Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Myth, Truth, and Anger

Daniel Wolff examines how one tragedy in 1913 Calumet Michigan survived through the anger of topical folk music to be told by self-mythologized characters Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.

How we begin to understand the way Dylan, Guthrie, and this senseless Christmas Eve death of 73 men, women, and children at an Italian Hall in Calumet, Michigan are connected will probably depend on what we want to believe. The disaster, memorialized 28 years later by folk legend Woody Guthrie in the song “1913 Massacre”, followed the topical ballad tradition of both passively reporting on a news event and definitively taking sides. Which side are you on? The whole wide world is watching.

Such lines are mantras in a topical folk ballad. We bear witness in order to be those who remain standing to tell the story, 28 years later or a century after the fact. Guthrie’s song, recorded and released in 1941 for Mose Asch’s Folkways label, was a cornerstone in the enormous burst of activity from the singer. He would spend the ’40s building his legacy. By the end of the decade, facing diagnoses as varied as alcoholism, schizophrenia, and eventually (by 1952) the degenerative Huntington’s disease, Guthrie would fade from the spotlight and live the rest of his life in a series of psychiatric hospitals.

It’s within the context of what is commonly known — the rise and fall of Guthrie as a rambling tramp folk singer who brought “This Land Is Your Land” into the public consciousness and ushered in the folk revival of the late ’50s and early ’60s — that Daniel Wolff’s remarkable story unfolds. From its start, Grown-Up Anger: The Connected Mysteries of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Calumet Massacre of 1913 is about searching for direction, about starting to understand where to start. Wolff lays it out with his first five words: “I was thirteen and angry.”

That’s a possible starting point, but he doesn’t stay there. Like the best folk singers hopping off and on railroad cars destination anywhere, he knows there are options. We can start by talking about the geology of the copper mines in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We can start with anthropology and understand that Native Americans were mining the area 7,000 years ago. We can also start with economics, corporate malfeasance, the greed barons of Boston’s elite coming into Michigan and pushing capitalism at the expense of humanity.

Wolff understands that there are many options, but he knows anger is the most effective means to contextualize not only the factual connective tissue of young Dylan’s 19 January 1961 visit with Woody Guthrie at New Jersey’s Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, but the righteous anger that fueled the greatest folk songs. At 13, in 1965, a young Daniel Wolff found history boring. It was the angry sound of Dylan’s voice that floored him.

“Like A Rolling Stone” was anything but a folk song; loud, a melodious buzzsaw organ riff at its backbone, pistol-shot drum beats, and that voice which just three years earlier had been the standard-bearer of the earnest folk persona. Dylan had the look (unwashed face, tousled hair, plain and unassuming work shirt, dirty fingernails), the topical themes (about the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, about a pending apocalypse, about warmongers), and both the knowledge of and respect for tradition. With that as the foundation, for Wolff and so many others, “Like A Rolling Stone” was overwhelming: “The song amounted to a long, rich, unstoppable rant that kept rising in its intensity, as if whatever had pissed him off… wouldn’t quite die, needed another cut of the blade-and another.”

For a 13-year-old Wolff, and anybody else who heard that song in 1965, the anger was righteous and a perfect headlight for the proverbial ship, if you will, that so many adolescents have navigated through the dark waters of childhood. What’s on the other side? “I remember being told it was kind of cute how much I cared about rock and roll,” Wolff continues, and he embraces it. Obsessions are meant to be parsed through and exhaustively analyzed, and a music obsessive personalizes everything. Wolff notes that while it was easy to trace the roots of Guthrie in the way Dylan packaged himself, there were also major differences. Dylan coveted Guthrie’s earnestness, his ability to self-mythologize, his tendency to hide in what might now be termed “alternative facts”, but that’s where the connection ended. Guthrie had no repressed rock ‘n’ roll anger. Dylan may have been a folk acolyte who expertly absorbed (and perhaps shamelessly took) influences as his won, but he was as much a brother of the flamboyant Little Richard as he was a son of Guthrie.

Grown-Up Anger carefully unfolds like the layers of an onion. Jump to the end of the book, and Wolff goes back to Michigan and provides an image inside the earth: “…we plant our crops, bury our dead. This crust floats on… the earth’s mantle: a huge rocky shell… and inside the world’s shell is a molten core, a kind of rage.” It’s as simple as that. Anger is what begins and ends this book, but after it’s introduced Wolff gives us a picture of the author on the ’70s, searching for folk music clues through Guthrie’s son Arlo and his 1972 album Hobo’s Lullaby. It featured some originals, a popular cover of Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans”, and a cover of Guthrie’s “1913 Massacre”.

“The tune had this deep, understated sadness, but I didn’t understand why this massacre happened. Were the kids killed on purpose? And if it was murder-a mass murder, then — to what end? It had something to do, apparently, with greed and money.”

That has to be the point to great topical ballads, their primary mission statement. They’re journalistic in nature. They’re long, detailed accounts answering every identifiable question, but the singer aims towards something higher, a more profound truth. Dylan’s first original song “Song to Woody” took its melody from “1913 Massacre”, another strain of connective tissue between the young upstart and the folk legend. What constitutes originality is not so much absolute ownership of words and music so much as how ideas are adapted. How do themes mutate and transform from one generation to another?

In the driving direction of his narrative, like a train that makes no stops and understands exactly where it’s going, Wolff implicitly makes it clear that a necessary component of understanding folk music is a willingness to investigate the roots of song topics. As a social historian and critic whose mission is to bring disparate strands together in order to help us all make sense of what might seem chaotic, Wolff also understands that these songs aren’t primary source material. Were the 73 people killed in the Christmas Eve 1913 Italian Hall fire victims of corporate capitalist malfeasance, or could it simply be that the exits malfunctioned? Was the function hall poorly constructed?

Grown-Up Anger succeeds on many levels; as an examination of the self-mythologizing Guthrie, as yet another spotlight on how Hibbing, Minnesota’s Bobby Zimmerman escaped his past to reinvent himself as a lonesome hobo drifter only to maintain strong elements of the folk ethos throughout his career, and as a primer on the labor activists from pre-WWI America through the ’50s. The connections are hardly difficult to find. Ella Reeve “Mother” Bloor, the legendary American Activist and grandmother to actor Will Geer’s wife (Geer later best known as the grandfather in the 1970’s TV show The Waltons) was introduced to Guthrie in 1937. She tells the singer about Calumet, which (as Wolff puts it) “…will help Woody Guthrie understand who he is and what he wants.” For Daniel Wolff, the difficult and complex task of identifying these multiple strands of events and people is part of the job. That he does it so flawlessly and in such a compelling manner is what makes Grown-Up Anger so impressive.

At 57, Guthrie slipped through to the other side. By the time of his death, it can be argued that the last wave of mainstream popularity his brand of topical and sing along folk music conclusively died in July 1965 as well. That’s when his primary acolyte, Dylan, plugged in his electric guitar and fully embraced a rock ‘n’ roll persona. Most observers will take that as fact and just move on, but the truth is a little more complex. Dylan would perform with The Band at special memorial concerts for Guthrie in February 1968, singing rock versions of “I Ain’t Got No Home” and “Dear Mrs. Roosevelt”. He would appear in a 1988 PBS special tribute to Guthrie and Leadbelly, “Folkways: A Vision Shared”, singing “Pretty Boy Floyd”, Guthrie’s romanticized tribute to a bank robber as Robin Hood.

There are other tender, traditional Guthrie covers Dylan has performed on TV, including a 2009 performance of “Do Re Mi” featuring Van Dyke Parks on piano and Dylan on guitar used in the Howard Zinn A People’s History documentary. LikeaA Rolling Stone (1965) might seem to have been the death knell to the earnest folk music tradition, but that sensibility has never been far from Dylan’s mission.

The Labor Movement, so volatile and potentially revolutionary in pre-WWI America and forced underground during WWII, cut into strands of Communism, Socialism, and general anarchy. There are no more Mother Bloor or Mother Jones characters. We can’t help thinking that such events like Calumet could happen again. The misplaced anger of the managers and bosses towards workers whose spirit they’ll use to the last drop has manifested itself in outsourcing jobs, union-busting corporations like Wal-Mart, and the dead-end service industry. For Mother Bloor, “…the deaths were a deliberate act, a mass murder. Opponents of the strike… had been threatening to shut down the party. That’s who shouted ‘Fire!’ and that’s who held the exit doors shot from the outside.”

The only vestiges that remain after the deaths of the singers, labor leaders, and martyrs are the songs. Wolff knows that. He also knows that misdirected anger can be deadly. Grown-Up Anger, on the other hand, can create a masterpiece. Guthrie knew that with “1913 Massacre”, and Dylan’s sole live performance of it on 4 November 1961 at Carnegie Chapter Hall, was a faithful recreation of the original. The angry topical songs remain to tell the story. The masterful way Wolff approaches “Like a Rolling Stone” again reminds us that the labels “folk” or “protest” are not constrained by the framework of just one acoustic guitar, voice, and harmonica:

“This isn’t about labor history; the song has nothing to do with labor history. But the piano’s quick boogie-woogie shake is pissed at one class of people doing and the other just riding along, observing… this golden age, this prosperous status quo-has taken everything from you it could…”

Wolff’s Grown-Up Anger: The Connected Mysteries of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Calumet Massacre of 1913 is an essential addition to our ongoing and necessary fascination with American folk heroes, justice, and the many ways of telling and understanding the truth.