...in 1913, during a copper strike in Calumet, Michigan, company thugs disrupted a Christmas party for the miners' children by shouting "Fire!" and then locked all the doors. ...seventy-three children were trampled and smothered in the crush. Woody's ballad... was one of his most delicate, affecting, and personal works.
Joe Klein, Woody Guthrie: A Life, London, 1988, pp. 288-289.
Abby Sale - firstname.lastname@example.org contributed the following info on Jan 14, 1999: I made contact with the Calumet, Michigan Public/School library director, Debra Oyler, and she gave me the gen.
- It happened.
- It happened 12/24/1913.
- It was noway proven that it was caused by the mine owners. In recorded interviews, it seems a well-dressed man wearing a Union badge shouted "fire" but no statement was ever made linking him to any goons or outsiders.
- It's locally called "The Italian Hall Fire" or "The Italian Hall Disaster." (There was no actual fire.)
- 73 died in the stairwell, 35 of them were children, ages 6-10. In the panic they rushed downstairs but the door opened inward and the crush of people prevented it being opened. It was not locked. While causing a panic may have been intentional or a prank, it's hard to imagine that the deaths could have been planned & on purpose.
The above comes from Tinsel and Tears & Tinsel and Tears II by Peggy Germain. They are local publications with hard research, interviews with survivors, newspaper, statistics, etc.
Dylan's likely source: Woody Guthrie, "Struggle" (1946); reissued on CD as Smithsonian Folkways SF 40025,
tune used for Dylan's "Song to Woody."
First came here... I spent a lot of time with Woody Guthrie that February... last February...
This is one of Woody's songs... I sing a couple more...
This is one... it's one from a group of two...
[NOTE: DYLAN MOST LIKELY ALLUDES TO GUTHRIE'S
"LUDLOW MASSACRE", ALSO ON "STRUGGLE", 1946.]
Take a trip with me in 1913
To Calumet, Michigan, in the copper country.
I'll take you to a place called Italian Hall
Where the miners are having their big Christmas ball.
I'll take you indoor, and up a high stair.
There's singin' and dancin', it's heard everywhere,
I'll let you shake hands with the people you see
And watch the kids dance round the big Christmas tree.
There's singin' and dancin' and songs in the air,
An' the spirit of Christmas is there everywhere,
Before you know, you're friends with us all
And you're dancin' around and around in the hall.
You ask about work and you ask about pay;
They'll tell you they make less than a dollar a day,
Just workin' the copper claims, riskin' their lives,
So it's fun to spend Christmas with children and wives.
A little girl sits by the Christmas tree lights
To play piano, she gotta keep quiet.
To hear all this fun you would not realize
That the copper-boss thug-men are millin' outside.
The copper-thugs thugs [sic] stuck their heads through the door
One of them yelled and he screamed, "There's a fire!"
A lady, she hollered, "There's no such a thing!
Keep on with your party, there's no such thing."
A few people rushed, and it's only a few.
"It's just the scabs and the thugs foolin' you."
A man grabbed his daughter and he carried her down,
But the thugs held the door and he could not get out.
And then others followed, a hundred or more,
But most everybody remained on the floor.
The scabs and the thugs they still laughed at their joke,
And the children were smothered on the stairs by the door.
Such a terrible sight I never did see,
We carried our children back up to their tree.
The scabs and the thugs they still laughed at their spree,
And the children that died there were seventy-three.
The piano played a slow funeral tune,
But the town was lit up by a cold Christmas moon,
The parents they weep and the miners they moan,
"See what your greed for money has done."