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Bucky Halker

U alum Bucky Halker is one of the nation's experts on labor songs--songs about hard lives and hard times, but also about the hope for a better world.

The Ballad of Bucky Halker

U alum sings about the struggle

By Kara Rose

May 1, 2006

Bucky Halker is part scholar, part troubadour, and part front-man for a Chicago bar band. The U alum is a beer-and-a-shot-guy who lives his life like it's a 90-meter ski jump.

He's also one of the nation's experts on labor songs--thousands of songs written over a 150-year span by hundreds of mostly anonymous workers. Songs like The Company Store (1895), Stockyard Blues (1947), and Solidarity Forever (1915), which became the rallying cry for the labor movement in the 1930s.

The songs are about hard lives and hard times, but also about the hope for a better world. "Labor history is the story of the underdog," says Halker, who lectures and performs historic and original songs around the nation and in Europe.

Woody Guthrie, poetry, and politics Halker may think of himself as one of those underdogs, even though he now has a steady day job at the Illinois Humanities Council and is working on his ninth CD. Growing up in Ashland, Wisconsin, a blue-color lumbering and mining town, he learned about hard work and what happens to a small town when the mine shuts down and the lumbering company pulls out.

He also learned about folk musician Woody Guthrie, poetry, and politics--enthusiasms that coalesced at the University of Minnesota. He earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in history and received a fellowship to complete his dissertation in 1984. "The fellowship was a godsend," says Halker, who has spent much of his life taping together a living with itinerant teaching, construction jobs, and gigs playing a blend of honky-tonk, folk, '50s country, and '60s and '70s rock. "[With the fellowship], I was at least able to pay my rent and eat."

"Labor songs are like mini-editorials or letters to the editor," explains Halker. "They're from people who aren't at the top of the heap, or even at the middle."

At the U, Halker met Professor Emeritus Hy Berman, who became his adviser for his dissertation on labor song-poems and labor protest. According to Berman, Halker's contribution to the preservation of U.S. labor folklore is second to none. "The tradition of workers and work in American society has to be preserved as part of our American Heritage," says Berman.

When Berman retired in 2004, Halker made a gift to the fellowship established in his honor: "I wish I could give a lot more."

Sustained by songs Berman says Halker's work helps us understand labor history throughout the U.S. and in Minnesota. "Workers were given heart and were sustained by the labor songs," explains Berman. Songs (mostly in Finnish and Swedish) carried workers through the 1907 and 1916 Iron Range strikes.

Later, labor songs bolstered the 3,000 workers who rallied at Rice Park during the Twin Cities streetcar drivers strike in 1917. And in 1934, 35,000 strikers heard and sang these tunes during the Minneapolis Teamsters truckers strike. That strike, a turning point in Minnesota Labor history, culminated in a two-day riot during which four were killed and 200 injured.

"Labor songs are like mini-editorials or letters to the editor," explains Halker. "They're from people who aren't at the top of the heap, or even at the middle." Halker takes the old songs and reinterprets them for new listeners because he thinks the songs still have something to say.

"Every country has its unpleasant underside of oppression and abuse," says Halker. "You need to examine yourself in the mirror and be honest if you want to make the world a better place."

More power to the underdog.