26 maggio 2008

Kids can squawl: politics and poetics of Woody Guthrie's children songs

Relazione presentata al covnegno "woody Guthrie e la dignità dell'uomo", Bologna 20-22 magigo 2008

I’d like to start with a story. Many years ago, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, someone gave my seven-year old son a bound book with blank sheets. He immediately decided he was going to write a novel on it. The novel’s hero’s name was Otto, meaning eight: a grown-up version of himself. In the opening scene, Otto is frying a couple of eggs in a pan. Suddenly, the eggs start screaming: We don’t wanna be eaten, we don’t wanna be eaten… So Otto puts out the fire and puts away the pan.
After reading the manuscript, I interviewed the author. I asked, so, what does Otto do after he’s put the eggs away? Well, the author said, he gets other eggs and fries them. And did those eggs like to be eaten? No, he said; but they didn’t say anything.
The story immediately reminded me of the stories and songs in which Woody Guthrie taught the same moral, starting from the voice of children – from the unforgettable passage in which he describes his little daughter as a full-fledged “citizen” to the poems and rhymes in which children protest and get grown ups to give them what they want:
Kids can squawl
And kids can bawl
As long as the ants pack hayseeds
I like a kid that bawls real loud
And grows up a big loud lung
To walk up some pizzeldsyast Washington Office
And yell out so loud
Up and down them crackly halls
That they pass five or six laws that minute
By gollies
To give my kids whatever the heck he’s yelling for.
(Born to Win, 1949)

We want our freedom, and we want it now, sang the American civil rights movement. The voice of children raised in insistent demand is to Woody Guthrie the matrix of political protest and action: we want our rights, and we want them now.

I want my milk and I want it now
I want my milk and I want it now
My breast and, well, I want my bottle, both
And I want my milk and I want it now

I want my bath and I want it now
I want my bath and I want it now
Let it rain, let it pour, let me swim, let me float
I want my bath and I want it now…

The original flag of the American revolution was a coiled snake bearing the words “Don’t tread on me:” At the origins of rock and roll, stands Carl Perkins’ and Elvis Presley’s militant anthem, “Don’t step on my blue suede shoes.” And at the origins of Woody Guthrie’s education and teaching, sands a little song called “Don’t you push me down”.

Well, you can play with me
You can hold my hand
We can skip together
Down to the pretzel man
You can wear my mammy’s shoes
Put on my Daddy’s hat
You can even laugh at me
But don’t you push me down.
Don’t you push me, push me, push me
Don’t you push me down
Don’t you push me, push me, push me
Don’t you push me down.
You can play with me
We can play all day
You can use my dishes
If you’ll put them away
You can feed me apples
And oranges and plums
You can even wash my face
But don’t you push me down.
Don’t you push me, push me, push me…
You can play with me
We can build a house
You can take my ball
And bounce it all around
You can take my skates
And ride them all around
You can even get mad at me
But don’t you push me down.
Don’t you push me, push me, push me…

Don’t you push me down, because dust can’t kill me, and I ain’t gonna be treated this-a way. We are familiar with Woody Guthrie as the singer of uprooted farm workers and Dust Bowl migrants, the voice that tells from the inside and less rhetorically the story of the grapes of wrath – and we are familiar with Woody Guthrie as the singer of the beauty of his land and the anger against those who steal it and possess it. We think of Woody Guthrie as the singer of the American working class and its history, from Mother Bloor to Sacco and Vanzetti, from Ludlow to Calumet. Yet, his children’s songs are no less political and no less full of meaning and beauty than his ballads on the Dust Bowl or on Sacco and Vanzetti.
Woody Guthrie often puts on a child’s persona, as if to get back to basics, get rid of all unnecessary detours and complications, speak clear truths to power in the plain, common language of the West. There is a clarity of vision in this mask, an awareness that the roots of rebellion go back to a space before politics and ideology, but grow from a sense of the meaning of one’s presence in the world, from the awareness and affirmation of the self as a person with needs, wants and rights – and with a voice to claim them.
On the other hand, the individual pride and dignity of these songs are the source for a sense of communal solidarity. Woody Guthrie’s concept of a participatory democracy and of a labor commonwealth to come begins at home.

My daddy said
And my grandpa too
There’s work, work, work
For me to do.
I can paint my fence
Mow my lawn
But if we all work together
Well, it shouldn’t take long.

Woody Guthrie never forgets that the primary purpose of music is pleasure and community. “I don’t want to see you use my songs to divide nor split your school nor your family all apart. I mean, don’t just buy this records and take it home so your kids can listen to it while you go off and do something else” – which is what TV is mainly used for these days.
Let me make another digression, with another story about the way Woody Guthrie’s example helped me with my own children.. When he was barely two years old, my younger son was absolutely terrified of, and fascinated by, cars. The noise they made frightened him, and he was always worried that they might get off the road and invade his pedestrian space. So I took a page out of Woody’s book – after all, he had a song about cars – and made up a little rhyme – “parte la macchina, la macchina, la macchina…”. As in Woody’s children song, and in a lot of gospel songs, the song went on ad lib, with a verse for each member of the family: “la macchina di Matteo… la macchina di papà…” Turning his worries into song and ritual, and singing the song together, completely dissolved the child’s fear and allowed to cultivate his fascination instead.
In children, Woody Guthrie recognizes the multiple meanings of the word play – as music, as games, and as theater - and the connection between play, rhythm, and work. In one of his poems, he explains that the difference between himself and the poets of literature is his relation with time: unlike them, he cannot take time to look for the ideal word, to revise and hone every line. In the guise of an oral poet, Woody Guthrie’s way is “composition in performance”, or improvisation – and, again, he learns from children. Children, after all, are the ultimate bulwark of oral culture, all their performances are improvised and invented on the spot.
Like children, Woody Guthrie is intent on discovering language, like them he loves to play with the sheer sound and shape of words. Children are indeed discovering language, and to them language is a thing in itself. The use of repetition folds the words onto themselves, as if their most important meaning was the simple fact that they exist as sound. Words are words, the adjective confirms the noun as if seeking for the essential quality of the thing: “grassy grass grass”, “swimmy swim swim”, “wash-y wash wash”. And, of course, “dusty old dust.” Like a child, Woody Guthrie handles words, rolls them on his tongue, on his typewriter and his pencil, examines them as if they had just been invented, as if language were just emerging from the “semiotic” chaos of origins:

Howdy doozle doodle doozie Howji hijie heejie hojie, Howji hojie heejie hijie, Howjido, howjido, howjido, sir, Doodle doosie, howjido.

Yet, he doesn’t miss the opportunity of including a message, of peace and brotherhood, even in this small nonsense song: a welcome to every one, good or bad, friend or foe. Long as they’re human.

I stick out my little handTo ev'ry woman, kid and man And I shake it up and down, howjido, howjidoYes, I shake it up and down, howjido


Just as all fieldworkers and oral historians do, Woody Guthrie does not “give voice to the voiceless”: children, as he knows very well, are endowed with what Grace Paley called once “the loudest voice”, and they can squawl and bawl real loud. So, rather than “giving” gthem a voice they already have, woody Guthrie learns his own voice from listening to the voices around him. In one of his most eloquent essays, Woody Guthrie describes himself as a watcher and listener to the “people I owe”: “I remember your face as it was when I saw you. I hear your voice in its own loose words like it spoke when I heard it… I have heard a storm of words in me, enough to write several hundred songs and that many books. I know these words I hear are not my private property. I borrowed them from you, the same as I walked through the high winds and borrowed enough air to keep me moving.” In the same fashion, he watches and listens to children, learns from them, sets himself as a conduct, a mediator through which their words and songs are amplified, organized, and returned to them. Much in the fashion of what Gianni Bosio described as the “upside down intellectual”, bent not on teaching the masses but learning from them, and arming them with their own strength.

When these days come on which I am left entirely alone in the house with Cathy, Miss Stackabones, I’m whipped, I’m outwitted, our run, out classed, and out maneuvered. My mind leaves off where hers begins. My brain is no match for her with her sly and slick ways of making me do everything she wants me to do.
She sang songs while she drew her pictures after her paste was all gone, and forced me to take down the words as she sang them. I’ve got several hundred of her songs already written down. I’ve sold two albums of phonograph records of kids’ songs just by putting little tunes and guitar notes to her songs she sings. I’ve planned a twelve months’ concert tour of the dances of Cathy’s to be done by Marjorie (our mama), with two hours of Cathy’s songs (by me), and still I’ve not scratched the first crust of top dirt in her garden of the soul.

And this is “Miss Stackabones’ own song”, dutifully noted down by the listening musicians:
Write another song
Another song about
I ain’t got no home
What does this song tell
What does this song say?Read me this song?Hey daddy, what is this?
Aren’t you playing with me?

As he listens and learns from children, he also deconstructs the hierarchic relationship of adult and child. On the one hand, he is fascinated by how their absurd questions – “Why can't a mouse eat a streetcar? - suddenly turn into stringent denunciations of other absurdities: “What make the landlord take money?”. And his answer, I don’t know that one myself, places the all-knowing adult on the same level as the wondering child: why don’t you answer my questions? Because I don’t know the answers.
Soon as we begin to notice the presence of children – as voice, language, persona, people _ in Woody Guthrie’s songs and writings, we realize that there are all over. Half of Bound for Glory, for isntance, is about childhood:

The first people to hit town was the rig builders, cement men, carpenters, teamskinners, wild tribes of horse traders and gypsy wagons loaded full, and wheels breaking down; crooked gamblers, pimps, whores, dope fiends, and peddlers, stray musicians and street singers, preachers cussing about love and begging for tips on the street corners, Indians in dirty loud clothes chanting along the sidewalks with their kids crawling and playing in the filth and grime underfoot. People elbowed up and down the streets like a flood on the Canadian, and us kids would run and jump right in the middle of the crowds, and let them just sort of push us along a block or so, and play like we was floating down stream. Thousands of folks come to town to work, eat, sleep, celebrate, pray, cry, sing, talk, argue, and fight with the old settlers. [ Bound for Glory, 1943]

A long story about the experience of Woody Guthrie and his friends Cisco Houston and Jimmy Longhi after the Al lied landing in Sicily bears the title “Us Kids,” and is about the adventures of a band of children in the Sicilian hinterland d near Palermo. Some of his most memorable songs about anti-workers violence in American history - 1913 Massacre, Ludlow Massacre – are, ultimately, stories about the death of children. In country music, the pathetic death of children is a metaphor of existential injustice; Woody Guthrie placet this injustice in history as a metaphor of the violent injustice of capitalism. Yet, he does not forget that these are children an d their death – like his sister Clara’s, like his daughter Cathy Ann’s – is the ultimate absurdity.
This may be the reason why the folk revival generation of the 1960s - Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Mark Spoelstra (some of his spongs about children deserve a re-discovery), Richard Fariña, and Bob Dylan – were dubbed “Woody’s children.” After all, they positioned themselves, if not as children, certainly as a generation of youth: trust no one under thirty, they said. And the mage of the “children’s crusade” was much in evidence in places like Woodstock.
Bruce Springsteen has said once: “There is something in Woody Guthrie that doesn’t let you forget other people, that always makes you think of the next guy.” Springsteen’s The Ghost of Tom Joad is the last installment in the epic of Tom Joad, from John Steinbeck’s novel on to John Ford’s film, and Woody Guthrie’s Tom Joad in the Dust Bowl Ballads. Yet, Woody Guthrie changes the story significantly. In the novel, Tom Joad tells his mother that human beings are all part of “one big soul.” In his song, Woody Guthrie changes it and sins, “everybody might be one big soul.” Rather than the nostalgia of a lost golden age, Woody Guthrie envisions a future utopia to struggle for. We are not old people with a past to regret; rather, we are all children with a future ahead of us. And if we b awl and stamp our feet loud and hard enough, perhaps we won’t be fried and eaten for breakfast.

2 Comments:

Blogger Elisabetta said...

Ci sono autori italiani che hanno scritto per i bambini dei quali si può dire ciò che lei dice di Woody Guthrie.
C'è una letteratura per l'infanzia che racconta attraverso la lingua e la forza dei bambini. E sarebbe bello mettere insieme quella letteratura e questo Woodie Guthrie. In questi giorni la voce dei bambini e il loro senso di affermazione di se stessi e dei loro diritti diventa possibilità di salvezza da un paese che ha ratificato la Convenzione per i diritti dell'infanzia e che ora, negandoli, mostra la sua vera natura.

10:02 AM  
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3:33 AM  

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