FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Dylan and Woody: Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad

Anger, when directed at injustice, is useful and important.  When it is placed in the hands of a writer as capable as Daniel Wolff, it becomes a thing of beauty.  Wolff’s most recent book,  Grown Up Anger: The Connected Mysteries of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Calumet Massacre of 1913 is that thing of beauty.  It is simultaneously a history of capitalism and labor organizing in the United States, a biography of Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, and a critical discussion of a number of songs composed and sung by these two American icons.  Like the road Guthrie and Dylan romanticized and wrote about, the author Wolff takes the reader through a winding landscape of labor unrest, capitalist greed, personal hardship and popular success.  It is a story familiar to many but told in a unique fashion that brings alive Dylan and Guthrie’s songs and the social and political context they are both informed by and inform.

Wolff begins the text with a recollection of his first hearing of Bob Dylan s masterful tune “Like a Rolling Stone,” but quickly shifts to Woody Guthrie’s poignant telling of a massacre of miners’ children in Calumet, Michigan in December 1913. Guthrie’s song, titled “1913 Massacre,” is the foundation on which the text is composed. As Wolff points out, the tune to “1913 Massacre” was appropriated by Bob Dylan for his song “Song to Woody.” That tune is the one of two original tunes (at least in terms of its lyrics) on Dylan’s first album. (The other is “Talkin’ New York.”) The rest of the album is made up of Dylan’s interpretations of various folk and country blues traditional songs. Although Dylan was considered a folksinger at least until 1965 when he released the albums Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, his first disc is arguably his only truly folk album.

As Wolff’s narrative unfolds, the reader finds themselves deep in a history rich in struggle.  The struggle is between the rich and the poor; the working class and the ruling class; the street and the entertainment business.  The protagonists include benevolent robber barons who paid reasonable wages and provided health care and education to the workers and their families; greedy owners who acted as if their riches were the result of their blessedness and hard work when in all honesty the hard work was that of their employees and the blessedness was nonexistent.  No matter what their approach, though, when the profits were down or the workers rose up, every capitalist called in the strikebreakers and men with weapons.  In short, it is the story of industrial capitalism in the USA.  It is a story often told, but rarely taught.  Never has it been relayed in the manner the reader discovers in Grown Up Anger.

What about the anger?  Why does the author include it in his title?  Let me go back to the beginning of the text, where the Wolff introduces his book and Dylan’s song “Like a Rolling Stone.”  After discussing his own anger as a thirteen year old in 1965 United States–a United States that was escalating an imperial war in Vietnam while trying to temper a just and justifiable rebellion of its dark-skinned citizens with guns and money–Wolff makes a simple one-line statement about Dylan’s tune.  “For all the singer’s humor and apparent ease,” he writes, “It was the sound of anger.”

When one is thirteen in modern civilization, one should be angry.  After all, the growing awareness that the world you’ve been living in is much crueler and meaner than you had previously believed either makes one depressed or angry.  If it doesn’t, you might be a psychopath.  Teenage anger is often misdirected.  All too often, that misdirection is inward, where one blames oneself for the realization that the world is troubled.  Wolff’s narrative provides an alternative.  Take that anger, he suggests, and turn it into grown-up anger, like Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, and use it to make the world a better place.

Grown-Up Anger takes the reader from Calumet, Michigan to Woodstock; from Carnegie Hall to Los Angeles; from Oklahoma to New York City; and from MIssissippi back to Calumet.  Its captivating tale is matched by a narrative style as easy as the road that stretches out ahead and as tight as the bonds the slavecatcher tightened around the runaway’s wrists.  Individual biographies intermingle with broad strokes of history and critical examinations of music and lyrics to create a book about song and hope, song and despair; capitalism and capitalists, working people and labor.  In writing this musical and political biography of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and capitalist America, Daniel Wolff has composed a text for the ages.

More articles by:

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

Weekend Edition
January 18, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Melvin Goodman
Star Wars Revisited: One More Nightmare From Trump
John Davis
“Weather Terrorism:” a National Emergency
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Sometimes an Establishment Hack is Just What You Need
Joshua Frank
Montana Public Schools Block Pro-LGBTQ Websites
Louisa Willcox
Sky Bears, Earth Bears: Finding and Losing True North
Robert Fisk
Bernie Sanders, Israel and the Middle East
Robert Fantina
Pompeo, the U.S. and Iran
David Rosen
The Biden Band-Aid: Will Democrats Contain the Insurgency?
Nick Pemberton
Human Trafficking Should Be Illegal
Steve Early - Suzanne Gordon
Did Donald Get The Memo? Trump’s VA Secretary Denounces ‘Veteran as Victim’ Stereotyping
Andrew Levine
The Tulsi Gabbard Factor
John W. Whitehead
The Danger Within: Border Patrol is Turning America into a Constitution-Free Zone
Dana E. Abizaid
Kafka’s Grave: a Pilgrimage in Prague
Rebecca Lee
Punishment Through Humiliation: Justice For Sexual Assault Survivors
Dahr Jamail
A Planet in Crisis: The Heat’s On Us
John Feffer
Trump Punts on Syria: The Forever War is Far From Over
Dave Lindorff
Shut Down the War Machine!
Glenn Sacks
LA Teachers’ Strike: Student Voices of the Los Angeles Education Revolt  
Mark Ashwill
The Metamorphosis of International Students Into Honorary US Nationalists: a View from Viet Nam
Ramzy Baroud
The Moral Travesty of Israel Seeking Arab, Iranian Money for its Alleged Nakba
Ron Jacobs
Allen Ginsberg Takes a Trip
Jake Johnston
Haiti by the Numbers
Binoy Kampmark
No-Confidence Survivor: Theresa May and Brexit
Victor Grossman
Red Flowers for Rosa and Karl
Cesar Chelala
President Donald Trump’s “Magical Realism”
Christopher Brauchli
An Education in Fraud
Paul Bentley
The Death Penalty for Canada’s Foreign Policy?
David Swanson
Top 10 Reasons Not to Love NATO
Louis Proyect
Breaking the Left’s Gay Taboo
Kani Xulam
A Saudi Teen and Freedom’s Shining Moment
Ralph Nader
Bar Barr or Regret this Dictatorial Attorney General
Jessicah Pierre
A Dream Deferred: MLK’s Dream of Economic Justice is Far From Reality
Edward J. Martin
Glossip v. Gross, the Eighth Amendment and the Torture Court of the United States
Chuck Collins
Shutdown Expands the Ranks of the “Underwater Nation”
Paul Edwards
War Whores
Peter Crowley
Outsourcing Still Affects Us: This and AI Worker Displacement Need Not be Inevitable
Alycee Lane
Trump’s Federal Government Shutdown and Unpaid Dishwashers
Martha Rosenberg
New Questions About Ritual Slaughter as Belgium Bans the Practice
Nicky Reid
Panarchy as Full Spectrum Intersectionality
Jill Richardson
Hollywood’s Fat Shaming is Getting Old
Nyla Ali Khan
A Woman’s Wide Sphere of Influence Within Folklore and Social Practices
Richard Klin
Dial Israel: Amos Oz, 1939-2018
David Rovics
Of Triggers and Bullets
David Yearsley
Bass on Top: the Genius of Paul Chambers
Elliot Sperber
Eddie Spaghetti’s Alphabet
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail