Saturday, January 14, 2012

Bill Moyers and Michael Winship on Woody Guthrie, Music, and Healing the Rents in the American Soul

In the search for some good, some soul-sustaining, news as the week ends, I light on this Salon article by one of my favorite journalists, Bill Moyers, writing with Michael Winship.  About one of my favorite American song-writers, Woody Guthrie.  Moyers and Winship take hope from the fact that, in one of the most conservative states in the nation, Guthrie's native state of Oklahoma, his legacy will finally be commemorated with a new research center that will archive his papers and make them available to scholars from around the world.  

Moyers and Winship think that Woody Guthrie's significant contribution to American culture deserves to be celebrated more than ever, because, 

In an era of gross inequality there’s both irony and relevance in Woody Guthrie’s song [i.e., "This Land Is Your Land']. That “ribbon of highway” he made famous? It’s faded and fraying in disrepair, the nation’s infrastructure of roads and bridges, once one of our glories, now a shambles because fixing them would require spending money, raising taxes and pulling together. 
This land is mostly owned not by you and me but by the winner-take-all super rich who have bought up open spaces, built mega-mansions, turned vast acres into private vistas, and distanced themselves as far as they can from the common lot of working people –- the people Woody wrote and sang about.

This year is the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie's birth.  The centennial is being marked at the site with a daily link to a performance of one of his songs.  And something I didn't know until I began reading articles about Guthrie at this and other sites is that the tune for "This Land Is Your Land" is taken from a Baptist hymn that the Carter family had already adapted to secular lyrics.  And that Guthrie wrote the song because he was weary of the ersatz optimism of Kate Smith's rendition of "God Bless America"--a performance I remember well from my childhood, since Kate belted the song out on television every day as I prepared to head off to school when I was in first and second grade.

I was fascinated by the large lady with the massive voice, and would stand in front of the t.v. to watch her sing before I walked to school.  (So maybe that's when the gay began? Since my brother Simpson, who made the daily school trek with me when he reached first grade, was equally mesmerized by Tennessee Ernie Ford singing "Sixteen Tons" in his deep bass voice.  And though my brother followed me down the path to school each day, he definitely didn't follow me down the path to gayhood.  Perhaps Kate and Tennessee worked entirely different juju on their groups of impressionable young fans.)

I've been thinking quite a bit this week about music and the powerful influence it exercises in our lives.  As my postings of the past several days suggest, it hasn't been an easy week.  The theater of the absurd played out in each successive Republican race for the White House grows harder and harder to bear, I suspect, for many of us who are gay.  Hard to imagine they intend to try the bald, mean gay-baiting all over again.  Even harder to imagine that many of our fellow citizens keep falling for the song and dance.

And--again, no secret here, given my postings in the past week--when the gentlemen who claim to represent Jesus uniquely to my particular ecclesial community and who claim to have been lifted by ordination to an ontological status above that of lay folks not only collude with the bald, mean attacks on their gay brothers and sisters, but bless and urge them on: not easy to keep bearing up.  And to keep hope alive.

And so music: music plays a large role in the manuscripts on which I've been working for the book on which I'm collaborating.  I've spent the week re-reading and annotating the diary of Wilson Bachelor, the book's focus.  As I work, I'm struck by how important music was to him and his family--and why it held such importance.

For instance, in the entry he made in the diary on 11 August 1895, as he notes that his son (and namesake) Wilson had died on the 7th at the age of 31--the diary says that he was killed by "that evil destroyer (consumption)"--Dr. Bachelor laments that a "rent" had occurred in a family known as "the musical family," because music was a mainstay of their life and their gatherings.  As this diary entry indicates, family members played, variously, the organ, violin, guitar, and banjo, and at one level, the loss of Wilson, Jr., was the loss of an irreplaceable member of the family musical ensemble, because he was a skilled banjo player.

But then Dr. Bachelor goes on to conclude: though Wilson would be absent from all future family musical  gatherings, it would be the very music they played that would keep him alive.  And so,

But his actions and deeds Still live, So he is Still with us.  The Sound of music at the old homestead will always bring his memory fresh to our minds.

The diary persistently mentions specific pieces of music one or more members of the family played--or the sound of the violin and organ in the  parlor as Dr. Bachelor worked in his study.  In a number of cases, when it gives the specific title of a fiddle tune that Dr. Bachelor and his son Monroe played on summer evenings as the family gathered after chores, or at Christmas time, when they spent the day playing music while neighbors visited, I've been able to hunt up old recordings online of some of these tunes ("Katy Hill," for instance, and "Lost Indian"), and have listened to them as I worked.

The old-time music has soothed my soul as I've worked and fretted.  It has brought to life the people about whom I'm reading in the dusty old collection of diaries, essays, and letters with which I'm working.

And so I understand why Moyers and Winship take heart from the fact that Oklahoma will soon remember the legacy of its native son Woody Guthrie with a new archives.  If anything has the promise to heal the rents of the American soul at this point in history (and our souls are torn in two right now, with many of our religious leaders, who should be about healing, actively contributing to the rending), it may be music.

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