Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Woody Guthrie sang about my family

Armed with little more than his acoustic guitar, upon which he famously wrote, “This Machine Kills Fascists,” Woody Guthrie traversed this nation singing his Dust Bowl ballads, proclaiming the struggles and the dignity of working people, giving a voice to the voiceless as they suffered through the Great Depression and the killing fields of World War II.

In telling the story of a nation he also told the story of my family.

My father was a card-carrying member of what newsman Tom Brokaw dubbed the Greatest Generation, the generation that endured a decade-long financial meltdown only to then do battle around the world with the evils of fascism. My father’s emotional wounds were deep, lasting and painful.

My paternal grandparents emigrated to the United States late in the 19th century from Croatia, becoming naturalized citizens and raising four daughters and a son. They met and married after meeting in the U.S. My grandfather labored in the frozen north of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula as a copper miner, dug coal in the pitch blackness of an Illinois coal mine and then walked behind a team of mules on a southeast Missouri hill country farm. 
Longing to see the sun and to keep my father out of the coal mines, my grandfather used the family savings to buy, sight unseen, a 120-acre farm in 1929 when my father was 15 years old. Then came the stock-market crash of 1929 and the failure of the local bank, wiping out the remainder of the family’s savings. Drought and unrelenting heat withered the crops in the field. Family legend has my grandfather standing in the field, shaking his fist at the sky and cursing that he had seen all the Goddamned sun he cared to see. 
My father quit school to take whatever jobs he could find to help the family, working on a railroad section gang, in a hide tannery and sorting metal in a scrap yard. He finally gained a measure of economic stability working in the steel mills of Gary, IN, and the factories of Detroit only to have the 20th century’s next great crisis, a world war against fascism, overtake him. My father enlisted in the U.S. Army shortly after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, not to return home until 1945 at war’s end. A Dear John letter from the girl back home who promised to wait for him ... his reward for serving overseas. 
As the postwar years rolled by, he became a changed man, given to unexpected and uncontrollable outbursts of rage, much of it directed toward his wife and only son. A concussive brain injury from the war had finally taken its toll. My dad was 41 years old when I was born, a huge generation gap that added complications to a father-son relationship torn asunder by his mental distress. 
My dad took over the farm from his aging parents after the war. I was born in the same farmhouse that my grandparents purchased in 1929. My early life was vastly different from many of my city-born contemporaries. An outhouse and outdoor rain barrel shower still stood in the backyard. My dad farmed with horse drawn implements that he converted to use with a green and yellow John Deere tractor. Fortunately, at least in my opinion, my father sold the family farm when I was 7 and we eventually moved into the city. 
I grew up listening to stories from my grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles about life during the Depression and the war. As a kid I sat mesmerized at family gatherings, listening to my dad and my four uncles spin their tales of struggling through the Depression, the war years and life in the aftermath of both cataclysmic events. They wore their eastern European lineage in their last names: Raukar, Lepold, Dobnikar and Becker. 
I sat in stunned silence listening to my uncle Teeny (short for his given name, Valentine) weep uncontrollably as he recounted hand-to-hand fighting against Japanese soldiers on a bloody island in the Pacific. My meek, mild-mannered Uncle Teeny, bossed around by a brassy, domineering wife, killed enemy soldiers with an entrenching tool! I never understood what Pearl Harbor meant to these men until the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. 
The life they lived was so different from mine. I may have been born in humble circumstances on the family farm, but that life was left behind as my dad parlayed hard work and talent into a successful remodeling and home building company. I came of age not wanting for any creature comfort. 
The art, music, literature and film of the 1930s and ‘40s has always fascinated me, not only as a historical perspective of our nation but also for the involvement of my grandparents and parents in those turbulent decades. Woody Guthrie lived through those times, roaming across the country, mingling with struggling working people just like my parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles.

I read the American Trilogy by John Dos Passos, Grapes of Wrath and In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck and Guthrie’s autobiography, Bound For Glory. (I have viewed the movie version with David Carradine several times). I have likely seen nearly every World War II movie of any consequence (and many that weren’t).

Guthrie and his fascist-killing machine

But it was Guthrie who held the greatest thrall for me. In the hundreds, perhaps thousands of songs he wrote he captured the ethos of a nation struggling with economic and natural disasters and a world war, along with issues of immigration, racism and elitism that still plague our society. (Donald Trump’s father was a target of one of Guthrie’s songs because of the elder Trump’s racist rental policies).

So I was especially thrilled to obtain through my record club, in the early 1970s, both volumes of the A Tribute To Woody Guthrie albums, live recordings of Guthrie’s music performed by the leading folk artists of the time, with prominent actors narrating between performances from a script, much of it containing Guthrie’s own words, written by Millard Lampell, who performed with Guthrie in the Almanac Singers.
Guthrie died of Huntington’s disease in 1967. A celebration of the man and his music was planned for two performances at New York’s Carnegie Hall on Jan. 20, 1968. Appearing on stage were Judy Collins, Jack Elliott, Arlo Guthrie, Richie Havens, Odetta, Tom Paxton, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, backed up by The Band. Backing musicians included Ry Cooder, Chris Ethridge and Gib Guilbeau. Actors Will Geer and Robert Ryan narrated. 
Both performances sold out within an hour, due in part to the announcement that Dylan, who had been absent from the stage since May 1966, was on the bill. The concert was taped off the Carnegie Hall house sound system. The tapes were stored, with no intent to release an album.

On Sept. 12, 1970, a second tribute show took place before 18,000 people at the Hollywood Bowl in California. Joan Baez, Jack Elliott, Arlo Guthrie, Odetta, Country Joe McDonald, Richie Havens, Earl Robinson and Pete Seeger performed. Peter Fonda joined Will Geer as narrators. In 1972, both shows were released on albums. Part 1 was issued by Columbia Records and Part II was released by Warner Bros. Records. The recordings were issued at cost and all performing artists waived royalties. Proceeds went into the non-profit Woody Guthrie Tribute Fund to establish a Woody Guthrie library in his hometown of Okemah, OK, a Woody Guthrie scholarship and for medical research into Huntington’s Disease.

The original albums I own are truncated versions of the two concerts. Over the years they have been repackaged into CDs. And a three-CD comprehensive box set now exists that includes two special-edition books. Beware!  It’s pricey.

In March 2019, PBS aired concert footage from the 1970 California show. The footage was missing and unedited until it was discovered a few months before the PBS airing. The raw footage of the Hollywood Bowl concert was supervised by Frederick Underhill (producer of Neil Young's Journey Through The Past film) and lead camerman David Myers (credits include Johnny Cash at San Quentin and Woodstock).
Many a time I sat in my room playing these albums back-to-back, reveling in the narrated passages, much of it in Guthrie’s own words, that linked and gave added meaning to the varied interpretations of Guthrie’s songs. 
Most poignant for me was Ramblin’ Jack Elliot’s version of “1913 Massacre,” which documents the deaths of 73 people, 59 of them children, on Dec. 24, 1913, at Italian Hall in Calumet, MI. More than 500 striking miners and their families gathered for a Christmas party on the hall’s second story. Someone yelled “fire!” People panicked, even though there was no fire, and rushed toward the steep stairway which led to the street entrance. They were crushed and suffocated on the stairs. It is not known who yelled out the false alarm, but it's long been suspected that the culprit was linked to mine owners trying to crush the miners, their union and the strike. The mining companies eventually succeeded in their war against the miners. 
My grandfather was a copper miner in Calumet, but he moved away to the coal fields of Illinois before the strike. My wife and I traveled to Calumet several years ago to learn about where my grandfather lived and worked. The mines closed decades ago but the history is preserved in the Keweenaw National Historical Park. The copper bosses owned everything and controlled almost every aspect of a miner’s life; the mining companies even had final say on how many and what type of churches were allowed. A fire department museum in Calumet contains the alarm box that was pulled in 1913 to alert the firefighters of the tragedy. Also preserved is the handwritten logbook noting the fire department callout. 
In February 2020, my daughters and I took a road trip -- the last trip anywhere before the pandemic shut everything down -- to Tulsa. While there, my 27-year-old millennials tolerated the old man touring the Woody Guthrie Center. Sitting on the porch of a reproduction sharecropper cabin wearing a pair of 3D hologram glasses to recreate a Depression-era dust storm was an incredible experience for them, bringing to life in virtual reality the Dirty Thirties. 
But it was still an abstract for them; their lives are so far removed from the world of my immediate ancestors. My daughters never met my grandparents or my parents; they were all long dead before my twins were born. (I married late in life, just like my dad and my grandfather.) They never saw the old farmhouse where I was born, never stood in a blacksmith shop watching pieces for an antiquated and broken farm implement being manufactured by hand, never milked a cow, never dragged a sack down rows of cotton until a blazing Missouri sun, never saw the shoulders of the roads white as snow from the cotton balls blown out of wagons taking the hand-picked white fluff to the local cotton gin. 
They didn’t even know that Woody Guthrie wrote “This Land Is Your Land,” the song every kid  sings in elementary-school music class. 
But that’s OK. In the 9/11 attacks they have their own Pearl Harbor, they have their own financial crisis (they graduated high school directly into the middle of the great recession) and their own worldwide war, the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. Here’s hoping they have their own Woody Guthrie. 
Radical actors: The three actors providing narration at the concerts all had liberal political affiliations. Peter Fonda in 1970 was riding high from the success of his counterculture movie hit Easy Rider. Robert Ryan was a pacifist who supported the ACLU, fought back against McCarthyism and even joined Steve Allen in forming the 1959 organization Committee For A SANE Nuclear Policy. Geer, best known for his Grandpa role on the TV series The Waltons, was a hardcore radical. He performed with Guthrie, was a member of the Communist Party and was blacklisted in the 1950s for refusing to testify before the House Committee On Un-American Activities. In 1934 Geer met Harry Hay, who became a homosexual activist. Geer and Hay were lovers, even though Geer was married to actress Herta Ware; he fathered three children. Interestingly, Ware is the granddaughter of Ella Reeve Bloor, also known as ”Mother Bloor,” a labor activist and a witness to the Italian Hall tragedy. Guthrie was inspired to write “1913 Massacre” after reading Bloor’s autobiography, We Are Many.

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