No Direction Home

“Harsh voiced and nasal, his guitar hanging like a tire iron on a rusty rim, there is nothing sweet about Woody, and there is nothing sweet about the songs he sings. But there is something more important for those who will listen. There is the will of the people to endure and fight against oppression. I think we call this the American spirit.” John Steinbeck on Woody Guthrie

From Mick Hartley:

A particularly poignant image from Dorothea Lange:

SHORPY_lange8b38486a
[Photo: Shorpy/Dorothea Lange for the Resettlement Administration]

August 1936. “Example of self-resettlement in California. Oklahoma farm family on highway between Blythe and Indio. Forced by the drought of 1936 to abandon their farm, they set out with their children to drive to California. Picking cotton in Arizona for a day or two at a time gave them enough for food and gas to continue. On this day they were within a day’s travel of their destination, Bakersfield. Their car had broken down en route and was abandoned.”

Full size.

As it’s Music Monday, and I haven’t honoured it for a while, here’s some songs. The road in the picture must be Route 466, the road that leaves the iconic Route 66 at Kingman, Arizona, ran through Bakersfield on to the California coast. These were the routes that carried thousands of migrants westward from the ecological and economic disaster of the Dust Bowl: half a million Americans made homeless, 15% of Oklahoma’s population moving to California.

Here’s Woody Guthrie and “Dust Cain’t Kill Me”, from his Dust Bowel Ballads, which Steinbeck was describing in the quote at the start of this post.

And here is Red Kilby doing “Bakersfield Sound”, explaining and celebrating the amazing musical culture created by the dustbowl migrants and their children in the interior of California. That’s the great Ralph Mooney on steel guitar; he passed away last year: incredibly influential in country music, but little known outside it.

Here’s a young ex-con Merle Haggard  singing “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive”  (“Down every road, there’s always one more city/I’m on the run, the highway is my home“) on the Buck Owens Ranch Show. Owens was the king of the Bakersfield sound.

And finally, here’s Merle again, with his Okie anthem, “Okie from Muskogee“, with Willie Nelson, in a lovely self-parodic mode:

Merle HaggardWorking Man’s Blues; Jesus ChristWoody Guthrie at 100Vigilante Man; Hobo’s Lullaby.

Letters of Note

A recommendation.

Some extracts:

Nor was there a stock comedy Negro

In 1943, Alfred Hitchcock approached author John Steinbeck and asked him to write the script for his next movie, Lifeboat. Steinbeck agreed, and quickly supplied the director with a novella. Over the coming months, Hitchcock gradually modified the story with the assistance of other writers, and in January of 1944, just before it premiered, Steinbeck watched the finished movie.

Steinbeck was mortified with what he saw, in particular the depiction of an African American sailor named Joe, and so wrote the following letter to 20th Century Fox to make his feelings known. A month later he sent a telegram, also seen below, to his agent and instructed her to have his name removed from the credits. The studio ignored his request.

(Source: Steinbeck: A Life in Letters; Image: John Steinbeck, by Peter Stackpole, via Life.)

New York
January 10, 1944

Dear Sirs:

I have just seen the film Lifeboat, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and billed as written by me. While in many ways the film is excellent there are one or two complaints I would like to make. While it is certainly true that I wrote a script for Lifeboat, it is not true that in that script as in the film there were any slurs against organized labor nor was there a stock comedy Negro. On the contrary there was an intelligent and thoughtful seaman who knew realistically what he was about. And instead of the usual colored travesty of the half comic and half pathetic Negro there was a Negro of dignity, purpose and personality. Since this film occurs over my name, it is painful to me that these strange, sly obliquities should be ascribed to me.

John Steinbeck

A month later, to his agent, Annie Laurie Williams:

MEXICO CITY
FEBRUARY 19, 1944

PLEASE CONVEY THE FOLLOWING TO 20TH CENTURY FOX IN VIEW OF THE FACT THAT MY SCRIPT FOR THE PICTURE LIFE BOAT WAS DISTORTED IN PRODUCTION SO THAT ITS LINE AND INTENTION HAS BEEN CHANGED AND BECAUSE THE PICTURE SEEMS TO ME TO BE DANGEROUS TO THE AMERICAN WAR EFFORT I REQUEST MY NAME BE REMOVED FROM ANY CONNECTION WITH ANY SHOWING OF THIS FILM

JOHN STEINBECK


For Aspiring Editors

  
Young novelist William Saroyan dreamed of one day editing a magazine, and so in 1936 sought advice on that very aspiration from the great H. L. Mencken, a hugely influential man who had, in the 1920s, founded and edited his own title.

Saroyan sent him a polite letter. Mencken responded with the priceless reply seen below.

(Source: The New Mencken Letters; Image: H.L. Mencken, courtesy ofEnoch Pratt Free Library.)

25 January, 1936
San Fransisco, California

Dear Saroyan,

I note what you say about your aspiration to edit a magazine. I am sending you by this mail a six-chambered revolver. Load it and fire every one into your head. You will thank me after you get to hell and learn from other editors there how dreadful their job was on earth.

(Signed, ‘H.L. Mencken’)

Published in: on February 12, 2012 at 6:10 pm  Leave a Comment  
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