Remembering the revolutionary Willie Murphy

Timothy Ogren     March 31, 2021

Read a meme on Facebook that accurately stated I am the same age as old people. A friend told me as we age we only remember 40% of things that happened in our lives. I am curious how one measures what one doesn’t remember. Anyway here is a tiny bit of that 40% and maybe a little from the nether zone.

The second to last time I saw Willie Murphy was more meaningful than the last. The last time was at the Caboose several years back, the Bees got together one last time. Of course John Koerner opened the night foot stomping delta blues. That as Bees fans knew was only the calm before the rock the roof off Bees blasting a storm. Old West Bankers (once a Banker, always a Banker) filled the bar. Only by then some were using canes, one was on oxygen and many men had their long hair and bare chins reversed. Unsurprisingly Eve didn’t look a day older, and Rosie somehow looked younger.

The second to last time I saw Willie was not at the 400 Bar or the Eagles Club, but not surprisingly to people who knew him, it was Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis. It was a special concert, and my wife and I inhaled in the parking lot (nowadays as rare as a moon landing – go NASA). The Minnesota Orchestra was performing Shostakovich while Eisenstein’s film “Battleship Potemkin” was shown at the back of the stage. Willie had been for a long time deep into film and revolutionary political theory, so for him this was a two–fer!

After the performance from the balcony I spotted Willie wearing a lime green performer’s jacket on the main floor. The crowd had exited, and he was, I assume, soaking in the sounds. We went down and sat behind him, I said howdy, and he said wasn’t that something! I commented on his jacket and he said he had recently returned from Japan where he was well received and well paid.

I didn’t pay him that well. Back in the late 70’s I was the paid (so–to–speak) staff member for the East-West Bank Tenants’ Union. The East part of the name arose because we needed student club status to use the U’s stencil machine. Yes, this was the era of rub off block letters, burned on graphics (like the black cat sign of the Tenants’ Union), hand–cranked mimeo machines, and hand delivering 500 flyers. The Tenants’ Union was in the midst of the largest rent strike in midwest history. About 150 rental units in both the Cedar Square West highrise and the old housing across Cedar Avenue in the old neighborhood were on strike ostensibly for repairs and code violations, but actually to force Keith Heller out of the neighborhood and obtain community control of needed affordable housing.

Here is where Willie comes in. He himself was on strike, living in a rental unit in the old neighborhood. However, it takes money to change even a little bit of the world, and we badly needed some. I commanded a salary of $40 to $50 dollars a week when available, and heavens no benefits. I worked closely with Brian Coyle who was paid as an organizer at the CDC, so my salary, the costs of those stencil sheets and paper and whatever other bare necessities we needed came from fundraisers.

By far the most successful fundraiser we had back then was a boogie featuring Willie and the Bumblebees playing at the old Firehouse (Mixed Blood Theater for you newbies). The Tenants’ Union fronted from its meager funds the Firehouse rental and beer kegs from Zipps. We charged $5 a head (get it?) and a buck for a beer. Since the rent strike was a south Minneapolis liberal cause celeb the place was packed to the rafters. The Bees were paid about $10 each and free beer, but they got the Union funded for two or three months!

Willie played a lot of benefits that supported a lot of righteous community activism in those days. Oh, and the Union won its fight, a pivotal point in the history of the West Bank, opening the door to community control of the community’s development of affordable housing, and shutting down the intended expansion of those awful soul–less Cedar Riverside high–rises.

Timothy Ogren
March 31, 2021