Daily Worker

October 2, 1939


Interesting Summer  by Lawrence Emery


It was last June when four young college students in New York City got together to find “an interesting way to spend the summer.”

They are Jerry Oberwager, 22; Mary Wallace, 22; Peter Seeger, 20; and Harriet Holtzman, 23, and when they got through laying their plans for an interesting summer, they were the Vagabond Puppeteers and they worked for six weeks to give substance to the title.

To be vagabonds they had to travel and that meant acquiring a 1930 model Oldsmobile and putting it in shape for the road. And to be puppeteers they needed puppets and so they made their own, 22 of them all told.

Then they constructed an outdoor stage, built a rack on top of their jalopy, gathered together cooking utensils and blankets, made room for a banjo an a typewriter and started out with high spirits but with rather vague notions about their program.

Now they are back, with 4,000 miles of travel behind them and a record of performances in every corner off rural Now York state which delighted an audience that totals 7,250 persons.

Typical of their reception everywhere is the letter of commendation which was given them by the Madison County 4-H Council in Morrisville, N.Y. The council "found that the Puppets attacked a serious problem in a humorous way and were thought—provoking as well as funny. . . . The puppets are real actors."

Typical, too, was the report in the Watertown Times of one of their performances given during the height of the milk strike. The show, said the Times, was “in contrast to the grimness of the picket line.” The portable outdoor stage was set opposite the Sheffield Plant Driveway, and there was an audience of several hundred striking dairy farmers.

Kept Abreast of Events

They were highly entertained, says the Times, “by the antics of a farmer beleaguered by the Milk Trust who learned, through the intervention of his cow, that resistance lay in unity among dairy men.” The strikers, continues the account, “kept one eye on the puppet show and the other on the highway where strikebreakers were expected to attempt milk deliveries."

And the fact that a milk delivery WAS attempted just as the performance ended and the hat started going around can probably be set down as one of those minor tragedies inevitable in every strike.

"We had a vague idea at the start," explain the puppeteers "of the show to use." But as they went along, they revised and rewrote and always they were abreast of events in the milk strike and their skits were so topical that usually they were able to include the names of persons in the audience in their lines.

For their farmer audiences, the Vagabond Puppeteers presented "Whose Headache Is It Now?" and it was a story in the simplest terms of the struggle between the dairy farmer and the milk trust. It was hilarious fun for the farmers, and when the puppet-cow talked back to its owner and chided him for spending all his money for feed and shelter for her while his family suffered from too little to eat, and too little to wear, the rural audience laughed till they cried.

"We didn't know how you young people from the city can know so much about what we're up against," they'd say after the show, "but you sure hit the nail on the head." Once, when a speaker was scheduled to speak following the performance, he got up and said: "I don't know what more I can say after that. . ."

Then there was a sketch in which Pinocchio starts off gaily to school only to find it closed because of the Republican slash in the budget. The action goes through a lot of melodrama with Pinocchio landing in jail on a frame-up, and with a beautifully satisfying denouement when the puppet-hero is freed and the real criminal, the budget-slasher, gets a long sentence.

Shorter skits, such as the one burlesquing the city summer boarder who tries to milk a bull, made the farmers hold their sides.

Peter Seeger and his banjo was an extra feature of the show. Pete is 20, went to Harvard, traces his ancestry to one of the ships that followed the heels of the Mayflower and knows most of the old Southern folk ballads. These he revised to fit the dairy farmer and his problems.

Popular Farm Ballads

One originally told about “7 Cent Cotton and 40 Cent Meat, How In the World Can a Poor Han Eat.” This became:

$1.00 milk and 40 cent meat,
How in the world can a poor man eat?
Feed up high and milk down low,
How in the world can we raise the dough?

Clothes worn out, shoes run down;
Old slouch hat with a hole in the crown,
Back nearly broken and fingers all sore -
Milk gone down to raise no more.

Crops all withered, weather so dry,
Corn crib empty and the cow’s going dry.
Well water low, nearly out of sight
Can’t take a bath on Saturday night.

No use talkin’, any man is beat,
With $1.00 milk and 40 cent meat.”

Equally popular was the ballad: “The Farmer’s the Man Who Feeds Them All,“ and one called “Pretty Polly” which originally told of a little Southern girl who was done wrong by a false lover but was revised to tell the story of a dairy farmer seduced by the Milk Trust.

All together, the Vagabond Puppeteers performed 19 times for dairy farmers meetings, including two conventions of the Dairy Farmers Unions; nine times in summer hotels through the resort area; once for the NYA Center in Geneva; once for a municipal street dance in Middleburg; twice for 4-H Clubs in Calicoon and in Madison County; twice at field days in Roscoe and in Augusta Center; once at a county fair in Norwich County; twice in schools in Fairmont and in Baldwinsville; three times for Grange Halls; and at Christian Endeavor picnics, church fairs and picket lines.

Half of their performances were on the basis of flat $10 bookings; the rest were about equally divided between passing the hat and 60 percent of admissions. Once in passing the hat they made as much as $10.40; their highest pay for a performance was $11.80, which was 10 percent of the admissions in a school performance.

And once they put on three shows for the grand remuneration of 83 cents and that was at a county fair where the troupe was sandwiched into the side show between the bi-sexed woman, the fire-eater and a magician.

During the summer they earned a total of $289.82 and when they landed in the city they had a surplus of $13.34 after paying all expenses for a 5,000 mile jaunt for two and a half months.

At nearly every performance the group was given enthusiastic endorsements in writing, and the Dairy Farmers Union has made a fervent appeal for them to come back next summer for a more extensive tour which will be better organized.

Slept Out Under Stars

During the entire trip the group never ate once in a restaurant. They slept out at night under the stars and cooked their own meals in the open, very often they were the guests of farmers. At rural affairs and union meetings, the farm women would bring “suppers” and would vie with each other to see who could feed the troupe most, and after the affair the farmers would have earnest discussions about who would have the honor of taking them home for the night.

“They fed us too well,” the girls reported. “And we could live the entire winter just by taking advantage of all the offers to spend a week on the farm.”

In the farmers' homes they talked about politics and the farmers’ problems, about anti-Semitism and Unionism, about war and peace and social security — “and always,” the puppeteers report, “the farmers wanted to know what can be done to create a stronger unity between themselves and city workers. They felt the need of this more strongly than ever before, and the support of the CIO in their milk strike has given them a new understanding and a new respect for the power that lies in solidarity. One summer has convinced us that a minimum of organized effort on the part of city organizations — unions, consumers’ bodies, the American Labor Party and similar groups — can not only reach the farmers but weld them into a pretty solid front with city folks that will be one of the best guarantees for progress.

And so the trail has been blazed by a group of youngsters who started on nothing but a lot of initiative and a spirit of adventure.

If there are any blasé city folks who want to see how they did fit, the group will run through its entire repertoire on October 7 at the Youth Cultural Center at 106 East 14th Street.

Back to read more articles