A Working-Class Jokester

Against the Current, No. 49, March/April 1994

David Roediger

Juice Is Stranger Than Friction:
Selected Writings of T-Bone Slim
Franklin Rosemont, editor. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company, 1992
159 pages. Cloth: $24.95, paper: $8.95.

T-BONE SLIM wrote countless jokes, aphorisms, newspaper columns, poems and short stories, as well as two pamphlets and a 607-word novel He coined scores of words, from holidaysical toPerhapsbyterian. His songs include such labor classics as “The Popular Wobbly” (“They Go Wild, Simply Wild, Over Me”), “The Lumberjack’s Prayer” and “I’m Too Old To Be A Scab.” Slim was, as Franklin Rosemont’s superb introduction argues, the “greatest man of letters” in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the most wildly creative labor union in U.S. history.

I’ll bet Slim couldn’t have written a serious book review to save his life, though. Why should he have stuck to sobriety and summary for even a few lines, when it was possible to write, “High ideals should not be confused with high heels,” or to point out that “Only the poor break laws—the rich evade them.” Why, for that matter should any big chunk of this review ever pass without samples from the rare, and well-done, morsels of T-Bone that are served up in Rosemont’s remarkable collection?

Like this childrearing advice: “Parents should be discouraged in the arming of their children with toy pistols in the mistaken thought that they will become successful highwaymen or gangsters?”

T-Bone Slim was the “moniker” of Matt Valentine Huhta, a Finnish-American hobo who worked mainly as a barge captain, amidst bouts of wandering and joblessness, after leaving his family and joining the IWW roughly at the end of World War I. A loner, whose closest contacts were with anonymous itinerants, Slim Huhta was abiographer’s nightmare. His references to himself in his writings clearly elaborated on the image of “the inimitable, immaculate T-Bone Slim,” rather than on the workaday details of “real life.” Despite Rosemont’s inventive and exhaustive archival and oral historical research, that life remains shrouded in mystery.

Like this guidance counselling: “Half a loaf is better than no loafing at all.”

The facts concerning Slim’s death are even less clear. In May, fifty years ago, he fell, jumped or was pushed from the Hudson River barge on which he was working and drowned at an age variously estimated between forty-seven and sixty-two. His Industrial Worker editor did not find out he had died for five months. The delayed obituary in that paper aptly observed, “Having lived almost a full lifetime in anonymity, Fellow Worker Hubta died that way. We have an idea that’s the way he wanted it to be.”

Photographs of Slim are quite rare. Appropriately enough, our only images of him are from a handful of cartoons, including a devilish one that headed his columns for two decades. Slim allowed that the drawing, which is reproduced as the frontispiece to Stranger Than Friction, was a “concrete example of a rugged style of beauty.”

Like this black humor of the homeless: “Woke up stiff all over—lumpybed. Ihad inadvertently spread two sheets of newspaper in one spot.”

If Huhta craved obscurity, historians have certainly provided it. But Rosemont threatens to foul things up. He makes a compelling case, or rather lets Slim’s writings make the case, that we urgently need T-Bone today. Slim was, as the great laborlorist Archie Green wonderfully puts it, a “word alchemist.”

In a world in which the most powerful and deadly institutions are, among other things, word-stealers, we require such alchemy. As we stand in danger of being convinced that cherished words like “new” and “revolutionary” actually mean “repackaged,” we need magicians like Slim who can restore the capacity of words to let us know and imagine. Leftist variants of postmodernism have struggled at times toward this insight. But where is the modern theorist who knows that “Juice is stranger than friction,” or who wonders aloud, “Doesn’t the very word ‘worker’ presuppose that there are those who do no work?”

Like this editorial comment: “I don’t believe there is necessity for a news censor. Editors have been very careful not to let any news get into the papers.”

Like this world-historical etiquette tip: “Wherever you find injustice, the proper form of politeness is attack,”

March/April 1994, ATC 49