem.  But this episode on gentrification and the long history of inequality in housing ties both issues together well.

Resistance Mixtape: Labor Songs


This is a week late, but every day is Labor Day as far as I’m concerned. So here are some songs celebrating the working people.

Bread and Roses” by Judy Collins

“Gonna Be An Engineer” by Peggy Seeger

“Helplessness Blues” by Fleet Foxes

“I Guess I Planted” by Billy Bragg & Wilco

“Joe Hill” by Paul Robeson

“More Than a Paycheck” by Sweet Honey in the Rock

“9 to 5” by Dolly Parton

“Talking Union” by The Almanac Singers

“Working Class Hero” by John Lennon

I’m trying to make this a more regular feature, but until that time, enjoy some earlier Resistance Mixtapes:

Remembering Pete Seeger


Pete Seeger died on Monday night.  He is perhaps my greatest hero as I’ve long been inspired by his music and activism.  His long life was a tireless effort to right wrongs and to bring people together in peace.  He leaves the world a better place than he found it.  And if you’re pessimistic about the world today, just imagine what it would be like without there ever being a Pete Seeger.  Among the many things he accomplished in his 94 years, Pete:

  • agitated for the rights of the poor and working people by organizing labor
  • stood up for American civil liberties before the House Un-American Activities Committee
  • participated in the Civil Rights movement
  • lead a generation in the Vietnam anti-war movement
  • in the vanguard the environmental efforts to clean up the Hudson River aboard the sloop Clearwater
  • inspired millions that they could change the world by joining together in song
  • continued as an activist through his final years, supporting the Occupy movement

I don’t recall when I first heard of Pete Seeger.  His music was part of my childhood.  He even appeared on Sesame Street.  I remember watching the movie Alice’s Restaurant some time in my teens and not recognizing him until my mom told me who he was.  Probably what really got it started for me was his performance leading a singalong of “This Land Is Your Land” on the Folkways: A Vision Shared tribute album.  Through high school and college and beyond, I picked up some albums, read some books by and about him, and tried to teach myself banjo using his book.  On two occasions, I was fortunate enough to see him perform in person.  Once in 1995 with Arlo Guthrie at Wolf Trap in Virginia, and then again at Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival in 2002.

It’s kind of the whole point of Pete Seeger that there are no “Pete Seeger songs.”  Sure, he got writing credit on some songs but he was the first to admit that he stole bits and pieces from other songs and cobbled them together to make something new.  And he wanted you to to take pieces of his song and make something else.  And share it with everyone. At his famous Carnegie Hall show, one entire set is Pete promoting the songs of new, young musicians (and Malvina Reynolds who was young at heart).  The other set was the music of the Civil Rights movement.  The whole point of the entire show was other people’s music and the community of music as he got the audience at Carnegie Hall singing along as well as many who’ve listened to that album over the years.

Nevertheless, one can’t help but think of the best Pete Seeger songs on this occasion.  His music is a gift he leaves behind, both through the many recordings he made as well as being a living link between the roots of American music and the many artists he inspired and supported over the years.  I looked in my iTunes and discovered that I have 215 Pete Seeger recordings!  Of those, his most essential albums are We Shall Overcome (a live recording of his historic Carnegie Hall concert in 1963) and Singalong: Sanders Theatre, 1980 (perhaps the quintessential concert recording as summed up in the article “Pete Seeger And The Public Choir “).  I perhaps felt closest to Pete when I performed with the Revels at Sanders Theatre and tried my best to do my part to engage the entire house.

Below are a handful of the most meaningful Pete Seeger songs, followed by rembrances collected all over the net.

“If I Had a Hammer”

“We Shall Overcome”

“Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”

“Old Devil Time”

“Abiyoyo” from Reading Room

“Sailing Down this Golden River” performed by Sarah Lee Guthrie

“This Land is Your Land”

WBUR: Pete Seeger And The Public Choir 

“Pete Seeger understood something fundamental about humans and music, which is that many people can’t sing on key, but all crowds can. Even without rehearsal, public choirs can be stunning to listen to and thrilling to be part of. And he believed that everyone should do it, that people should retain the ability to get in a room and sing, because it was good for you, and because it taught people to pitch in and be brave.”

WGBH: Pete Seeger Had A ‘Soft Spot For Boston And Cambridge’ by Bob Seay

American Songwriter: American Icons: Pete Seeger

The Nation: Pete Seeger: This Man Surrounded Hate and Forced it to Surrender

“Pete Seeger outlasted the bastards.

But he did so much more than that. He showed us how to do our time with grace, with a sense of history and honor, with a progressive vision for the ages and a determination to embrace the next great cause because the good fight is never finished. It’s just waiting for a singer to remind usthat “the world would never amount to a hill of beans if people didn’t use their imaginations to think of the impossible.”

Smithsonian Folkways: A Tribute to Pete Seeger (1919-2014)

Bill Moyers: Remembering Activist and Folk Singer Pete Seeger

As recently as 2011, Seeger, a veteran of the labor, peace and civil rights movements, led an Occupy Wall Street protest through Manhattan. “Be wary of great leaders,” he said two days after the march. “Hope that there are many, many small leaders.”

Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub: Farewell, Pete Seeger

 He told a story about showing up at a PTA meeting in Beacon to talk on some issue, and some local guy told Pete that Beacon didn’t need outsiders telling them what to do.  This hurt Pete, since he’d been living in Beacon at that time for more than 30 years, in the house he built by hand.   Pete told me that he realized a world reputation doesn’t count for much if you can’t use it to make things better in your home town.The “local project?” He said he wanted to get an old sloop, and sail the Hudson River signing to get people to clean it up.

WBUR: Pete Seeger, Folk Music Icon and Activist, Dies at 94

“For all of his social activism, Seeger said more than once that if he had done nothing more than write his slim book How to Play the Five String Banjo, his life’s work would have been complete. …

“If Pete Seeger didn’t save the world, he certainly did change the lives of millions of people by leading them to sing, to take action and to at least consider his dream of what society could be.”

The Atlantic: Pete Seeger and the American Soul

His critics often called Pete Seeger anti-American. I think the opposite was true. I think he loved America so much that he was particularly offended and disappointed when it strayed, as it so often has, from the noble ideals upon which it was founded. I don’t think that feeling, or the protests it engendered, were anti-American. I think they were wholly, unabashedly American.

Feministing: RIP Pete Seeger

Q with Jian Ghomeshi: Remembering Pete Seeger (1919-2014)

On Point with Tom Ashbrook: The World According to Pete Seeger: A Remembrance

The Atlantic‘This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender’

How did Seeger take an instrument—one with no inherent properties of justice, as evidenced by its history—and assign it a new cultural value?

There is no way to answer this but to observe the rarity of a force like Pete Seeger upon the Earth.

Sure, the banjo has a jaunty, inviting sound. Sure, it can be played in a variety of ways, making it suitable for a range of musical genres. But these qualities did not prevent it from being a prop of racist entertainment. They did not make it a symbol of community. They did not transform it into a “machine [that] surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”

That was the work of man. One man, really.

Arlo Guthrie’s Facebook status

“Well, of course he passed away!” I’m telling everyone this morning. “But that doesn’t mean he’s gone.”

Phil Sandifer: Pete Seeger (1919-2014)

Later in the set, it started to rain just a bit. Only a few drops – nothing major. But a couple people had umbrellas and popped them open, at which point Seeger stopped playing and calmly explained that he would not be continuing until the people who were under the tree and thus still dry passed their umbrellas to the people not under the tree so that everybody could be dry.
It remains the only time I am aware of in which an artist has actually created, however momentarily, a socialist utopia.

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