Sunday, November 19, 2017

Woodyfest #3, It's Up to Us

July's Woody Guthrie Folk Festival presentation on Daniel Wolff's book, Grown-Up Anger: The Connected Mysteries of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Calumet Massacre of 1913, took place on the front porch of the replica Guthrie family home in the Okemah Historical Society. The setting was entirely appropriate. For an hour, Wolff, Pastures of Plenty editor Dave Marsh and musicians Chris Buhalis and Michael Fracasso discussed what Marsh called the focus of Wolff’s book, “How do all these people fit inside that one question that animates ‘Like a Rolling Stone,” ‘how does it feel’? The answers came from somewhere near that front porch, Guthrie only being a year old when the events behind his “1913 Massacre” took place. The answers also came from each individual history in Wolff’s book, on that porch and in that room.                         

               Wolff started the talk the way the book starts, considering why his 13-year old self responded to the anger he heard in “Like a Rolling Stone.” He knew the world wasn’t fair, it wasn’t just, and he heard the appropriate response in that song. His book recalls the inadequate answers adults would give him to the questions of the day, “’Sure the present system is messed up,’ some grown-up would say in a sympathetic voice, ‘but it’s still the best that . . . .’ And so on, and so on, til I just wanted to change the channel.”
                Marsh’s talk began with the contrast between his background and Wolff’s, which in some ways paralleled the distinctions between Guthrie’s Oklahoman ‘middle class’ roots in the early decades of the century and Dylan’s more comfortable background in the middle of the century. Wolff’s father was a commuter who took the train into the city, and Marsh’s father was a conductor who carried commuters. What they shared, and what Guthrie and Dylan shared, was a sense of loneliness, even though Guthrie had a sense of community that sprung from the labor movements still alive in his day, and Dylan struggled to find community in the post-McCarthy era of his career.
                Once, when Marsh asked his mother about his grandfather’s politics (he lived on the other side of the Upper Peninsula from Calumet), she replied, “A lot like yours.” She then helped him piece together a story from his youth when he first met his Uncle Elgin on his grandparents’ farm. Elgin showed up one day looking for his grandfather, and Marsh remembered his grandmother dropping whatever was in her hands. She told her grandson, “Those two haven’t talked to each other in forty years.”   
During a railroad strike that would help ignite the anticommunist Palmer raids of the 1920s, Marsh’s great uncle crossed the picket. His grandfather painted his brother’s name on the side of a boxcar, calling him a scab, and rolled it down a hill so that the whole town would know. With this, Marsh underscored the importance of all that seemingly small stuff that people do because they don’t have control, want control and feel isolated.
This set up Michael Fracasso singing “1913 Massacre,” but he didn’t just start singing. He also began with his roots. Fracasso explained that this song always hit home because his father was a steelworker in Ohio, and Christmas time was always a special childhood memory for him. The workers would have a big Christmas party and all of the kids would get “a bag of candy with maybe a toy inside.” This is the setting for the song, described so eloquently in Wolff’s book, about just such a happy moment destroyed by “copper boss thugs” who shout fire into Calumet’s Italian Hall during the party and then hold the doors shut while seventy three partygoers suffocated and were trampled in the panic that followed. Listening to Fracasso’s sweet, heartrending vocals, it’s hard to imagine anyone speaking more forcefully for the fifty-nine children in that number killed on what should be one of the happiest nights of their young lives.
                Buhalis then sang Dylan’s version of the same tune, “Song to Woody.” With a nod to Fracasso, he also recalled the stockings of candy at the Christmas parties he went to as the son of a Detroit ironworker. As Fracasso had done with “1913 Massacre,” Buhalis personalized his tribute to Guthrie as well as “Cisco and Sonny and Leadbelly, too, all the good people who traveled with you.” The intensity of his voice told of the struggle to find a place to stand in a world that “seems like it’s dying but it’s hardly been born.” 
                After some discussion of Dylan’s question—what do we do today as opposed to what made sense in the past—Buhalis sang Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson’s “Joe Hill,” the tribute to the great folksinger martyred in 1915, a song that insists Joe Hill isn’t dead. It’s hard to imagine a sound more convincing than Buhalis’s plainspoken baritone, but after the song ended, he admitted he struggled with the “ridiculous optimism” over those sorts of labor songs, those ones about winning in the face of one hard loss after another. Buhalis added, “I know it’s metaphorical—“
                To which Marsh responded, “It’s musical too….I mean, you’re only about 3/4ths from putting Jimmy LaFave in the room.”
                “No,” Chris nodded, “Jimmy LaFave’s in the room.”
                For those who might not know (and unfortunately, that’s most of the world), Jimmy LaFave was a great Texas-born/Oklahoma-formed songwriter who was unrivaled as an interpreter of just about anyone he set out to interpret, but for our purposes, it’s easy to say he was unmatched for the way he made Guthrie and Dylan his own. He was a dear friend to the members of this discussion, performing with Buhalis and Fracasso many times, and he'd only just died two months before Woodyfest.
                Marsh continued, “I was thinking about that as you sang the song today. I never heard Joe Hill that way . . . the understanding that there are people that this will happen to in any person’s lifetime, and it isn’t because Joe Hill was a hero (although he WAS a hero), it’s because….Martin Luther King said that the problem with communism was that it forgot that life is individual and….”
                At this moment, Marsh choked up a little, thinking of LaFave. “Shouldn’t have brought up Jimmy,” he said.
                He went on. “The problem of capitalism is that it forgets that life is collective . . . . and everything my brothers have been saying today, and everything this festival’s about, that’s what it says”—Life is collective.
                Fracasso then delivered a gorgeous reading of Dylan’s “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine.” The inescapably vivid lyrics being “No martyrs among you now whom you can call your own. Go on your way accordingly, but know you’re not alone.” Wolff called it an answer to Joe Hill, reading his book’s opening John Berger quote, “How do the living live with the dead.”
                Wolff emphasized the point. “We continue to live with them. How do we do that? How do we honor them? How does this what I call ‘line of anger’ that goes back in time continue? And it was never easy. [He pointed at Buhalis.] As you say, Joe Hill didn’t have an easy route and neither did Woody Guthrie or a whole bunch of other people.”
                In that room, at that moment last July, Jimmy LaFave was, in fact, present, as was Joe Hill, as was Woody Guthrie, as were the seventy three whose Christmastime deaths inspired this particular cry. Dylan was there, too, as was every one of us who found our way down to Woody Guthrie’s hometown to celebrate the great collective fight for justice Guthrie’s career represents.
                The question how the living carry on that fight was indeed the question at the heart of it all. What worked for Guthrie, in the end, couldn’t work for Dylan, and Dylan’s lonesome search for meaningful community presaged the isolation that today threatens to swallow us whole even in the midst of intense political uproar. Talks like this are groundwork for further discussion on what to do with our anger and our desire for justice when the world doesn’t look like it did in the past. The strategies and tactics are no easy prescription because they’re as individual and ever-changing as the lives we lead, but at least one point made that day is inescapable and, if we can grab hold of our own strength, inspiring.
                Recalling the moment the memory of Jimmy LaFave halted his speech, Marsh said, “You know, what I got so weepy about is the fact that it’s up to us.”

                Spurred on by Jimmy, Joe, Woody, Bob and all the others “who come with the dust and are gone with the wind,” no one left the room without feeling that call.

P.S. The video is on YouTube and well worth watching, here--