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The blog of the Alliance for American Manufacturing

Tim Blake lost his job because of China’s trade cheating — but he remembers the mill via his music.

Tim Blake would have made Woody Guthrie proud.

Blake is a veteran steelworker who was laid off in April after Republic Steel closed its steel mill in Lorain, Ohio. He had worked at the facility for 42 years but in his spare time he honed his craft of guitar playing, singing and songwriting.

Shortly after the steel mill closed, Blake released a YouTube video of “Take Another Route,” an introspective song he penned about the life of a steelworker.

The song evokes the spirit of the legendary Guthrie who often wrote about America’s workers. Among Guthrie’s vast repertoire were songs about men working with steel, including “Hard Travelin’,” “Pittsburgh Town,” and “John Henry” (the steel driving man).

Blake’s composition is a personal ode to the plant he toiled at for his entire adult life. It is heartfelt in describing the effects of being laid off and what happens to a community when a major employer eliminates its workforce.

Blake originally wrote the song in 1982, another time when American steel industry layoffs were rampant. Japan and other countries had an overcapacity of steel and began selling it in the American marketplace, causing a massive slowdown of United States steel mills. Thousands of workers were laid off.

Blake was out of a job for the better part of two years and had ample time to concentrate on his music. He eventually went back to work, but with the shutdown of the Republic Steel mill in Lorain, Blake realized it was time to re-release “Take Another Route.”

He knew he could reach a wider audience now that social media has become a part of everyday life.

“Yeah, I wrote this song actually in 1982,” said Blake. “The exact same story is repeating itself today, 34 years later.  I re-did the song a couple of times on different albums through the years but it’s still the exact same lyrics.”

The steel industry in America today is once again challenged with an influx of foreign steel, this time from China and its smaller country facilitators. Nearly 15,000 steelworkers have been laid off during the past year and many steel mills have been idled or permanently ceased operations.

Deep emotions from the layoffs played an integral part in Blake’s lyrics and he also wanted to acknowledge fellow steelworkers and his family history in the mill.

“I wrote the song when I was much younger, so in losing your job at that age, well, it’s quite a blow,” Blake said. “It’s quite a thing to recover from and I just remember being very emotional about it. Friends were leaving town, lifelong friends, because they had to take another route. They had to find another job someplace. I just remember it being a very emotional time I my life and that’s where the song came from.”

A Life of Steel — and Music

Blake was a third generation steelworker. Featured in the video are photographs of his grandfather, who worked more than 40 years at the mill and his father, who worked at the Lorain steel compound for 44 years. By the time his son, Matt, reached working age, the Lorain steel jobs had dried up.

“There were no jobs for young people in the steel industry. Us older guys were barely hanging on ourselves,” Blake said. “But I made sure four generations of our family were included in the steel industry by having my son sing on the video.”

Blake was born and raised in Lorain, which is approximately 30 miles west of Cleveland. He has continued to live in what is known as “The International City” his entire life. He has been able to provide a comfortable, middle-class life for his wife, Karen, and children, Jennie and Matt.

But Lorain lost its manufacturing might with the closing of Republic Steel and the massive slowdown at the nearby U.S. Steel tubular mill, where only 184 workers remain on the payroll. Both mills are located on adjacent properties along the banks of the Black River where the complex was once wholly owned by U.S. Steel.

“The Ford plant here has closed, the Gypsum plant has closed and of all the major industry that was here, maybe just 10 percent is left,” Blake said. “A lot of manufacturing left. And there are the offshoot businesses, too. The lady making coffee across the street loses her job. It boils down to her. It boils down to every one of us.”

When Blake was hired in 1974 at what was then U.S. Steel, there were more than 10,000 workers at the rolled and tubular steel facility. During his last month of work in March 2016 there were just 150 steelworkers remaining at the rolled steel plant who were working only when there were orders to fill.

"The reason I did this is because I wanted to not forget about why I’m here. I’m here because people came from Europe and met each other here as they came to work in the steel mill." Tim Blake

“I started at the steel mill when I was 18,” said the 60-year-old Blake. “I went for summer help and I ended up being summer help for 42 years.

“I’ve been lucky and I don’t hold any bitterness because how many jobs can you last at for 42 years. I didn’t quite make it as long as I would have liked but I did pretty good with it. I just think of foreign steel. Anything you talk about the steel industry in this country not being what it used to be can all be traced right back to foreign steel. That’s where it started from and I watched ours just go downhill because of that.

“I’m lucky to be able to do this. There are a lot of people that I see on a daily basis that I worked with who are doing different things and some are struggling. You’re not going to replace your steel mill job with a good-paying job because they are gone. Especially for older people. My point is that there are still a lot of people struggling and this entire town is going to struggle because of this.”

Blake began playing music at the age of 11 when his parents sent him to accordion lessons. His father’s family came from Poland to work in the mill and his mother’s parents migrated from Hungary to work in the mill. Like many of the Eastern Europeans who came to America to work in the steel mills and auto factories, Blake’s parents wanted him to master the accordion so he could play polka music.

“I actually learned music on the accordion and I transposed it myself,” Blake said. “I saved up money, went out and bought a guitar, which was against my parents’ better judgement at that time because they paid for accordion lessons and wanted me to play in a polka band. So I taught myself how to play guitar and I loved it. I couldn’t put it down. By the late ‘60s and early ‘70s I started playing quite a bit of music on the guitar.

“The old folk musicians and Woody Guthrie is where it really goes down to. That was some pretty powerful music back then.”

Blake has a busy schedule of gigs at venues in Northeast Ohio and along Lake Erie from Cleveland to Toledo. He is accompanied by electric violinist Michelle George.

“The only reason Michelle wasn’t on the video is because I was in a hurry to get it out there. I just wanted to coincide it with the things happening at the mill in April. But we play the song live all the time and we get a great response. Michelle plays the violin on it which makes it even that much more heartfelt.

“I actually play all kinds of music now. We play rock, Cajun music, Irish music, alternative. We play just about everything.”

Everything includes many of the nearly 70 original songs he has written over the years. He has released three albums and plans on a more active performing career now that his steel mill days are over.

"Anything you talk about the steel industry in this country not being what it used to be can all be traced right back to foreign steel. That’s where it started from and I watched ours just go downhill because of that." Tim Blake

But Blake is not likely to stray too far from the impressions he inherited as a United Steelworker and the changes that have taken place in Lorain. A lyric from “Take Another Route” reflects his innermost feelings.

Cuz I guess that I was born with ore dust in my blood

There’s a part of me still in that factory

In writing “Take Another Route,” Blake wanted to pay tribute to his family’s history in the steel mill and make sure people didn’t forget how it all became possible.

“The reason I did this is because I wanted to not forget about why I’m here. I’m here because people came from Europe and met each other here as they came to work in the steel mill. That’s why a whole bunch of us in these Northern states are here. They came across the water to get a steel mill job or an auto industry job.

“That’s a big part of writing it, so we don’t forget why all this is here. It’s from our ancestors who worked hard with a lot less than we have right now. That’s why this whole town is here. That’s how Lorain started from people coming across the ocean. Life moves on, but we’re still here from it.”           


TAKE ANOTHER ROUTE

On the banks of the Black River  
Across the bridge and ‘round the bend
The old coal piles look like a mountain range
Where we used to hear train whistles blow
We used to see the sky aglow
And for years the old steel mill was my best friend

Like my Daddy and my Grandpa I worked those rolling mills
I remember all their stories very well
‘Bout the pumphouse quittin in the middle of the night
How they got it fixed before daylight
And the quittin time washroom tales that they’d tell

Now the iron gates are lockin up and leaving town
My last pay stub sits on the window sill
I’m playing my guitar and working in the bar
Cuz life goes on without the old steel mill
I’ll be getting along without making steel

Now things down on the south side Aren’t what they used to be
No midnight ladies waving strangers down
Cuz they’re buying up our factories and bringing steel from overseas
And turned their back on this hard working town

And it seems like only yesterday I was playing by your rules
Now it’s time for me to Take Another Route
Head south for the month of June  
Love my friends and write some tunes

But there’s still some things that I can’t figure out

Cuz I guess that I was born with ore dust in my blood
There’s a part of me still in that factory
And one thing that I’ve learned is just how fast things can turn
And just how many things I really need
I guess those gates were never meant for me

Now the iron gates are lockin up and leaving town
My last pay stub sits on the window sill
I’m playing my guitar and working in the bar
Cuz life goes on without the old steel mill
I’ll be getting along without making steel

Copyright © Tim Blake Music 2015

For additional information on Blake’s live performances visit www.timblakemusic.com or Tim Blake Band on Facebook.