New connections: Author links Dylan, Guthrie, Calumet with anger
CALUMET — The borrowed melodies and lyrics of folk music can become signposts of history for whoever cares to look.
It’s how a young Bob Dylan fan pulled a thread that he chased through Minnesota, Oklahoma, California and eventually up to Calumet. It was there that Daniel Wolff discussed his book “Grown-Up Anger: The Connected Mysteries of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and the Calumet Massacre of 1913” at the Calumet Public Library Wednesday night. He was accompanied by folk singer Chris Buhalis, who sang pivotal Dylan and Guthrie songs, as well as one of his own.
A teen angered by injustice in the 1960s, Wolff heard “Like a Rolling Stone.” That Dylan, he said, “seemed as angry as I was.” He went backwards until he hit Dylan’s pre-electric debut, full of studious folk covers. One of the two originals, the Guthrie tribute “Song for Woody,” caught Wolff’s ear.
After digging through countless record bins, Wolff tracked down a Guthrie album — by Arlo, Woody’s son. It had a cover of one of Guthrie’s songs, “1913 Massacre.”
He already knew the tune. It was the same as “Song for Woody.”
“Woody Guthrie has written a song about someplace called Calumet that has the same tune that Dylan borrowed to write a song about Woody Guthrie,” Wolff said. “I’m on the trail. There’s something going on here. I can trace this back.”
When the italian Hall disaster happened, Woody Guthrie was only 1. He was born into what was then a comfortable existence in Oklahoma, where his father owned up to 30 farms.
His family’s fortune was whittled away through a series of mishaps. There were fires, one of which killed his sister. Another fire, caused by his mother, set his father on fire; she was institutionalized.
Wolff surmised the role of fires in Guthrie’s life later drew him to the Italian Hall disaster, where the fatal stampede is believed to have been caused by a fake yell of “fire.”
Woody followed his father west to Texas, where he began listening to music like Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter family. Escaping the Dust Bowl, he moved to California, where his music found an audience of expatriate Okies. It was there he fleshed out his left-wing political views.
After World War II, he sought to write songs outlining how he thought eh world should be and where it was headed. He began with an album about conflicts of the past. He learned about the Italian Hall disaster from a history written by labor organizer Ella Reeve Bloor.
“He wanted to try to talk about it because he wanted to talk about the losses that his side had suffered over the years, and this was a prime example,” he said. “This was something that had only not gone right, but was emblematic of the movement that he cared about.”
Dylan grew up in Hibbing, a mining town in Minnesota’s Iron Range. At college in Minneapolis, the high school rocker, developed a love of folk music and especially Woody Guthrie. He left for New York, where he met the dying Guthrie.
Coming to New York in the early 60s, Dylan didn’t find the bustling union halls he pictured from Guthrie’s songs, Wolff said. But he found causes to write songs about, such as the burgeoning civil rights movement, Wolff said.
In a rarity for Wolff’s appearances, the audience knew the Calumet history best of all, leaving Wolff looking somewhat sheepish as he recounted the story of the 1913 strike and the Italian Hall disaster.
Wolff traced “a line of anger” connecting his own frustration with Dylan, Guthrie and the activists before him.
“What had inspired Dylan was Woody Guthrie, and what had inspired Woody Guthrie was the generation before and strikes like the one up here in Calumet,” he said.
Wolff visited Calumet while researching the book, visiting the graves of the people killed in the disaster. He reflected on the situation in America now versus those junctures. By the end of the 20th century, he said, America had the most income inequality among developed nations, and was the hardest place in which to climb out of poverty.
“I think the issues that are raised in Calumet by what happened, and also in Guthrie’s song and Dylan’s songs, are still with us,” he said.