PETER FROST, on holiday across the Atlantic, finds he doesn’t have to answer that notorious question.
There we were on the silver bullet Amtrak train, shunted into the special Department of Homeland Security sidings on the USA side of Niagara Falls.
We were on the Maple Leaf special, a train that makes the 500 miles and about fourteen hour journey from Toronto to New York City.
The immigration officer took Ann and I off the train for a short interview, took our fingerprints and photograph, charged us seven dollars each, and granted us the right to stay for up to three months vacation in the USA.
No, he didn’t ask the famous question. “Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” So our noses stayed exactly the same length.
As white middle class holiday makers from Britain we were treated in a friendly manner, other would-be visitors around us were getting more rigorous investigations.
The electronic on-line ESTA visa waiver system hasn’t reached the railway border crossings yet. So the train stops for two hours for Immigration and Custom controls.
I’ve long dreamed of riding a lengthy American train journey. The poet in me has been inspired by all those wonderful US railway ballads.
The leftie in me, was inspired by the part railways played in the development and campaigning of the organised labour – or should that be labor – movement in American history.
Last but not least, as a green campaigner I knew about the part the railways had played in opening up America and the part they must play in the future if the USA is ever to throw off its total reliance on its gas guzzling automobile and airplane culture.
When the railways first opened up the prairies there were sixty million American buffalo roaming the plains of North America.
The original natives hunted a few of them and used every part of the beast. The meat for food, the hides for clothing, lodges, tepees or wigwams, bone and horns made tools and even the tendons were used for bow strings.
Buffalo and native peoples lived in balance for centuries until the white man arrived to open up the West. Within decades, in one of the most disgusting acts of environmental vandalism ever, the huge herds had gone, hunted almost to extinction.
The early railway companies organised special trains for so called hunting sportsmen. Using rifles the hunters would shoot a Buffalo from the train. Once one had been killed the train would stop and just two prime steaks would be cut from the dead animal.
They train would move on and the rest of the corpse would be left to rot in the sun.
I first heard perhaps my favourite railway ballad when Selena Scott chose Willy Nelson’s ‘City of New Orleans’ as one of her Desert Island Discs.
The lyrics haunted me. They still do.
So Good Morning America, How are ya?
Don’t you know me? I’m your native son,
I’m a train they call the City of New Orleans,
And I’ll be gone five hundred miles before the day is done.
Willy Nelson might have written it but today it is best known as an Arlo Guthrie standard. Arlo’s father was the legendary Woody Guthrie.
Communist Woody used his guitar and his song lyrics to point out just what was wrong with the USA in the Great Depression; the dust bowls of non-sustainable agriculture; the vast unemployment queues; the racism too – Woody’s guitar carried the legend ‘This machine kills Fascists’.
The songs that Woody’s sung often read like a railway map of the USA. He sang this one, written by a farmer neighbour of Pete Seeger, Les Rice. ‘The Banks are made of Marble’ is bang up to date and contrasts the obscene wealth of bankers with the poverty of ordinary Americans all over the country. It rings true even today.
I’ve travelled round this country,
From shore to shining shore ,
And it always made me wonder,
At the things I heard and saw.
I have seen the weary farmer,
plowing up his sod and loam,
And I heard the auction hammer,
it was knocking down his home,
But the banks were made of marble,
With a guard on every door,
And the vaults are stuffed with silver
That the workers sweated for.
Perhaps Woody’s best known song, still sung today by many who don’t know its origins or its politics is also a gazetteer of US places by rail.
This land is your land,
This land is my land,
To the New York Island.
From the Redwood forests,
To the Gulf Stream waters,
This land was made for you and me.
It is a song that says it all about the hopes, aspirations as well as the disappointments and betrayals of the American working class dream.
To sing his songs on picket lines and at political meetings and rallies Woody travelled all over the country.
With his comrades from the International Workers of the World the IWW, better known as the ‘Wobblies’, Woody rode empty boxcars for free, searching for work and dodging the baseball bat and shotgun wielding railway guards.
Memories of Woody and his battles and his victories, came alive for me just an hour before we reached Penn Station New York. Our train sounded its evocative horn as we passed through the little station at Peekskill in the Hudson Valley.
It was here in 1949 that Woody, Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson and many other American Communist performers had organised a benefit concert in aid of the young, but growing, Civil Rights Movement.
The racist Klu Klux Klan attacked the event, the local police, many of them Klan supporters stood by and did nothing. It was one of the most shameful events in American political history. Hundreds were injured.
As the riot raged at Peekskill, in the background could be heard the lonesome sound of a train whistle.
As so often that train whistle, just like the inspiring and eternal songs Woody, Pete and Paul sang at Peekskill have both become integral parts of America’s very special symphony.