Otis Gibbs: Wobbly cannibal

poster by Shelby Kelley

You'll have a chance to buy Otis Gibbs' new one, Joe Hill's Ashes, when his May 1 release show at The Vogue rolls around. But with a few clicks around the Interweb, I done discovered that a streaming version is already available for your delectation.

<a href="http://otisgibbs.bandcamp.com/album/joe-hills-ashes" target="_blank">Joe Hill's Ashes by Otis Gibbs</a>

You wonder about the significance of the album title? Well, some of what were supposedly Joe Hill's ashes have passed through Otis's digestive system. Here's how it happened:

Joe Hill, the house songwriter for the Industrial Workers of the World, was executed in 1915 for his purported involvement in an armed robbery. Hill's cremains were then supposedly sent to IWW locals throughout the world. But one envelope never got to its source and was turned over to the National Archives in 1988. Following some wrangling, the IWW got those ashes back from the Archives in the same year.

So now, asked the paper In These Times, just what should we do with the ashes of this venerated folk hero? Well, Abbie Hoffman proposed that contemporary folk singers following in the steps of Hill — say, Billy Bragg or Michelle Shocked — should, like the Yanomamo tribe in the Amazon rain forest, consume the remains of their predecessor. New-agey magical thinking? Yes. Cannibalism? In a way. But the argument had a certain appeal, and it won out.

Bragg was eventually given the ashes and ate a little for himself. But he also supposedly kept some of them around.

(I might qualify here, just for the sake of not appearing like an idiot, that I'm aware that the authenticity of any sort of religious or political relics is always up for question. So I'll not put it out of the question that Hill, not a large man, left the world an impossibly great volume of ashes.

But maybe that's for the best, because one can focus on the symbolic implications of consuming the body of one's idol when one is not actually consuming the body itself. Jesus didn't break off an arm to share with his disciples, after all.)

But back to the story. Bragg has taken Gibbs under his wing in the past few years, having him open his tours throughout this land and across the pond, championing his work the press, generally giving Gibbs' work the respect it well deserves. And one day, Bragg mentioned to Gibbs that he still had some of Hill's ashes around, and that he wanted Gibbs to eat them.

And so he did. He chowed down on either genuine Joe Hill cremains or a facsimile of such. And what did they taste like? "Solidarity," according to Gibbs.

If that don't satisfy you, Hammer wrote a very fine cover story about Gibbs a few years back that's worth a look. Napier is revisiting with the Wanamaker boy this time around, so look for that article before the show.

  • poster by Shelby Kelley

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