Joan of Arc
Flannery O’Connor and
To begin with.
Joan of Arc
Flannery O’Connor and
To begin with.
The closest I got to Woody Guthrie was the morning I quickly shuffled through his personal letters, while a vigilant lady kept a beady eye on me, in a small room in a New York office block.
The office belonged to Harold Leventhal – the legendary music manager who’d worked with Benny Goodman, Pete Seeger, and Guthrie himself. His staff had maintained the folksinger’s archive for decades after Guthrie’s death, and I visited there in 2003 to undertake some research as part of a writing project I’d planned.
My groundwork came to naught, but I did enjoy an hour immersed in manuscripts of Guthrie’s lyrics, letters, and notes (and briefly encountered Leventhal himself). Looking back, the ride up an old escalator to a small room in an ageing Midtown building was the culmination of a journey I’d been on for a few years.
Bruce Springsteen once commented that when he heard the opening of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ for the first time, “that snare shot…sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind”.
My snare shot was the first few fingerpicked bars of ‘This Land Is Your Land’, recorded by Guthrie in 1944 and which I heard for the first time – and listened to heavily afterwards – in my rented room on Cadogan Road in Dublin in the late 1990s.
Every verse hit home, not least the last:
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me
I’ve long since lost the CD that contained that track (and others, including a great Cisco Houston version of ‘Deportee’) – probably because I moved on from it so quickly. Within months, I’d picked up and devoured whatever budget-priced collections of Guthrie’s music I could afford.
Shortly afterwards, on a trip to New York, I came across a copy of ‘Bound For Glory’ at Biography Bookshop on Bleecker Street, five minutes’ walk from ‘Alamanac House’, the apartment Guthrie used as a writing space with Pete Seeger and others in the 1940s.
All the while, I played and sung Guthrie songs on my battered Hohner acoustic guitar – at parties in Dublin, at cook-outs on the shores of Lake Tahoe, and – an occasion which sticks out in my memory – far above New York’s pavements on the balcony of an Upper West Side apartment I crashed at on another brief visit to the city in the 90s.
So Woody Guthrie meant a lot to me back then. He still does – a small part of me takes heart in the fact that every time I see the mighty flow of water which runs 10 minutes from my home in Portland, my first thought is ‘Roll On, Columbia’.
Guthrie’s been back in my mind in recent days, as the 50th anniversary of his death approaches, next Tuesday.
I’ve also seen more of him in recent times – in the humanity displayed by those who comforted the dying and helped the survivors after the Las Vegas shooting, and in the actions of citizens helping one another in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
Like Guthrie’s writings, the practice of people simply helping one another – whether they be lifelong neighbors or complete strangers – stands in contrast to the rancor of partisan politics and the seemingly-constant slew of bad news.
Such actions, like the best of Woody Guthrie’s songs, offer hope.
As the folksinger himself wrote of his life’s work:
I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work.
So next Tuesday I’ll listen or strum a few, remember Woody, and keep the hoping machine running.
Amelia Earhart’s back in the news this week. Or rather, her disappearance is – an event that has sparked 80 years of speculation, books, films, and expeditions.
On the outer fringes of the Earhart story is a song written by Joni Mitchell, which came to mind this week as I squinted at a blurry picture, supposedly that of the American aviator on a wharf on an island in the South Pacific.
Is the shadowy image of a woman on the dock Earhart, last seen alive on July 2, 1937, some days before the picture was taken? Possibly, and possibly not. And so the mystery deepens.
In the absence of fact the fate of Earhart, if not the woman herself, has become a common property, open to scrutiny, interpretation, and debate.
As W.H. Auden would write, three years later, on the death of W.B. Yeats:
He became his admirers.
Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections
Among the interpreters, some 40 years after Earhart’s disappearance, was Mitchell. The Amelia of her composition is not only the missing pilot (a “ghost of aviation”), but also the songwriter herself. Earhart’s attempt to be fly around the world becomes Mitchell’s own bid for meaning, in life and in love:
People will tell you where they’ve gone
They’ll tell you where to go
But till you get there yourself you never really know…
Maybe I’ve never really loved
I guess that is the truth
I’ve spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitudes
Each verse of the song ends with refrain, “Amelia, it was just a false alarm” – a phrase whose ambiguity mirrors both the pursuit for the truth about Earhart’s disappearance, and Mitchell’s own disappointment, in the face of her life coming up short.
Fittingly, given the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s fate, this ambiguity extends into the final lines of Mitchell’s song:
I slept on the strange pillows of my wanderlust
I dreamed of 747s
Over geometric farms
Dreams Amelia – dreams and false alarms
Forty years later, the Earhart story still turns on those words: dreams, and false alarms.
Update – July 13, 2017: It appears that the ‘newly-discovered’ photograph may have been taken two years before Earhart disappeared, which debunks the claim that the woman in the image is the aviator. The Joni Mitchell song, however, remains as true as ever.
Mr. Deasy halted, breathing hard and swallowing his breath.
“- I just wanted to say,” he said. “Ireland, they say, has the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the jews. Do you know that? No. And do you know why?”
He frowned sternly on the bright air.
“- Why sir?” Stephen asked, beginning to smile.
“- Because she never let them in,” Mr. Deasy said solemnly.
By a curious twist I read these words this morning, on a day of protests and court applications and outrage in the United States.
They are from the ‘Nestor’ episode of James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses”, spoken to Stephen Dedalus by the small-minded headmaster Deasy. And spoken with great animation – Deasy has just chased a departing Dedalus to the school-gate to stress his anti-Semitic argument.
The words sum up a petty bigotry that, Joyce suggests, was to be found among sections of Dublin’s middle class a century ago. The sentiments can of course be found against another religion, in another country, 100 years later.
And so Joyce’s novel, published in 1922, is – among many other things – a fitting read for the times we’re in.
The book is a work of immigration. The author wrote it in self-imposed exile; having departed Dublin in 1904, his peripatetic lifestyle led him to Trieste, Zurich and Paris. One of the main reasons for this exile was the burgeoning Irish nationalist movement, nationalism being, as Dedalus famously points out to Deasy, one of “those big words…that make us so unhappy”.
Immigration, religion (another of Dedalus’ big words), and their effects down the generations are central to the novel, principally by way of Leopold Bloom. The book’s central character, Bloom is the son of a Hungarian Jew who emigrated to Ireland and converted to Protestantism.
Despite Bloom’s own conversion to Catholicism, he encounters an ingrained, nod-and-wink anti-Semitism as he navigates his way around Dublin on June 16, 1904. At one point The Citizen – a nationalist and xenophobe – talks, in Bloom’s company, of Jews “swindling peasants… and the poor of Ireland. We want no more strangers in our house”.
Bloom retains his composure in the face of such bigotry. His thinking, his behaviour, and his dignity represent Joyce’s riposte to the forces of religion, colonialism (by way of England) and nationalism.
Bloom is a true citizen, a pacifist, a Dubliner with a Jewish background, an individual who is a man first, an Irishman second. He may feel conflicted at times, but this is the price of his virtue of moderation.
Bloom doesn’t make an appearance in the ‘Nestor’ episode, and so does not hear his young friend Dedalus utter one of the most resonant lines in “Ulysses”:
History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.
As many might suggest, this can apply to the present too.
No choice but stand. Somehow up and stand. Somehow stand. That or groan. The groan so long on itsway. No. No groan. Simply pain. Simply up. A time when try how. Try see. Try say. How first it lay. Then somehow knelt. Bit by bit. Then on from there. Bit by bit. Till up at last. Not now. Fail better worse now.
You’ve probably come across the Samuel Beckett line, beloved of tech entrepreneurs and sports stars, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
You may not have come across the longer quotation above – unless you’re a fan of Beckett’s difficult late works. It’s from the same piece of writing, “Worstward Ho”, and comes a few lines after Richard Branson-esque earlier line.
Having despaired of a mantra with which to start 2016, last week I landed on the “fail better” line. Glib as it is, it struck me as having the right blend of hope and trepidation for a new year, given the year we’re departing and what we face in the coming weeks.
Then I delved a little deeper and came across the longer, “somehow up and stand” quote. It reflects the positivity of the shorter quote, with the addition of some cold reality.
Hopefully “fail better worse now” won’t be the final word on 2017 in 12 months time but, if it is, I can’t say that one of the 2oth century’s great absurdists didn’t warn me.
Until then, simply up. Happy New Year!
Amid the rancor, shock, violence and triumphalism of recent days I’ve been thinking about one American, whose vision of the country stands in bold relief to much of what I’ve read and heard in recent months.
Woody Guthrie wasn’t bound for glory as a progressive hero – not at first, paper at any rate. He was the son of a Texas landowner. His father was involved in the lynching of two people and was, Guthrie later alleged, a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
The young Woody would stand with his father while the latter, who was involved in 1920s Oklahoma politics as a conservative Democrat, gave stump speeches.
That’s where ‘official’ politics ended for Guthrie, however. In 1931, aged 19 and an aspiring songwriter, he set out from Texas for California. Over the next three decades he would travel and work all over the United States, appearing on radio in LA, recording for Moses Asch in New York City, and penning songs for the Bonneville Power Administration in Portland, Oregon.
In the process he would write hundreds of songs, including one about the father of our current President-Elect. More famously, his “This Land Is Your Land” has become something of an alternative national anthem. Other songs – “Do Re Mi”, “Pastures of Plenty”, “So Long It’s Been Good To Know Ya”, have seeped into the cultural consciousness.
This week, though, I’ve been listening to a song Guthrie wrote but never recorded. In January 1948 he read in the New York Times of a plane crash in the San Joaquin Valley in central California. Twenty-eight migrant farm workers, who were accompanied by four Americans, died when the plane transporting them back to Mexican crashed.
Outraged that the Times and radio reports named the deceased Americans but simply labelled the 28 workers “deportees”, Guthrie wrote his last great song, “Deportee“.
Among the song’s seven verses are the lines:
“Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,
Our work contract’s out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.”
Plus ca change. Guthrie’s pal Pete Seeger would later popularize “Deportee”, singing it at concerts. Dozens of others have since recorded it.
In a week when a 70-year-old song has become relevant again, when phrases like “great, great walls” and “11 million illegals” are bandied around with menace, it’s worth a listen.
What do Sully Prudhomme, Count Maurice (Mooris) Polidore Marie Bernhard Maeterlinck, Henrik Pontoppidan and Halldór Kiljan Laxness have in common?
Well, firstly they were all writers, though I confess to not having read any of them.
But they are also members of a select club, one which an ageing American musician joined this week (not that he had a choice in the matter).
Like Bob Dylan, they are all Nobel Prize winners for Literature. Unlike Bob Dylan, their work can hardly be considered popular consumption in 2016.
And yet at one time all were considered authors who produced “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”, as Alfred Nobel put it.
Of course, one man’s ideal direction can lead to another’s blind alley. Dylan’s elevation to the canon of literary greats speaks more about the Nobel Prize, and artistic awards in general, than it does about a 75-year-old’s musician’s creative output.
The hat-tip may have seemed revolutionary to subscribers of literary magazines but don’t the classic works of Greek tragedy – the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles or Euripides – have their roots in choral songs? Two thousand years later, weren’t the chanson de geste – the 13th century epic poems that laid the basis of French literature – sung, not read?
And now we argue about whether the author of ‘Wiggle Wiggle‘ deserves a spot at the table of greats?
As Dylan himself stated many lifetimes ago, when asked if he was “a singer or a poet”: “I think of myself more as a song and dance man”.
Which may explain why, as the critics got their quills in a twist this week, the songwriter was at the Chelsea Theatre in Las Vegas doing what he does, singing, dancing and making no reference to the world’s premier literary award.
He not busy being born and all that…
The greatest moment of one of Ireland’s greatest soccer performances wasn’t Robbie Brady’s goal, or the thousands of fans singing and crying in the Stade Pierre-Mauroy, or the sight of Irish president Michael D Higgins dancing for joy.
No. What mattered in Lille last Wednesday night took place seconds before Brady’s header hit the Italian net – a goal which settled a 26-year debt and put the Republic of Ireland through to the last 16 of the European Championship.
It was, instead, the millimetre-perfect cross delivered by Wes Hoolahan, a player who – seconds earlier – appeared to have scuffed a clear goal chance and, with it, a country’s hopes.
Running through with only the Italian ‘keeper to beat and all of Ireland on its feet, roaring him on, the 34-year-old misconnected with the ball, his timid effort coming off Salvatore Sirigu’s legs.
The horror of Hoolahan’s miss extended beyond the match, or even the tournament. This fluffed shot would haunt him down his years, an albatross around his neck of Ireland’s best player, his surname to be forever followed by the word ‘miss’. Even in the moment, it was hard not to feel sorry for him.
As Ireland collapsed to its knees the script appeared written. When it came to the big day the Irish had once more bottled it and, as soon as the final whistle sounded, we’d begin years of self-recrimination and rumination. Because the only thing that raises Irish blood more than a great victory is a sound defeat, a resounding fall.
Not this time. What happened next was a break from tradition, courtesy of the man who missed a minute before.
As the country, still open-mouthed, looked on Wes Hoolahan threw himself back into the game.
Extrapolating shifts in national consciousness from split-second events on a football pitch is an unsound practice. But given the once-in-an-era feel of the game, the way the Irish underdog triumphed, the feeling that history had – for once – turned in our favour, this time it’s forgivable.
In picking himself up after his miss, running forward, lifting his head for a pass, taking the ball and delivering to Brady, Hoolahan stepped out of the predictable narrative.
A commentator later remarked that the Irish team had “balls”, which accounted for their win. Courage was part of it, as was commitment and skill – and it was all summed up in the two minutes between Hoolahan’s miss and his cross.
Gone were the ‘what ifs’, the ‘not quite good enoughs’ and the ‘moral victories’. Getting knocked meant one thing – you had to get back up, nothing else.
This was the Irish spirit in Lille last Wednesday. Maybe it’s a new one.
What would George Orwell have said, had he been walking through Marseille’s Old Port district last weekend?
It’s likely to have been some combination of ‘duck’ and ‘run’, followed by ‘I told you so’.
The violent clashes between Russian and English football supporters echoed The Sporting Spirit, an essay Orwell wrote following the 1945 visit of Dynamo Moscow to Britain, during which the Soviet side played four ‘friendly’ games.
Citing on-field clashes between Dynamo and Arsenal players, and the booing of the Moscow players by the home crowd, Orwell pithily concludes, “serious sport has nothing to do with fair play…in other words it is war minus the shooting”.
The English writer, though forgiving in parts (a game of football with friends “on the village green” is acceptable, just about), sees little merit in competitive sport – and much malice.
“At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare,” he writes. “The significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators; and, behind these spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests.”
Writing in an age before FIFA was the $2bn-a-year behemoth it is today, Orwell notes that – even in the first half of the 20th century – “games were built into a heavily-financed activity, capable of attracting vast crowds and rousing savage passions”.
The essay, written six months after the end of the Second World War in Europe, concludes, “If you wanted to add to the vast fund of ill-will existing in the world at this moment, you could hardly do it better than by a series of [international] football matches…watched by a mixed audience of 100,000 spectators.”
What’s the solution then? How can we avoid rousing the savage passions that see a city like Marseilles locked down, people kicked and beaten police firing tear gas, and dozens injured?
Orwell’s is simple. Don’t play such games. And, if you must, send out a team of no-hopers to highlight the pointlessness, if not danger – of the entire thing.
Which goes to show that even the greatest writers of modern times, can be blindly naive, and wrong.
Denying peaceful national passions an outlet in a Europe riven by internal discord and home to a rise in support for the far right could result in a continent that Orwell was all too familiar with – the simmering Europe of the 1930s.
Aside from the soccer and the small hooligan minority, the Euro 2016 football championship provides a space for national rivalries to play out in a loud, assertive but non-violent manner – perhaps even a boring one, as anyone who watched rivals Germany and Poland play out a 0-0 draw last night will attest.
Football is, as Orwell put it, ‘mimic warfare’. Better that than the real thing.
Who listens to alternative rock radio anymore?
That’s what occurred to me as I read of the impending closure of TXFM, the radio station set to disappear off Dublin’s airwaves in the coming months.
The reason is, unsurprisingly, down to cash – the lack of it. And lack of cash is down to lack of listeners – TXFM’s 19,000 gave it a 0.7pc share of the Dublin radio market, nowhere near enough to survive.
News of TXFM’s imminent end brought me back almost 20 years, to a younger incarnation of both myself and the station.
Phantom FM, a pirate venture run from a shed, was staple listening in my shared student house in the 1990s. I’ve a distinct memory of burning myself attempting a pasta dish, my expletives drowning out the soothing strains of Neil Young’s Are You Ready For The Country? on the radio.
Phantom grew up to be a fully legal station, eventually morphing into TXFM. I grew up too, but still injure myself in the kitchen (albeit less often and not as loudly).
Meanwhile, the idea of listening to alternative music on the radio while doing any task – other than driving perhaps – doesn’t occur to me anymore.
That job’s been filled by Spotify. Research from the streaming service, published this week, shows how its main use is to “programme one’s own radio station of current hits”. If current hits aren’t your thing its radio feature – which allows you to create virtual radio stations on the basis of the music you already listen to – can be fearsomely well-curated.
And consider the sheer amount of music available on the service. Why would you sit through yet another Foo Fighters song on TXFM?
That said, there is one thing I will miss about the station. A fortnight ago my wife and I were headed to Wexford and stuck in morning traffic outside Dublin on the M50.
To amuse ourselves we texted a request to TXFM’s morning show. Minutes later the presenter read our message and played our song. We were stoked, we were excited, we were teenagers again. But teenagers have to grow up.