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Opera

Dead can sing

Jazz opera turns spotlight on union struggle and a suspicious death.

After helping steer composer Steve Jones to his jazz opera project, Elise Bryant is directing it at Marygrove College this week.
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Published 3/3/2004

To the best of our knowledge, you are now reading the first music-event preview ever to involve contacting the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s office. Or any medical examiner, for that manner.

Composer Steve Jones’ Forgotten: The Murder at the Ford Rouge Plant may or may not become a hit, though it’s getting a substantial production and big push from the labor community in hopes that it will be. It may or may not provide new anthems to sing on picket lines or give people renewed interest in joining them. But its backstory is an amazing tale of sleuthing in the name of art.

Billed as a jazz opera, Forgotten seeks to re-create Detroit in the contentious late 1930s, a time of old hatreds and new alliances, a time of unionists, bosses, thugs, soup kitchens, strikes and marches at home — and the gathering clouds of fascism and world war abroad. And at the center of Jones’ tableau there’s the Rev. Lewis Bradford, an all-but-forgotten activist whose 1937 death has been reconsidered by authorities who now say it probably should have been treated as a homicide.

Forgotten even to historians specializing in the era, the story of Bradford’s life and purported murder lived on as family lore. The story was passed down to Jones, 49, a Washington, D.C.-area musician and labor activist; Bradford’s widow was a cousin to Jones’ grandmother.

Then a few years ago, Jones was casting about for a suitable collaborative project with Elise Bryant, a former Detroiter and Ann Arborite and something of a lightning rod in the world of labor theater and music; she now teaches at the George Meany Center in Silver Springs, Md.

“I said, ‘How about this story? You have these Detroit roots,’” Jones recalls saying as he broached the subject to Bryant. She was curious at first, then intrigued when Jones’ initial inquiries showed that the story took place at the Ford Rouge plant, where Bryant’s father had worked for 30 years.

“All of a sudden, it felt like this was the thing,” Jones says. “It set me into motion.” He started making calls that unleashed a wave of interest among Bradford’s grandchildren. Besides the memories, there were diaries by Bradford and his widow Ella, scrapbooks with newspaper clippings and photographs. Bradford descendants flew to D.C. to confer with Jones. Jones flew to New Mexico to meet with others. He asked the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s officials to comb old files for the official record.

A story emerged of Bradford as a man with a vision. A Cornell graduate and Methodist minister, he quit his job with a spiritual organization in Ohio, in 1932, in the throes of the Depression, to move to Detroit with his wife and four children. The prospect of better medical care in Detroit for one seriously ailing daughter was a prime motivation for the move, but the social landscape of the city made an impact on him once here.

“He saw the devastation and he wanted to be part of changing it,” says Jones of Bradford. “He saw families torn apart, including his own. … It was not an easy time for the family.”

Bradford worked for a while at the city’s welfare department. He was associated with the Howard Street mission, a soup kitchen-shelter in downtown Detroit. And from the mission he broadcast a weekly radio show, “The Forgotten Man’s Hour,” on WXYZ. No tapes survive of the broadcast, but it included interviews with the mission’s diners and residents.

In 1937, a pivotal year in the clash of unions and management, Bradford was working at Ford’s Rouge plant, shoveling sand in the glass pit. No doubt he needed a factory wage during those tough times, a need made all the more acute by his daughter’s medical bills. But his activism continued at the plant.

Although his exact politics are unclear, Bradford was presumably a left-progressive. And though there is no evidence he formally joined the union, “we can safely say he was pro-union,” says Jones. Through a group called the League of a Thousand Men, Bradford was trying — unsuccessfully — to interest the company in some kind of “labor peace.”

Says Jones: “The widow said this greatly disturbed the powers that be at Ford.”

After General Motors and Chrysler recognized the UAW, Ford became the site of some of the nastiest, most contentious skirmishing of a nasty, contentious era. In one of the best-known incidents, company security beat UAW members bloody in the Battle of the Overpass in May 1937. Jones says his research found the struggle was routinely Page One news for The New York Times. “The eyes of the world were on the Rouge plant,” says Jones.

Labor historian Steve Babson has described the Ford plant of those days as under the virtual rule of security chief Harry Bennett and his army of “ex-policemen, prize-fighters, former athletes and bouncers organized around a core of 800 present and former gangsters.”

On a November day of that year, fellow Rouge workers brought Bradford to Henry Ford Hospital, supposedly after a fall that left him unconscious. He died three days later.

But Jones says Ella’s diary details suspicions of foul play from the very beginning — plus not-always-veiled intimidation by Bennett and his thugs. A fearful Ella moved with her children to Madison, Wis., where the family had lived previously. But even there she continued to feel danger.

Ella had passed by the time Jones began his project, but he recalls asking an elderly aunt about how the widow and children were received in Madison. It was not to be talked about, was the answer. Adds Jones: “The implication was that they could come to seek out the widow if she were to speak out.”

Meanwhile, back in Detroit, the struggle for the soul of the Rouge played out over the next four years, ending with an unprecedented white-black labor alliance that brought Henry Ford to the bargaining table. And the story Jones sets to song follows the story of the Rouge to the union victory, even though Bradford’s role in it was cut short.

Jones says he was inspired by such musical touchstones as Pete Seeger and Duke Ellington, not only for their way with songs but also for their knack for pacing an audience’s interest through 90 minutes or so of music. In this case, Jones has assembled 29 songs, expressing characters from Henry Ford (including a jaunty piece where he proclaims himself the inventor of “auto love”) to Bradford. It’s only loosely jazz, and only operatic in that it uses a minimum of narration to connect songs.

Jones is clearly trying to deliver at least artistic justice to a man he obviously admires, but his research has yielded a little justice of another sort.

In 2001, Wayne County Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Carl Schmidt re-examined the 1937 autopsy report that ruled Bradford’s death an accident. A fall as the one that supposedly led to Bradford’s death, Schmidt said in a letter to Jones, results in bleeding “confined to the impact site.” The autopsy reported multiple fractures and “a large amount of blood all around the skull, but mostly in the frontal region.” That would be “consistent with multiple blunt trauma to the head, such as a beating.” The letter continued: “This death should probably be classified as a homicide.”

Whether the questions surrounding Bradford’s death will go any further is uncertain. His direct descendants haven’t requested he be exhumed from his grave in Iowa for examination of his skull, which Schmidt said would be needed for a more declarative ruling on the cause of death. And it is unclear whether the grave actually contains cremated ashes or a corpse, says Jones.

“In retrospect,” Schmidt wrote in an e-mail to Metro Times last week, given the lapse of decades and the “hazy” circumstances of Bradford’s death “the amount of information Mr. Jones obtained about this is astonishing.”

It’s all the more astonishing that this information has been dragged from the shadows of history to the stage.

 

Forgotten: The Murder at the Ford Rouge Plant is showing at the Marygrove College Theatre (8425 W. McNichols at Wyoming, Detroit). The Friday, March 5, performance is sold out. For information on the Saturday, March 6, performance at 8 p.m. or the Sunday, March 7, performance at 3 p.m., go to www.forgottenshow.net.

W. Kim Heron is the managing editor of Metro Times. E-mail wkheron@metrotimes.com.

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