Bread and Roses

I found it at a thrift store: probably the most heavily prospected thrift store in the county. Collectors favor it; eBay resellers and flea market vendors do, too.

But if you go often enough, a treasure or two will drop into your hands.  It’s two blocks from my house. I go often.

Besides,“treasure” is a subjective sort of concept.  Treasure to my eyes is trash in the eyes of others.  And that makes me a lucky man.

I collect t-shirts with printed designs: not rock ’n roll tees, necessarily, or sports tees, or tees boasting a catchy phrase.  What I’m looking for is hard to explain; but I know it when I see it.

That day, what I found was a mint-condition Hanes Beefy-T, in red. It bore the image of a thorny rose and four heads of wheat; below that appear the words “Bread and Roses Festival of Music, October 7, 8, and 9. UC Berkeley.  Greek Theater.” That was it.


“Bread and Roses:” the name struck a chord, old and rusty.  No year was given.  But to me it looked like a 40-year-old mint-condition concert shirt. Once you’ve pawed through 50 or 60,000 t-shirts, you can date some of them, roughly, by the maker’s tag inside the neck.  I’m fairly good with Beefy-Ts.

Age alone means little to a tee’s value.  But money value isn’t where I’m at.  The tee itself is just an excuse to go hunting on the Internet.  It’s a map, a signpost, the first line of a story — or the last. Here is what I found:

The story begins in 1912; the year before the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City burned 150 women to death thanks to management villainy.

That year, the pioneering women’s labor organizer Rose Schneiderman made a speech to a group of well-to-do liberals. She spoke on behalf of all women laboring in dangerous conditions for little money.  And yet, she told the crowd, they wanted more than mere money.

“What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.”

Bread and roses. Sustenance, but also dignity: a life worth living.  That phrase became a labor slogan, and soon gave rise to a poem:

As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient song of Bread;
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew —
Yes, it is bread we fight for — but we fight for Roses, too.

Decades later the folksinger Mimi Farina turned the poem into a song.  She later staged concerts in support of an organization she founded called — Bread and Roses.

The organization sends musicians and other performers to put on shows for inmates of prisons, hospitals, homes for the abused, homes for abandoned children — anyplace where the people are perhaps starved for beauty — and a few roses. It’s been 40 years now.

My tee came from the first big Bread and Roses benefit concert, in 1977. I confirmed this with an email to the Bread and Roses organization, which still exists.

The Bread and Roses Festival of Music was an all-acoustic music series, because Mimi Farina hated the music industry and had a grudge agains recording engineers who tried to make her sound like a lounge act.

The Bread and Roses people also sent me an image of the festival poster.  It boasted quite the lineup: there was Pete Seeger; Joan Baez, Farina’s sister; Ramblin’ Jack Elliot; Arlo Guthrie; Buffy St. Marie; Country Joe MacDonald (“Fish!”); Dave Van Ronk, who was all that Bob Dylan ever aspired to be; Hoyt Axton; Malvina Reynolds of the “little boxes” and much more; the Persuasions, the greatest a capella group you never heard of; and more. Robin Williams emceed.

I don’t have a set list, but articles about the concert said that Seeger, Baez, MacDonald, and Axton all “sang their classics,” which means that song of reform, songs against war, songs of the dispossessed and the land and of labor, all rang out across that stage.

And it’s an interesting stage: the Greek Theater at UC Berkeley is a replica Greek amphitheater of the classic era, built into a hillside. The Greek is all stone and sunlight and good sight lines to a stage that’s intimately close.

The Internet told me that the Greek  was built in 1903 by the newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst. Hearst, when all was said and done, was no friend of the working man.  Or truth, beauty, democracy, or anything good.

So I get a warm feeling when I envision this crowd of populist folkies and street performers prancing atop Hearst’s concrete Greek ego trip a mere 25 years after they slid Bill Hearst into the ground.  At a concert that cost five bucks: inflation aside, an amount that was pretty easy to come by even if you flipped burgers for money and lived with your mom.

A year or so later I went to the Greek to hear Randy Newman songs of society and its follies. I wonder what the ghost of Hearst thought about the words to “Political Science.”

The ‘60s and early ’70s were good times, at least on the West Coast.  If you were the right color and gender, there were plenty of roses to go around. Work was plentiful, school and houses were cheap. And there was hope that someday soon, color and gender wouldn’t matter so much. And everyone would have roses.

But that time was soon to end; it was beginning to end even the day of the concert.  A month or two earlier, housing prices had started to rise in Silicon Valley.  People couldn’t believe that a three-bedroom house in Silicon Valley could go for — $80K.

A co-worker and I talked about this era at lunch a few days after I bought the shirt.  He’s a grinning leprechaun of an old hippie in wire-rimmed glasses and a blue cotton work shirt rolled up to the elbows.  I asked him if he’d been to the ’77 Bread and Roses Concert; we’re not very far from Berkeley, after all.

“God,” he said, gazing off at yesterday.  “Who was there?” I named them; he couldn’t remember.  Too many concerts, too much music, too many yesterdays.  He might have been, or not.

He’d been a music promoter for awhile and hung with the greats.  We talked about that, but what we mainly talked about was the university we both work at.  It has a counterculture reputation, not these days so much deserved; but in the 70s, it was a quiet and magic place, newly built in the middle of a redwood forest.

“You could walk across the entire campus and not see anybody,” he told me.  ‘It was that peaceful.  And the town was just this sleepy little place.  But people were standing in the streets playing music.  A sleepy little town — but with music in the streets.”

“Times were better then,” I said, and he agreed. Old men always like then better than now.  But this time, we may be right.  Because life is harder for our students, and the the people in the town, than it has ever been.

We took our eye off the economic regulations that kept all the money from piling up in a few hands.  Soon the economy turned from a rose nursery to a series of self-assembling traps that stripped wealth and power off the common folk.

Want to go to college? Well, it costs more now, because government support was pulled. Because taxes were lowered. And there are few grants anymore; you could be indebted for life by private-industry loans with tricky and subtle penalties, that can ambush you like a blow to the back of the head.  It’s especially bad for women and minorities.

But you need a degree to get a good job, see, because the good non-degreed work was allowed to flee overseas.  Of course, compliant foreign tech workers can be imported cheaply to work here because of “shortages.” Yeah right.

Just take away restraints and regulations, and capitalism naturally makes traps. You can dance the same dance about healthcare, retirement, housing, consumer protection, antitrust laws…. in our once sleepy town, the university is jammed and students pay $800 to share a bedroom.  It’s a Silicon Valley bedroom town now, and a lifestyle playpen where the weathy have second- or third homes that stand empty 350 days a year.

Most service workers work two jobs just to survive. There is less music in the streets than ever before. Roses grow in small gardens with high admission prices.

The Bread and Roses organization still exists, as I said. Its core mission has never changed: It still brings light and music to the institutionalized These people will always need more roses in their lives.

But as the world outside becomes more rose-less, Bread and Roses looks only inward. It is a noncontroversial community-based cause, and nothing more.

And that’s fine.  But while the populist folksingers of the first festival danced on William Randolph Hearst’s marble stage back in ’77, Hearst had the last laugh after all. Because in a very strong sense he is now the president of the United States.

To learn about Donald Trump, read a even a simple biography of Hearst.  The telltales are the same: inherited wealth, grandiose ambition, boundless narcissism, underlying disrespect for democracy, and astoundingly bad judgment. I’m not the only one who thinks this, I was surprised to learn.

Now you understand what I’m looking for in a t-shirt: a story. A story that can be assembled from all the facts and circumstances and ideas that left behind a t-shirt to give testimony that once upon a time, something happened.

This is not a nice story: it’s a story of battles won, and lost again.  But it has a lesson: no battle against an unfair system is ever won forever.  It must be fought again and again, or the bad system will reassert itself, as it always has.

And there will always be apologists among the comfortable class who are sorry for the bad things that happen, but don’t really want fundamental change. They were the people that Rose Schneiderman talked to.

So we will fight again, and with luck we will win again.  And maybe this time, or next time, we will break the trap-making economic machine for good and all.   And bread and roses will be the base right of all people everywhere. Forever.  As the old poem reads:

As we come marching, marching, we bring the Greater Days —
The rising of the women means the rising of the race —
No more the drudge and idler — ten that toil where one reposes —
But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and Roses, Bread and Roses.

2 thoughts on “Bread and Roses

  1. lk

    Excellent piece! I don’t know if I ever shared this with you, but many years ago when I was a teenager I had an argument with my Republican mother that gave me a certain insight into a mentality that could tolerate the inequities that drive you and me crazy. My mom told me when I argued for a fairer distribution of wealth, that there wasn’t enough to share. I don’t think my mother was a bad person, or terribly mean or greedy. But she truly didn’t believe there was enough resources for everybody to have a good life. Some folks were just going to have to suffer and work harder for less money than other folks. It was the kind of brick wall in her thinking (and many other folks) that I couldn’t get around or change. I’ve come to characterize this as a Republican outlook, but really, a lot of non-Republicans share the conviction. Since this is a belief that borders on religion, I have no answer for how to change that attitude.

    1. admin Post author

      No, LK, you never told me that one. An interesting quirk for a church lady, especially in the “good works” brand that she belonged to. I guess Jesus was supposed to make it all right in the next life, or something, so we didn’t have to.

      Arrayed against your mother is Fredrick Engels and the Marxist crowd, who say that eventually technology will make endless bounty for all. It’s taking longer than they hoped, but I agree. That said, we’re actually not moving all that quickly in that direction because the wealthy class favors things the way they are now — the necessities of life made cheap would eliminate the money they make by acquiring and gate-keeping needed resources. IOW, there’s way more money to be made off human misery than a secure population. There are a great many unfunded possibilities out there.

      These advanced technologies are also necessary because unless we have them we’ll eventually run out of resources even for today’s “haves,” not to mention heat the planet to unsustainable temperatures.


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