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Do Not Rest in Peace, Live on in Struggle! Memories of Alistair Hulett & Howard Zinn

On one January evening, I got a call from a friend who was weeping like a child. As she choked back the tears, Dawn broke the tragic news to me.

by Joel Lewis

Folk songs are full of unrecorded histories and often that's the only way we can learn because workers don't write the history books. Folk music is actually the oral history of the working class.
—Alistair Hulett

On the evening of January 27, I got a call from a friend who was weeping like a child. As she choked back the tears, Dawn broke the tragic news to me that Howard Zinn had died. While I have never met Zinn, we had chatted about history and politics over email for several years and I considered him both a hero and a friend. Howard had that unique and very rare ability in the historical profession to describe the human experience with humans at the center of his story, avoiding all of the intellectual bullshit and fancy jargon that historians are notorious for (and that make students hate history). To Howard, history always had application and meaning to the present, and could never be "neutral." He openly admitted historians' "dirty little secret": that we are all biased and selective in our use of sources. This confession made him both celebrated and demonized by the academy's designated apostles of the past.

Over the next 24 hours I lamented the death of Howard online, re-posting old quotes and notifying past colleagues and students of his untimely passing. While my heart was aching, nothing could have prepared me for the next tragedy which was unfolding without my knowledge.

Around 9 p.m., I logged into my Facebook account and saw a posting of an Alistair Hulett video from my old folk-enthusiast student Evan. The title of the posting bluntly stated "In memory of Alistair Hulett." Tears instantly swelled up in my eyes as if I had just heard news of the passing of my own father. My partner Libby grabbed my hand, sensing something profoundly upsetting had just occurred. I couldn't believe this eulogy was true, but a quick Google search confirmed this tragedy. Alistair Hulett, my favorite Scott, socialist, songwriter, and dear comrade was gone.

I flashed back to endless Guinness-inspired evenings, as my older brother and I sat around in the back room of my parent's house ranting on about politics and blaring "In the Backstreets of Paradise" until all hours of the night. I recalled when Chris Powell startled our History 102 students by pulling out his guitar and playing Hulett's rendition of "The Internationale" as we studied WWI. As Utah Phillips would have said, Hulett's music "gave me a history that is more profound, more beautiful, more powerful, more passionate, and ultimately more useful, than the best damn history book I ever read." I didn't truly learn history or socialism from Marx. Even my Ph.D. advisors didn't spark my real passion for the past; the most profound lessons I learned about history and the human experience came straight from Ali's music.

While living in Glasgow, I had the honor of meeting Alistair and his partner Fatima on several occasions. Ali was a gentle but passionate soul who fed off of the fiery "red militancy" of Fatima; I pictured them as a modern Lenin and Krupskaya combo that inspired all those around them. You see, Ali was not just a singer, but also a dedicated socialist whose politics were stirred by a deep love for life and humanity.

Ali's lyrics and vision were a uniquely personalized plea to the heart, with bold slogans as fierce as a picket line, tempered by the gentle intimacy of a parent or lover. He was a comrade with a deep appreciation of the past; he understood how important class struggle was for the future of humanity. I played his songs in the classroom, trying to put a "human face" to history for my students. I shared his lyrics at conferences, trying to remind academics that human struggles should be at the center of all of our stories. And over the years I've played his songs for numerous comrades who appreciated Ali's spirit of optimism in struggle, even during the darkest days of the Bush regime.

The last time I saw Ali was at the infamous Heartland Café of Rogers Park in Chicago back in 2006. Alistair was on his first U.S. tour with David Rovics, and although I lived over 300 miles away at the time, my roadtrip to the Heartland was well worth it. My best friend Jared and I hopped in his little rusty Nissan, blaring Hulett songs from my Ipod. We stumbled through Ali's deep Scottish dialect, but continued singing out all the way to Lakeshore Drive. That night Ali captured the crowd with his recasting of old blues tunes as well as his usual socialist repertoire, sharing stories of history and struggle between songs. He closed the evening with his famous rendition of "The Internationale", inspiring a sing along that made me feel like I was back in a Glaswegian pub. He told me after his set that he was looking forward to seeing me again soon "across the pond." It was a long drive home the next day, yet Jared and I were so inspired that we couldn't help but sing Ali's songs the entire way. I always planned on making that longer trip back to Glasgow to see Ali, but life can change quickly and sometimes we don't get that "tomorrow" we hoped for. I still have that 2008 receipt for a RyanAir flight from Dublin to Glasgow; I just never got around to buying that connecting flight from Detroit. So it goes.

Last week when I heard Ali had fallen ill with liver problems, I sent him a typical "get well soon" message, but closed with a sarcastic taunt saying, "Now get yourself a new liver, get the hell out of that hospital, and come back to the Heartland Cafe to play, damn it... That is an order! Lots of love to you, man!" I never thought those would be my last words to him. I hope he got a giggle out of it, but more so, I wish that I had just outright told Ali, "You are my hero, comrade!"

Losing both Ali and Howard still doesn't seem possible, and the reality of it makes my heart ache almost unbearably. On most lazy afternoons you'll find me listening to Alistair's albums and reading a good Zinn book. It is sad to think I won't get to expand my collection with any new additions, or send these comrades commentary about the emotions and thoughts they inspire in me daily. I guess the greatest tribute to these two would be for others to now "step up" and write the songs and books that will keep their spirit of struggle alive. Another world is possible, so in the tradition of Joe Hill, let's stop mourning, pick up a guitar and pen, and start writing a future both Ali and Howard would be proud of.

Do not "rest in peace", dear comrades, but "live on in struggle!"

Joel Lewis is an independent researcher who is a lover of life and who lives his life for his love.

Copyright © Joel Lewis. All rights reserved.