Thursday, December 5, 2013

Singing the Body Electric: The Poetry of Reddy Kilowatt and Free Enterprise

When P&PC's office interns hear the term "political poetry," they typically think of poetry produced by the Left or for leftist causes, but there's a long and largely untold story of political poetry written and distributed to serve conservative political agendas as well. Take, for example, the flier pictured here, which features "The Story of Ten Little Free Workers" as an illustrated poem modeled on Septimus Winner's well-known 1868 song "Ten Little Injuns" and replacing Winner's Indian boys with a parade of workers (doctor, railroader, miner, steelworker, farmer, lawyer, grocer, salesclerk, and reporter) all led by Reddy Kilowatt—the longtime cartoon representative and corporate spokesman for private electricity in the U.S. (Reddy was first created by the Alabama Power Company in 1926.) Here, as the poem relates, Reddy is the first "free worker" to fall victim to American "socialists" seeking to expand the federal government's power (pun intended, right?). One by one and couplet by couplet, "Uncle" (as in Uncle Sam) takes over various private enterprises with the final stanza—seizing on the organizational rhetoric of "working together" across class lines that we might normally associate with leftist rhetoric—summing things up:

Ten little free workers—but they are no longer free.
They work when and where ordered, and at a fixed rate you see,
And it all could have been prevented if they'd only seen fit to agree
And work together instead of saying "it never can happen to me!"

We at the P&PC office appreciate how the flier takes advantage of the poem's stanza breaks for expressive purposes. At the beginning of the poem, as the little free workers march across and thus populate the stanza break, there is essentially no space between couplets, but as the government whittles away at workers' freedoms, the silence of those breaks becomes a more and more powerful representation of disappearing free enterprise. That growing silence or disappearing voice culminates in the final stanza where "the reporter son-of-a-gun" loses his voice or freedom of speech under a tyrannical system that has not only done away with free enterprise but that now won't allow him to "criticize the government" as well.

You'll see that the Otter Tail Power Company has "signed" the poem with a script-like font at the bottom of the flier, but despite the copyright note of 1961, the Minnesota-based company is probably not the author of "The Story of Ten Little Free Workers." The poem was in fact widely reprinted in newspapers across the country, oftentimes as an ad "signed" or endorsed by individual power companies like Paul Smith's Electric and Power Company of Au Sable Forks, New York, the Montana Power Company, the Potomac Light and Power Company of West Virginia, the Iowa Public Service Company, the Carolina Light and Power Company of North Carolina, the Montana-Dakota Utilities Company, Potomac Edison of Maryland, and the Kentucky Power Company. Most of these printings date to the first half of the 1960s, but the P&PC interns have found at least two ads—for the Montana Power Company and the Potomac Light and Power Company—that date to 1950. In other words, this was one heckuva widely distributed poem that, much to its distributors' chagrin, was (a la Ezra Pound) "news that stayed news."

"The Story of Ten Little Free Workers" wasn't Reddy Kilowatt's first or only appearance in poetry, however. As the comic panel pictured above illustrates, Reddy also talked in rhyme: "My name is Reddy Kilowatt! / You'd be surprised at all I've got / and all the things that I can do / if put to work by men like you!" It's as if, in singing his own body electric, Reddy's language generates more power via the dynamics of resistance and flow in poetic form. While we in the P&PC office can be many things to many people, we're not electricians, but we bet that an electrician could explain how the relationship between voltage, current, and resistance might map quite fittingly (syntax, line break, rhyme?) onto the poetics of Reddy's speech. Consider, if you will, the poem "Reddy Says," printed on the reverse side of a late 1950s or early 1960s package containing a glow-in-the-dark Reddy Kilowatt business card holder:

I'm a real live wire—
and I never tire,—
Yes Sir! I'm a
red hot shot.
I can cook your meals,—
turn the fact-ry wheels
'cause I'm

When you toast your toast—
or you roast your roast,—
it is I who makes 'em hot.
I'm in your TV set—
with ev-ry show you get,—
'cause I'm

I wash and dry your clothes,—
play your radios,—
I can heat your coffee pot.
I am always there—
with lots of pow'r to spare,—
'cause I'm

Were it not for the fact that he can "turn the fact-ry wheels," Reddy seems like the perfect little homemaker, doesn't he? He cooks, makes coffee, does the laundry, and makes sure that home appliances are up to snuff. But what intrigues us about "Reddy Says" more than its content is all the extra punctuation (the comma followed by a dash) at the line breaks as well as the elided letters in "pow'r," "ev-ry," and "fact-ry" that not only add a pleasing vernacular to Reddy's speech but also lend it a certain extra charge consistent with Reddy's self description as a "live wire." Are we crazy, or can we read Reddy's poetic lines as power lines as well? All those dashes certainly look like live wires to us.

From newspaper ad and flier, to business card holder and (see the image just above) souvenir stick-pin, Reddy's place in mid-century American life was brokered by poem after poem. To understand just how consistently this was the case, one only has to look at an April 18, 1947, bill for the Public Service Company of New Hampshire (pictured here) in which Reddy comes out of a wall socket to explain the "charge" for his services:

One full month I've labored
And this is all my pay
Divide this sum by thirty—
See how cheap I worked each day.

By portraying Reddy as a laborer, this rhyme in a sense returns us to the political agenda of "The Story of Ten Little Free Workers" presented earlier. Freed from the "fixed rate" imposed by the "socialist" government in "The Story of Ten Little Free Workers," Reddy demonstrates for Don Draper-types and their neighbors not just the benefits of private power companies and their cheap labor (Reddy makes about twenty cents per day) but also just how darn happy people can be when working for mere pennies a day. Of course, as we all know, converting the physical phenomenon of electricity into the jolly humanoid worker Reddy works to obscure all of the real people working at power plants and the subject of how much they actually get paid. For most of us, that tactic is not a surprise. What might be more, uh, shocking is the role that poetry played in the process.