Friday, August 10, 2018

Grown Up Anger

Daniel Wolff, Grown Up Anger: The Connected Mysteries of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and the Calumet Massacre of 1913, (NY: Harper-Collins, 2017), $26.99

In Grown Up Anger author Daniel Wolff connects a labor history narrative with the evolution of mid 20th century protest music. As the title suggests, the labor history emphasizes the 1913 copper strike in Keweenaw County in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and the protest music discussion emphasizes the work of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. Woody Guthrie was born in 1912 while Bob Dylan was born in 1941, and so the music covers the depression era in the 1930’s into the modern era. There are 14 chapters with 259 pages.

It was not obvious to me how the title, Grown Up Anger, relates to labor history and protest music but Wolff uses the opening pages to explain his choice. “History happens in a classroom. I didn’t (voluntarily) approach the world that way.” Instead he connected through anger, “Specifically, the voice of Bob Dylan.” Wolff explains his feeling that Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” was the sound of unresolved anger, which “didn’t seem to need to justify itself.”

Since it was July 1965 and Wolff was thirteen years old, he felt adolescent anger that could not be discussed with dismissive adults; “If you did, you got a look that meant, ‘Oh, yes, you’re a child.’’ By now, 52 years later, looking back generates Grown Up Anger, which can be written down in articulate prose.

The remainder of Chapter One provides a reminiscence for 1960’s music and the Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie place in it. Wolff introduces the Guthrie song “1913 Massacre” that makes an early connection to the Keweenaw copper strike, a song I did not previously know about. Chapter 2 introduces more Bob Dylan biography; chapter 3 introduces more Woody Guthrie biography. Both chapters relate their early interest in music.

Chapter 4 narrates the early history of Keweenaw County, Michigan copper mining and union organizing, which picks up again and continues in chapters 7, 9, and 12. The history moves along to the December 24, 1913 Christmas party and the infamous “Massacre” that took place at Italian Hall in Calumet. I reviewed a book length account of the 1913 Keweenaw strike by Steve Lehto, Death’s Door on this blog. Death's Door Death's Door Lehto, Ella Reeve Bloor and Arthur Thurner are also important sources used in Wolff’s account.

The other chapters - 5, 6, 8, 10, 11, and 13 - return to narrate and analyze the music and careers of Guthrie and Dylan. We find out “both Guthrie and Dylan spent their childhoods in relatively prosperous, supportive, Middle American families.” Woody Guthrie and his cousin Jack Guthrie left Oklahoma for California looking for music careers. They succeeded getting a radio show and confronted the great “Okie” migration in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and In Dubious Battle in the process.

Dylan was 14 in 1955 when Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi and was already trying to express himself through music. He graduated from Hibbing High in 1959 and recalled “I just turned my back on it. It couldn’t give me anything.” He went to the University of Minnesota and then to New York to pursue music as a career.

While Dylan and Guthrie remain the central theme of the music narrative it wanders and weaves its way into a variety of related historical events and musical figures. There are composer-musicians, Earl Robinson, Paul Robeson, Lead Belly, Alan Lomax, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez; music groups, the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, the Weavers; agitators and activists, Upton Sinclair, Bill Haywood, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.; one composer-musician-activist Joe Hill. There are music titles and discussion of lyrics for many songs, especially Dylan and Guthrie songs and the songs of others that influenced them and of their influence on each other.

As the discussion moves along it mixes more with politics and political events; the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Communist purges of the 1940’s and early 1950’s. Suddenly lyrics were subversive and folk singers like Guthrie and the Weavers were denounced as Communists. Wolff describes the post 1955 folk revival and the Guthrie and Dylan part in it. The Dylan song “Like a Rolling Stone” has a suspicious connection to a doggerel poem composed by Joe Hill on the eve of his execution, or assassination as I would see it. The first stanza in his twelve line poem reads “My will is easy to decide. For there is nothing to divide. My kind don’t need to fuss and moan. Moss don’t grow to a rolling stone.”

A final chapter takes a driving tour through present day Keweenaw where copper mining ceased in 1968, fifty years ago. Wolff gives inequality data from 1913 and today and finds nothing has changed. The book ends with a brief allegory where the landscape beneath the surface in the world’s shell remains a molten core in a “kind of rage.” Enough said.

I cannot think of a comparable book, but that’s not a criticism. The narrative reads easily and chapter titles and divisions help move the story along. There are footnotes although they are not numbered but appear by the page rather than by number, which I don’t like. A bibliography includes some standard labor history books like Philip Foner, Jeremy Brecher, Melvin Dubofsky and Foster Rhea Dulles. I wonder about the audience that reads the book since I am guessing people interested in Guthrie and Dylan would not know much about strikes like the Keweenaw strike. In that way people interested in the music could get a first introduction to labor history. America would be better off if it knows more of its labor history. I predict it would create more Grown Up Anger.