Really Apt, O’Gara

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Responding to my Lead Belly post, the highly alert James O’Gara brought up Joni Mitchell’s The Boho Dance. I hadn’t known of this song, or that Mitchell had weighed in on the perennial folk-music debate about authenticity—thanks James!

The songwriters and musicians of her world, and going back at least to the 1930s, were at pains to show their solidarity with “the woikas” (as my friend Bob Cohen has taught me to pronounce it). They identified with the oppressed, which leaves them vulnerable to the charge of not really being the oppressed but just posing.

And here comes the wickedly deft Mitchell, capturing that history in three minutes and 54 seconds. She sings of going “down in the cellar” to the “Boho zone” to hear live music. Alas it’s “just another hard time band with Negro affectations.”

Nor does she absolve herself. A Joni Mitchell-esque confession follows:

“I was a hopeful in rooms like this, when I was working cheap.” She tried to look scuffed up but anyone who looked closely would notice that “the cleaner’s press was in my jeans.”

The lyrics turn then to address some unnamed contemporary of hers:

“You couldn’t step outside the Boho dance now, even if good fortune allowed.”

Was it Neil Young? Tempting to guess, but it’s probably a composite of her intentionally dilapidated-looking friends. In any case, what better way to sum up the political Left’s well-known ambivalence toward success and individual distinction.

“It’s an old romance, the Boho dance; it hasn’t gone to sleep,” writes Joni Mitchell.

And it hasn’t since she wrote that song, which was in 1975.

 

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Steinbeck’s Synthetic Grapes

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Grapes of Wrath movieOne of the major social justice novels of the Depression era, The Grapes of Wrath, just turned 75.

National Public Radio commemorated this milestone.

John Steinbeck’s 1939 Dust Bowl epic about the Joad family was based on articles he wrote for the San Francisco News and the Nation on the plight of agricultural workers migrating from drought-ridden Oklahoma to California. It’s a crude monument to the New Deal, a saga heavy with Okie-approximating dialect that is interrupted by “interchapters,” or mini-editorials, on sharecropping, mechanization, and the rapacity of “the great owners” in whose hands massive wealth is concentrated. The landowners’ neglect of the migrants will bring “an upheaval” that takes their land away, unless the government steps in with ameliorating programs.

John Ford’s 1940 Hollywood adaptation, which naturally had to pare away all the sociopolitical apparatus, is widely acknowledged to be superior to the original.

Steinbeck’s novel, and the journalism that preceded it, relied on research reports from a colorful manager of a migrant camp in California, a Farm Security Administration official named Tom Collins. That was the unromantic truth discovered by Jackson J. Benson (writing on Steinbeck in the April 1976 issue of the Journal of Modern Literature). “Contrary to the story which has developed into a myth about the writing of The Grapes of Wrath,” wrote Benson, “Steinbeck never did travel to Oklahoma and then make a trip back to California with a migrant family.” This idea, he said, “came from two sources: first, the confusion of two different trips, and second, a bit of conscious deception by Steinbeck.”

Murray Kempton, in his classic study of communism and culture in the 1930s, mentioned Steinbeck as a practitioner of the “plebian fiction” of that day. But he highlighted the Communist Party’s dissatisfaction with Steinbeck’s work: In Dubious Battle (1936), about a fruit-pickers’ strike, was condemned by CP literati for not adhering to the Party’s formula of the proletarian novel. (The biblical references and Christ imagery in The Grapes of Wrath must have displeased them as well.)

Steinbeck did, though, take the Depression-era affect with him through life, always presenting himself as a writer in close contact with the downtrodden. It was a pose he labored to maintain in Travels with Charley: In Search of America. “Once a bum always a bum,” wrote Steinbeck in that much beloved 1962 travelogue, in which the celebrity author, then 58, supposedly plumbed the depths of the American soul.

He wrote the book after driving from New York to California and back in a camper with a poodle named Charley. The account was largely fictional, the reporter Bill Steigerwald revealed a couple of years ago. Encounters with fascinating people along the way were invented by Steinbeck, and his publisher expunged passages that would have made clear that this was no solitary immersion in America’s gritty reality but a scenic vacation with his third wife.

A Movie About Schactmanites Wouldn’t Be Generally Appealing

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Inside L.D. 2

The Folk Scare. There’s not much that’s political about Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers’ new movie about a folksinger in the early 1960s. A funny scene down at the Merchant Marine hiring hall has a stray joke about Schactmanites (a fractious faction of Marxists who rejected Stalin’s rule), but that’s about it.

The folksinger Llewyn Davis displays zero interest in being recruited into that obscure sect. For Dave Van Ronk, upon whom Davis is loosely based, politics were more interesting than that (if not quite as interesting as music). As the unofficial “mayor of MacDougal Street”—the title of his 2005 memoir, from which the Coens borrowed—he was an astute observer of what he playfully called “the great American folk scare.”

Van Ronk in doorway with cat

Van Ronk (1936-2002), a rescuer of old jazz, blues, and folk tunes, performed in Greenwich Village starting in 1957, and was a major tastemaker in a local music scene that caught on with college students across the country. He helped the aspiring musicians who flocked to his native New York, including a skinny, 19-year-old Minnesotan named Robert Zimmerman, who showed up in 1961.

By calling it “the great American folk scare,” Van Ronk intimates that musical bohemians and political radicals mixed in his world. Woody Guthrie and other Communist Party members who had launched a folk revival decades earlier were the elder statesmen when people like Van Ronk, and later Zimmerman (a.k.a. Bob Dylan), came along. The “message” songs sung by the CPers tried to promote the Revolution.

This was odd and amusing to the working-class Irish (with an admixture of Dutch) kid from the outer boroughs who, circa 1950, found music in Washington Square Park. On Sundays, the CPers would be out in force, sitting on the grass with “five-string banjos and nylon-strong guitars in hand, singing what they called ‘people’s songs.’ ” Adds Van Ronk:

“I remember once coming across a covey of them sitting cross-legged around a bespectacled banjoist who struck a dramatic chord and earnestly explained, ‘This is a song the workers sing when they’re oppressed.’ ”

His is not a systematic account, but the reader gathers that he floated through “a loose-knit anarchist group” or two, and the Young People’s Socialist League, before his participation apparently petered out. He describes public demonstrations against the Reds. The American Legion would organize people to picket outside the cabaret venues and concerts of performers identified as communists. These were dark times, says Van Ronk. Because communists were persecuted, he writes,

“I almost sympathized with them: I mean here you are, you’ve spent thirty or forty years of your life peddling poison that you thought was candy—think what that can do to somebody’s head. On the other hand, we could see what was happening in Eastern Europe, and many of us had also had our run-ins with authoritarian, Stalinist die-hards . . .  we knew them for the assholes they were.”

Speaking for himself and others—“we of the non-Communist left, whether we were revolutionary socialists or anarchists or whatever the hell we were calling ourselves that week”—he says that the anticommunists, “however loathsome and psychotic” they were, had “gotten one thing right: the CP was the American arm of Soviet foreign policy, no more, no less. They were stolid organization men.” So “even though we had a certain amount of admiration for the singers who stood up to the Red hunters, when you got right down to it we wanted very little to do with them.”

The film is not very Van Ronk, and this is true in ways beyond the political. He was charming, rugged, a font of musicological chatter. Joel and Ethan Coen have other fish to fry with their irascible yet soulful Welsh-Italian loner, Llewyn Davis. He is played by Oscar Isaac, who sings wonderfully—better than Van Ronk did. Van Ronk was the better guitarist. For interesting perspectives on the movie, see Sean Wilentz here and John Podhoretz here.

Below: On stage in New York City, 1974: Dennis Hopper, Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk

Dave Van Ronk (right) with Donovan and Dylan