The Bread and Roses Heritage Festival is what Jim Beauchesne likes to call education through entertainment.
Now in its 28th year, the annual Labor Day event in Lawrence commemorates the city’s 1912 mill strike which involved more than 20,000 textile workers, many of them women. The three-month strike was notable for linking together various ethnic immigrant communities toward a common goal: exposing horrid working conditions, especially for children, and raising the issue of livable wages.
The centennial of the strike has been a yearlong celebration including an academic symposium and new art and historical exhibits in Lawrence. Beauchesne, who is visitor services supervisor at Lawrence Heritage State Park as well as part of the festival’s organizing committee for the past 14 years, delivered a symposium presentation about how the history of the strike was suppressed for decades before emerging as not just an important chapter in Lawrence’s history but also as a big piece of the larger story of labor in the US.
But thanks in part to the festival, no one can easily ignore the legacy of the strike, nor miss the parallels with today.
The threads between 1912 and 2012 were apparent to longtime folk singer and activist Si Kahn. When the Bread and Roses committee commissioned Kahn to write a musical theater piece about the strike, he set it up as a time-travel piece, with characters existing in the present and the past, plus some strange overlaps.
“I didn’t want to do a social realist play,” Kahn says. “The story of the strike has been told really well. I’ve got my heart set on exploring the issues, and showing they are not archaic. I want to explore what’s happening with immigrants and work today.”
Kahn had hoped to have the play ready for the centennial, but realizes it is more work than he originally planned. That won’t stop him, though, from performing at this year’s Bread and Roses festival.
The action takes place Monday from noon to 7 p.m. on the Lawrence Common with three stages offering music, poetry, dance, and the Bread & Puppet Theater Company. Ryan Mont
Kahn has played the festival several times and cites deep connections to the event. For starters, his grandparents ran a mill store in Lowell. When he eventually ended up a community and labor organizer in North Carolina, Kahn was dealing with the textile industry that “ran away from New England.” And in 1989, he wrote the song “They All Sang ‘Bread and Roses,’” referencing the lyrical James Oppenheim poem that provided a slogan to the strike (though historians are not sure whether marchers actually carried banners demanding “Bread and Roses” or if it is simply part of the myth surrounding the event).
And in general, Kahn just likes the vibe of Bread and Roses.
“It’s free. It’s on the common where the strikers actually marched. It’s one of the few festivals I know of that's intentionally multi-ethnic. I remember going to the history tents and taking notes and meeting some guy from the Lithuanian community who talked to me about what was going on in that community during the strike. I have a song in the musical called ‘I Dream in Lithuanian.’”
Drawing songs from his surroundings is what Kahn, 68, has been doing since the mid-’70s, jokingly calling his art “a hobby that got out of hand.” He released his first album in 1974 and has continued unabated, with his 16th album, “Courage,” released in 2010. He’s been honored with record of the year, song of the year, and artist of the year accolades from the Folk Music Alliance. Earlier this month, the Borderline Folk Music Club of New York held a Si Kahn tribute concert.
“My songs are very similar to how I organize people,” Kahn says. “I listen and tell stories. People say, ‘You’re a protest singer. I say, ‘No, I’m for stuff.’ ”
Of course the stuff he’s for is sometimes at odds with the people who actually have it. Kahn is fond of quoting his wife, and her line that the more hyphens a person has in front of his or her name, the further he or she is from power.
‘The story of the strike has been told really well. . . . I want to explore what’s happening with immigrants and work today.’
“You’re either a lesbian-feminist-immigrant-writer or just a writer,” he cracks.
And for his entire career, Kahn has been singing for the hyphens.
“My mother told me, ‘No one on the world is any better than you. And you are no better than anybody else.’ I learned early to treat people with care and respect.”
So while issues are important, the Harvard-trained historian never fails to find the human face in the situation.
Kahn likens his work to what he sees in the photos of the 1912 Lawrence strike.
“People are laughing and hugging,” he says. “Even though they are in a bitter economic struggle.”Scott McLennan can be reached at smclennan1010
@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcLennan1