Steve Pellegrino grew up in the Mon Valley, and as a college kid studying theater worked summers on a labor gang at US Steel's Carrie Furnace. Today, the Oakland resident, 55, is a professional plasterer with a three-decade resume of experimental performances.
When he heard about plans to mark Pittsburgh's 250th anniversary, Pellegrino was unimpressed. "I knew it would be pabulum," he says -- happy-talk history that minimized the contributions of immigrant mill workers and other laborers, and plastered over their exploitation by the nominal Great Men whose names still adorn our institutions.
Solution: Celebrate one of local history's seeming losers, who made his mark opposing one such big shot. Thus was born the Alexander Berkman Memorial Music & Labor Festival. It's named for the prominent, Lithuanian-born anarchist who in 1892 tried and failed to assassinate Henry Clay Frick, whose hard line against labor had just precipitated the deadly clashes during the historic strike at Andrew Carnegie's Homestead works.
For extra ironic credit, the show, presented by Pellegrino's Loose Organization of Surreal Ethereal Realists (LOSER) collective, is staged on July 23 -- the shooting's 116th anniversary -- at the University of Pittsburgh's Frick Fine Arts Auditorium.
The program includes live music by locals including Underwater Culprit, House of Assassins and Maurice Rickard, with vintage labor songs by Smoke Stack Lightning. Original tunes by the accordion-wielding Pellegrino himself will include "Andrew Carnegie Was a Jagoff" and "For Whom the Bell Tolls," about the death of his wife's grandfather, a Scranton coal-miner. "It's the Ed Sullivan Show for labor music," says Pellegrino.
Indeed, no one need fear a somber festival. "In political situations, especially toward the left, everybody loses their sense of humor," says Pellegrino, whose recent productions have included the musical Shakespeare adaptation Drywall Macbeth. "I want everybody to have a sense of humor." The evening also includes a farcical re-enactment of the shooting (likely involving a cell phone) and a Berkman lookalike contest meant more to encourage period dress than to locate a posthumous body double for the author of Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist.
"I'm not condoning trying to kill somebody," says Pellegrino. "I just found it interesting that somebody was so incensed about what had been done to the workers, and what would be done to the workers, that he felt a righteous indignation to take matters into his own hands and execute someone who he thought deserved it."
Somewhat anarchically himself, Pellegrino isn't enforcing any party line on July 23. When one festival performer -- ace songwriter, guitarist and history buff Daryl Fleming -- asked, "Can I say something bad about the union [in a song]?" Pellegrino says, "I said, 'Yeah.'"
"Somebody," Pellegrino adds, "might do a song saying 'Frick was right'!"
-- Bill O'Driscoll
Alexander Berkman Memorial Music & Labor Festival 8 p.m. Wed., July 23. Frick Fine Arts Auditorium, Oakland. "Reasonable donation" requested. firstname.lastname@example.org