Union Made

The music made inside Velasco's bar in Florissant is both defiant and relaxed

Nov 29, 2000 at 4:00 am
Most Friday and Saturday nights, the General sits at the long, dark counter, pushing quarters toward the barkeep for another draft. He used to come to Velasco's with his wife, but she passed on last year. The wait for a beer isn't long; the bitter November wind has kept all but the most regular regulars home.

"The first time I came to this bar was 74 years ago," Pershing Henderson says. He's told the story before, and the usual crowd knows it line for line. "My grandfather and me rode up in a horse and buggy. The road was cinder back then; all the other roads were dirt."

Velasco's Saloon, on the corner of St. Francois and Rue St. Pierre in the historic district of Florissant, was then called Weidender's Tavern. The small, ivy-covered beer joint has been open since 1900, and the General confirms that Harry Truman once delivered a speech at the end of the bar. Ceramic beer steins line the shelves; antique campaign buttons (from both parties) hang, framed, beside a photo of a 1955 baseball team. Ask the General, and he'll tell you he pitched that team to a minor-league championship.

As far back as you go, country music, like Velasco's Saloon, is white and working-class. Most Friday and Saturday nights, Derek Morgan, Ron Kopp and John Copeland gather with their wives, friends and fellow musicians to pick and sing country songs like "Crying My Heart Out Over You," "The Cold Hard Facts of Life," "City of New Orleans" or a parody of Randy Travis' hit "Diggin' Up Bones" in which the singer gets over a broken heart by trying on his wife's lingerie. As the bar fills with laughter and smoke, they sing union songs, pop standards and rock & roll. Morgan bounces from guitar to Dobro to banjo and challenges Kopp to run through the theme from Deliverance. The mood is rowdy but jocular, even giddy, at times. Owner Andy Velasco blurts out an epithet intended as a joke, but few seem to hear him. Amid the chaos, there's music to be made. Whether in response or not, Morgan leads the group through the night's most soulful number: Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home to Me." It's best not to read too deeply into these matters -- or perhaps one can't read deeply enough.

Morgan, Kopp and Copeland were all born in 1941; their deeper bond is the music in their blood and bones. "My friend Jimmy Hendel and I used to follow Ike and Tina Turner around," Kopp says. "We liked his band a lot. We'd go over to Ike's house, and he'd teach us different things on the guitar and piano. That was back when they were local, living over in East St. Louis. Ike would bring us into the clubs he played at and made sure we got in and out OK."

Kopp and Morgan first met up around 1960. They played together for a year-and-half but lost track of each other when Kopp took to driving trucks full-time. "We got back together three years ago at Velasco's," Kopp says. "I hadn't seen Derek in about 30 years. I thought he went back to England."

Derek Morgan, the de facto ring leader of the Velasco jam sessions, comes from working-class Liverpool stock. "When I emigrated from England to America, I was 15. Back in England, I just loved Hank Williams, Slim Whitman and Tennessee Ernie Ford, but I didn't play guitar until I came to the States. In the summer of 1957, I learned my first chords on the guitar from a lady named Jackie Horton. There was a neighbor of hers that played the Dobro -- he was from Kentucky -- and he showed me some more chords. It was pretty much established at that point that I was going to play music."

For Morgan, work and music form a single, passionate dedication: "I have spent most of my working life at McDonnell Douglas, where I was an elected union official. Organized labor has always utilized song, and at that time the International Association of Machinists was a million members strong. Whenever I was sent to a conference, the order of the day was that I had to have a guitar. After the work, we would gather, and I would entertain."

Like Pete Seeger or even Woody Guthrie, Morgan has sung for and about working people all his adult life. His natural ebullience and clear-eyed conviction in himself and his beliefs ring out in every furious, pistonlike strum, in the urgency he lends to every sung line. He and his guitar have played for unions, at their conventions and for their strikers, in England, Ireland, Scotland, Australia and Mexico and throughout the United States. In 1989, he performed for the Labor Heritage Foundation; there he met and played with Pete Seeger for the first time.

"He just opened himself," Morgan says of Seeger. "He said, "Let's play.' So we did. There's a series of photographs of the two of us facing each other on concrete benches, playing to each other. The people gathered 'round us. My wife always likes to say it was like a love affair that occurred at that moment, between two men and their music."

The principal document of Morgan's working-class country music can be found on one tape, long out of print but well-known among the rank and file of the International Association of Machinists. "There are few places that have an IAM local that wouldn't know Derek Morgan," he says. The cassette includes tunes written by Morgan and friend Robert Harris, songs like "Rosie the Riveter," "The Tool Maker" and "The Drug Test."

I moved to the country a long time ago

I thought the whole world would just let me be

It's a sack of wet cement

When the boss and the government

Go nosing around in your pee

If that hilarious story is the most-requested song at Velasco's, the music Morgan, Kopp, Copeland and friends make every weekend transcends satire. On instrumentals like "Nervous Breakdown" and "Orange Blossom Special," the reticent Copeland finally lets his fiddle ring out, and you wonder why he's been holding back for so long. "If John were to leave," Morgan says of Copeland, "that would pretty much close me down." Copeland's tone and timing are exquisite, and the band seems to find itself in the sounds of his old fiddle. At this point, the music owes less to what the players have learned of their instruments -- which is surely considerable -- and more to what they've learned from life. The music made at Velasco's comes from the heart, but what do we know, finally, of any man's heart? All we have is the work he does, the songs he sings, the stories left behind in the smoke.

"You can be successful in many ways without having had success," Morgan says. "I'm known in many places, and I love knowing that. Whatever talent I have is God-given. I didn't just go out and buy it; I couldn't get it by other means. That's why I want to give it back. In the course of doing that, hopefully, I leave a little mark somewhere. You find out as you go down the road that maybe you have."