Woody Guthrie and the Role of Aesthetics in a Radical Critique of Radicalism

WOO HOO! I could almost be a Ph.D. candidate with that title (or: “Queering the Folk”). I’m promoting a comment and response from my last post to a post of its own, because the comment helped me — as many comments do — develop my understanding of what I’m trying to say:

The comment, from Arevalo:
Good blogging, although I’m not sure vocal quality (or aesthetics) have a direct bearing on the “protest” value of a given song, by Woody Guthrie or anyone of his acolytes. I also think that there is a correlation between “lite-political”, that is, revolution and protest as quaint cultural artifacts from the 60s, and their eventual incorporation into the national mythology.

Ultimately, the failures of social movements are not because Woody or Pete sang them, with or without their “fellow travellers”, or with dry or melifluous voices, but because the struggle was defused by Capitalism (see the recent NYTimes article about Oakland’s “radicalism”).

My response:
Thanks. No, I was by no means saying a social movement failed because of how things were sung and who did the singing. I was saying that under certain, to me, bogus circumstances, the music can fail — for me — as anything: music, poetry, protest, whatever.

Although now the idea is starting to intrigue me, as I think about it here. Yes: I do think the “aesthetics,” in this case, reflect something deeper and more important politically than whether some music might be liked or disliked. Continue reading

Advertisements

(Last? Nah) Thoughts on Woody Guthrie

There’s an interesting but to me somewhat misconceived piece in yesterday’s Times about Woody Guthrie’s legacy. It’s true, as the writer begins by saying, and it’s worth pointing out any time, that when American intensity like Guthrie’s gets absorbed and glorified in certified culture — PBS pledge drives, postage stamps — all the “honoring” is really a cannibalizing destruction.

The only fix for that is to turn all that crap off and listen to the original work again. Which, with the “hundredth year” hoopla, I’ve been doing lately. And I always have thoughts on Woody, first and last, ever since I first took the scratched-up “Dust Bowl Ballads” LP out of the library in about 1972. I recently received the new, superb Smithsonian centenary collection as a birthday gift; I’ve been pondering its curators’ choices too.

And when I listen now, and when I have listened over these many years, I always find in the legacy of Guthrie’s protest — which the Times writer complains is too weak today — yet another pollution of Guthrie’s original art and of his original protest, if protest is what to call it.

Many of Guthrie’s anti-establishment songs really are great. Some really are not. But there’s no “legacy” in the kind of greatness that the great songs have. You can’t cop the content or the attitude and then make it your own, unless you’re another genius overly influenced by Guthrie; nobody but one person was ever that, and he outgrew the agit-prop mode, and outgrew imitation, a long time ago.

The beauty of Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” for example, has been sucked out of it by the protest people’s histrionic, crowd-pumping arranging. Here’s an admittedly extreme example, from Peter, Paul & Mary, of the revolting mode in which people have every reason to think the song naturally exists: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qUnvjYH9wK4.

You could say that’s the PBS-fund-drive version. And it is. But I think the style — though grotesquely in overdrive here — comes straight out of the rallying singalongs in which the song got framed up, to make it another “If I Had a Hammer,” in the 1950’s and ’60’s (and fed that way to some of us in school).

That is: the PBS mode is the protest mode. If you like that kind of thing, OK. For me, what feels like an injection of a certain falsely thrilling, overdetermined emotion robs the song of every bit of meaning.

To see what I mean, just return to one of Woody’s own renditions of the song. Continue reading

MLK on How to Protest

Here are some useful and to me refreshing tactical procedures from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” What’s weird is that some of them may sound, to today’s geared-up young protestor, wimpily moderate or even weak, compared to chanting stuff like “Whose park? Our park!” and making fantastical claims of utter revolution, etc. But King thoroughly and invigoratingly blasts moderation in other parts of the letter. And his stuff worked. Not much else ever has.

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.

…We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?”

In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.

These and other parts of the letter bring home to me what I think is a problem for the Occupy movement (along with not having or probably even believing in having leadership like King’s): what it’s trying to change doesn’t come down to an evil law that can be lovingly broken. The goal is vast, the necessary change systemic. That doesn’t make it impossible, but even Occupy’s indirect civil disobedience — sleeping in parks, etc. — they insist is not lawbreaking at all, loving or otherwise, as they believe the first amendment gives them an absolute right to be there; they say the city is breaking the law. (That, and/or some protesters simply glory in temporarily breaking the law, unlovingly. I remember having that feeling, in the same streets of New York, too well to comment cogently on it right now. It’s seriously stupid, probably unavoidable.)

Mutual defiance ensues. Debate ends up devolving on whether the city is acting illegally in trying to disperse them (of course many other people — equally members of “the people” — are enraged at the city for not having moved them out earlier); and then naturally on whether the police are acting illegally in using violent tactics. Connections to the original goal of the protest can only be made via the familiar, non-usable accusation that all of society, at every level, is evilly combined in a well-oiled machine to oppress, and so must be constantly opposed at every turn. . . . And we’re back to business as usual.

Anyway: I like “I don’t see no riot here!/Take off your riot gear!” I hate “Whose park? Our park!”