WOODY GUTHRIE LIVES
MORE THAN 500 musicians, scholars, writers, and fans gathered in Cleveland over the last weekend in September to pay tribute to Woody Guthrie. Hard Travelin' was a conference and a pair of benefit concerts to benefit the Woody Guthrie Archives in New York. Sponsored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Case Western Reserve University, it was--remarkably--the first event of its kind devoted to the singer; the concerts featured the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Ani DiFranco, Arlo Guthrie, and Indigo Girls, among others.
The events were at once timely -- if ever this country needed a revival of Guthrie's social principals, it's now--and anachronistic, because the chances of such a revival actually happening seem so godawfully slim. To wit: It wasn't until a panel discussion on Guthrie and race, in which critic Dave Marsh and University of Wisconsin Afro-American Studies professor Craig Werner tried in vain to convince Woody Guthrie biographer Joe Klein that racism is still the fundamental cancer eating away at American society, that most of the crowd first heard that just a week earlier, immigration officials around Cleveland had rounded up and deported dozens of migrant workers. And given Guthrie's commitment to the struggles of migrant workers in the 1930s and '40s, it was painfully ironic to wake up in the morning and find out that the immigration bill passed the U.S. Senate at roughly the same time we were listening to Alejandro Escovedo play "Deportee."
But if one of the lessons Guthrie taught us was to open our eyes to the struggles going on all around us, another was to be true to our own voices. So despite impressive performances by DiFranco (who opened the high-priced Sunday evening benefit at Severance Hall with a stunning, if overly somber version of "Do Re Mi"), Springsteen (whose own border songs draw much from Guthrie), and Woody's son Arlo (who spent most of the weekend humorously wrestling with his dad's legacy), Guthrie's legacy shone through brightest from less obvious sources. Saturday night's "hootenanny" at the Odeon club in Cleveland's warehouse district featured Texans Jimmy La Fave and Escovedo, whose version of "Deportees" carried far more weight than Springsteen's technically superior rendition the next night could. And then there was Dan Bern, a relatively unknown folkie who revoiced Guthrie's classic "Dust Bowl Disaster" as a song about the Oklahoma City bombing. He nailed it, too: the communal sense of horror, loss, and grief, and most strikingly, the hatred that spawned both the act itself and many Americans' racist assumptions about who the bombers would be. Sure it's a cliché, but Woody would have been proud.
So it's anybody's guess as to why Bern wasn't invited onstage Sunday night. The absence of Bern and other worthy but lesser-known artists meant that some crucial voices were missing from the stage--voices Guthrie surely would have wanted to include. Which is why that night's sing-along on "This Land is Your Land" rang faintly hollow, bringing a note of emptiness to what had otherwise been a fitting tribute to an American legend. (Eric Schumacher-Rasmussen)
GM SELL CRACK?
IF YOU WANT to rent Michael Moore's 1989 film breakthrough Roger & Me, you probably won't locate it in the documentary section of the local video store. Instead, this trenchant account of the economic and social unraveling of Moore's hometown of Flint, Michigan, sits on the shelves between the Ramones's Rock & Roll High School and the Marx Brother's Room Service in the middle of... the comedy section. General Motors withdraws 30,000 jobs from their corporate birth-site while crime, evictions, misery--and profits--soar. Oh, if you put it that way, I guess the movie is funny!
"Obviously there's humor in the film," Moore says on the phone, promoting his recently-released book Downsize This! Random Threats from an Unarmed American, "but [it's there] for a reason. The AP did this story on me last week: Professional Prankster Michael Moore! I said, boy, obviously they don't get what I'm up to. The humor, the satire is just a vehicle for me to express my anger--and behind all of this is a hell of a lot of substance... I don't like it being dismissed like that--oh, it's just a comedy--'cause then they don't have to say it's true."
Downsize This! continues Moore's trademark practice of translating "prank" into politics. His proposal to celebrate the anniversary of the L.A. Riots by burning Beverly Hills--("the rich have foolishly built you a free road that leads right to their neighborhoods!")--ends with a demand for "equal access [for African-Americans] to well-paying jobs, housing, health care, and movies other than just those from the Wayans brothers." The chapter titled "Why Doesn't GM Sell Crack" attacks the Inviolability-of-Capitalism mantra for unimpeded profit-mongering. Where Moore's prose imitates the avuncular affability of his screen persona, the book reveals the author to be one clever rhetorician.
Also a popular one. Much lefty journalism (this paper included) might be characterized as working to convert the choir. Meanwhile, Moore's desired audience--"a wide and a mainstream audience of average working or barely working Americans"--could wait a lifetime for an accessible compendium of The Bawdy Wit of Noam Chomsky. Yet last summer, anyone with a television could watch Crackers the Corporate Crime Fighting Chicken on Moore's T.V. Nation, exposing economic and environmental corruption in kabuki costume.
Taken in whole, Moore's oeuvre constitutes a kind of counter-propaganda, a transmission from behind enemy lines. While most mainstream media try to inculcate a passive consumerist stupor, Moore shakes the viewer awake. It is just another of the ironies of the disinformation age that the author employs the machinery of the media industry--Fox television, Random House books--to broadcast a call for its practical destruction. "I have to travel on roads that I don't own," Moore explains, "and try to avoid being shoved off those roads... Ultimately, they'll allow me to be there as long as there are millions of Americans who want to hear what I have to say."
Moore has almost nothing to say about the grim comedy passing for this season's presidential election--the inevitable ascension of the two-headed candidate Moore calls Billy Bob Dole Clinton. "It's very disappointing," he says, "and it will guarantee that we'll have the lowest turnout in any presidential election in recent memory. I don't think this election means much to anybody. It's kind of sad that in a country of 260 million people, these two guys are the best we can do... I honestly think people who choose not to vote at this point are committing an act of civil disobedience. It's not just apathy anymore." (Michael Tortorello) CP
Michael Moore introduces Roger & Me at the Oak Street Cinema Friday. See A-List. p.37, for detatils.
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