Cross the Green Mountain – Bob Dylan’s Americana

Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold.
WB Yeats, The Second Coming

Recently, I’ve been enjoying very much the Definitely Dylan podcasts produced and narrated by broadcaster Laura Tenschert, a board member at the Institute of Bob Dylan Studies at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma (and yes, you’ve read it right – the Bobster is now a legitimate focus for the academy). With an enchanting Celtic lilt, she brings a fresh, and indeed very original perspective in her exploration of Dylan’s work. Listen, do!

This week, the New York Review of Books published an essay by one of Laura’s Institute colleagues, addressing Bob Dylan’s lyrical narratives of American history. Across the six decades of his career, Bob Dylan has mined America’s past for images, characters, and events that speak to the nation’s turbulent present. And Sean Wilenz discusses in some detail the chronological development of Dylan’s historical songs from With God on Our Side, to Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream, to Blind Willie McTell, to Tempest, and the to the history overload of his latest album of original songs Rough and Rowdy Ways, and most specifically in Murder Most Foul. But what caught my  attention, was Cross the Green Mountain.

Now, I’ve been tangled up in Bob Dylan for near on sixty years. Neither a fanatic nor a completist, I bob (yes, I know – bad pun!) out and back in. And sometimes I miss stuff. I missed Blind Willie McTelI, and it is now one of my Dylan favourites. I missed Love and Theft, but caught up with great pleasure – Mississippi is a gem! And I deliberately ignored his take on The Great American Songbook. Diana Krall does it better and she’s also a hot pianist and gorgeous.

And I missed Cross the Green Mountain, which he wrote for the soundtrack of Ted Turner’s American Civil War film Gods and Generals. Though based on a successful book, the film sank without trace. Ted was a Civil War aficionado – he joined the serried ranks of Civil War recreationalists in the epic, hours-long Gettysburg – in the forlorn hope that was Pickett’s Charge, the denouement of that harrowing two day battle. Bob’s song ended up in one of his many Bootleg releases.  Here is a truncated version featuring footage from Turner’s film. You can listen to the the complete song together wit Sean’s essay, below.

It is a remarkable song, drawing on a multitude of theological, literary, and historical sources. Sonic ally, it seems to me to reflect the mood and ambiance of the 1997 album Time Out Of Mind, and specifically It’s Not Dark Yet, and also, 2001’s Love and Theft. A blog called Waxing Lyrical describes it thus.

Cross the Green Mountain is truly one of Dylan’s finest creations. It is astonishing and maddening that such a towering achievement was initially hidden away on a soundtrack, and even despite it’s release on “Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Volume Eight” is yet to receive anywhere near the attention a lyric of this calibre deserves. In twelve remarkable verses, Dylan essays a civil war history, a visionary history of humanity and a grimly insightful summation of the likely path ahead for us all. It’s a strange, sad species that would choose maintaining a grip on destructive reality, but it is our world; and in Dylan’s hands it is brought into stark focus, and seems all the more revealing of our true nature because of it, as in charting our dreams, our strife and our struggles, he shows that the best and worst of who we are, who we were and who we can be are all strands of a single thread. An elegy, a tribute and a lament, this song is beautifully hewn tale of tragedy that reaches far beyond its overt themes and into the hearts and minds of all who seek to walk a clearer path in a confusing world.

In the his NYRB essay, Sean Wilentz writes:

“Not a shot gets fired; no bugles blare; you can’t tell one army from the other. The song dwells upon soldiers in a ravaged land just before the fog of war descends or just after it’s started to lift. Walt Whitman, who spent three years in Washington hospitals tending to mutilated, sick, and dying troops, wrote in his notebook, shortly after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, that “the real war will never get into books.” Dylan tries to get some of that real war into his song”.

And he concludes his review of Bob Dylan as a historian thus:

“It’s hard not to tremble in these dystopic days in American history—days when everywhere you look, the center seems undone—peering out from East Thirty-Eighth Street and Chicago Ave in Minneapolis, or from wherever you happen to have spent the plague year, all the way to the US Capitol, desecrated and bloody. These are days of schism, of evil for evil, when it’s unclear whether we’ll ever reverse the long decay diagnosed in “Murder Most Foul,” or whether, as may be the fate of life on Earth itself, it’s just too late: desire and destiny have already been dismembered, and it feels as though America is back on the cross, with only the slimmest chance that wisdom or redemption will follow. As much as to the past, Bob Dylan’s historical vision speaks to this, our moment.”

Don’t even hear the murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet but it’s gettin’ there

It’s a gloomy conclusion. For many, however, the glass is half full rather than half empty. As Paul Simon sang In American Tune, “we come in the age’s most uncertain hour and sing an American tune”. But he also added: “you can’t be forever blessed”.

The United States of America is more than North and South, Red and Blue. There are probably more than two Americas: North, South, Black, White, East and West Coast, and the Mid West; the heirs of the Mid 19th Century Know Nothings, nativists and immigrants, and indigenous, and more. It is the country of Trump and his carpetbaggers and of the tele-evangelists, the bitter and twisted, revanchist and retro America, the dangerously blinkered and overconfident America driven by its creation myths of manifest destiny and American exceptionalism. But it is also, the America of Martin Luther King, the Freedom Riders, Barack Obama and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her Quad compadres. It is Walt Whitman’s America and the America of Herman Melville and John Steinbeck. It is the America of Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen. It is Leonard Bernstein’s America, Paul Simon’s America, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan’s America.

As Leonard Cohen said, America is “the cradle of the best and the worst”.

But outsiders do indeed look at America today and shake their heads in wonder.

I have prayed for America
I was made for America
It’s in my blood and in my bones
By the dawn’s early light
By all I know is right
We’re going to reap what we have sown
Jackson Brown, from Lives in The Balance

Both the NYRB and Waxing Lyrical articles are republished in fill below.

Also in In That Howling InfiniteLegends, bibles, plagues – Bob Dylan’s Nobel lecture; Blind Willie McTell – Bob Dylan’s Americana; Still tangled up in Boband Tales of Yankee Power

Bob Dylan, Historian

Sean Wilentz, New York Review of Books, June 19, 2021

This essay is adapted from a keynote lecture delivered at a conference to honor Bob Dylan’s eightieth birthday, “Dylan @ 80,” convened by the Bob Dylan Institute at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, May 24, 2021.

Bob Dylan performing at a SNCC voter registration drive, Mississippi, 1963

Two American presidents, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy, bite the dust on Rough and Rowdy Ways, Bob Dylan’s latest record (his thirty-ninth studio album, released last year), and a third, Harry S. Truman, pops up on the next-to-last track, on Mystery Street off Mallory Square in Key West, where Truman had his winter White House. Elsewhere on the album, we cross the Rubicon with Julius Caesar; and on the beautiful song “Mother of Muses,” three Union senior officers from the Civil War as well as two great commanders from World War II (one American, one Soviet), clear the way for Elvis Presley and Martin Luther King Jr. This is not the same phenomenon as the appearance of Ma Rainey and Beethoven, emblems as much as people, in “Tombstone Blues” on his 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited: Bob Dylan brings a different kind of history to bear on this album, though hardly for the first time in his writing. Mystery Street doesn’t actually exist—it’s the one spot in the Key West song that’s imagined—but it is at the center of everything in that liminal paradise, just on Dylan’s horizon line. Once you get to the Mystery, it seems, you’ll find History dwelling there.

This in itself is highly unusual, as few songwriters if any have exhibited Dylan’s historical knowledge, let alone his historical consciousness. In Dylan’s case, though, history is only one branch of knowledge and creativity that absorbs him: whether it’s a Juvenal satire or a picture at an exhibition or a recording of Robert Johnson, Dylan responds by breaking things down, trying to understand how they work and what makes them different from everything else. As the critic Greil Marcus recently noted, it’s helpful to think of Dylan as a scholar, as well as craftsman. Do so and we might better understand how his art works.

But what difference does history—and more specifically, American history—make to Dylan’s work? Dylan has long populated his songs with historical characters, as well as characters from the territory where history shades into legend, and his work is never too far from the larger American mythos emanating from its rough and rowdy past, with its gamblers, prophets, false prophets, and outlaws, from Billy the Kid to Lenny Bruce. In his 2004 memoir Chronicles, Dylan writes, convincingly, of reading deeply in history books once he’d reached Greenwich Village, and of how figures such as the antislavery and civil rights congressman Thaddeus Stevens, who had “a clubfoot like Byron,” made a deep and lasting impression on him.

Dylan has also often seemed to depart from the mental clatter of the present, by living according to a time-warped calendar, in which the Galveston flood or the great Mississippi flood or the sinking of the Titanic have only just happened. Long ago, he has said, he discovered in folk songs a parallel universe of old-fashioned virtues and actions; and in time, that universe became real, so that if someone asked what was happening, the answer was (to take another assassination) that President Garfield had been shot down and there was nothing anybody could do, just as Bascom Lamar Lunsford sang it. “All of this was current, played out and in the open,” Dylan writes, of his Village days. “This was the news that I considered, followed and kept tabs on.” It’s hard to listen to the last two decades of Dylan’s compositions especially and not hear him living in some version of that time warp and pulling his listeners into it, too.

How does he go about it? Well, for one thing, he studies. For a historian, it was fascinating, even thrilling to read, in Dylan’s memoir, of the young rising artist’s visiting the New York Public Library and researching in American newspapers from the Civil War era on microfilm to help calm his mind. Of course, it may never have happened: although I can attest to the book’s spiritual accuracy about the Village in the early Sixties, the author of Chronicles also fabricates, which tells you something about Dylan and his relationship with history. (Indeed, I’m not entirely certain whether he really first encountered Thaddeus Stevens in the early Sixties, when most historians portrayed Stevens as a deformed, vindictive radical, or if he only discovered him later.)

Still, Dylan builds his fantasies from facts, and it was exciting to read of his carefully studying primary historical sources, as assuredly he does. Such was the routine until the Internet made microfilm largely obsolete—and the thought of an ambitious Bob Dylan’s seeking inspiration by threading one of those strips of film into one of those plastic or metal reels on one of those archaic machines, then turning a knob or pressing a lever, trying to keep everything in focus, just as we once did, felt like a kind of validation of his work and, I suppose, of mine. That Dylan remains fascinated with documents from the nineteenth century was affirmed recently by the historian Douglas Brinkley, reporting on Dylan’s research into the details of the gruesome Sand Creek Massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho in 1864.

What Dylan takes from the past obviously isn’t the same as what the average historian does; the differences and the similarities are equally important. Dylan is no stickler for the kind of factual accuracy that the historian’s craft demands but that the songwriter’s safely ignores. When someone asked E. L. Doctorow if Emma Goldman and Evelyn Nesbit ever met, as they do in his novel Ragtime, Doctorow replied, “They have now.” That’s the spirit Dylan works into his songs.

“A songwriter doesn’t care about what’s truthful,” he told an interviewer in 2012. “What he cares about is what should’ve happened, what could’ve happened. That’s its own kind of truth.” Yet to discover and express that kind of truth requires knowing as much as you can about what actually happened, as much as any historian might hope to. This is surely the reason, I imagine, why Dylan pressed Brinkley for all that he knows about what happened at Sand Creek (which turns out to have been be much less than Dylan had already learned from his studies.).

A trained historian commonly dives into sources with a particular topic or line of narrative in mind and can block out the rest. Dylan, though, can get disoriented and nearly overwhelmed by the unexpected. “The issue of slavery wasn’t the only concern,” he writes in Chronicles of the 1850s. “There were news items about reform movements, antigambling leagues, rising crime, child labor, temperance, slave-wage factories, loyalty oaths and religious revivals. You get the feeling the newspapers themselves could explode and lightning will burn and everyone will perish.”

Once over his bewilderment, though, Dylan soon surpasses most historians in quickly building a syncretic sense of the whole. For example, Civil War–era America, as he says he discovered it a century later, was an unrealistic, grandiose, immensely suffering land, riven by clashing comprehensions of time itself. Enlightenment ideas of liberty and equality, the Declaration of Independence, checks and balances, everything Americans supposedly prided themselves on—indeed, reason itself—could carry you only so far. “After a while,” he continues, “you become aware of nothing but a culture of feeling, of black days, of schism, evil for evil, the common destiny of the human being getting thrown off course.” Shine a light on that America, he writes, and “you could see the full complexity of human nature,” in a place that did not at all resemble the America of the Sixties, “but yet it did in some mysterious and traditional way. Not just a little bit, but a lot.” A reasonable man tracking unreason, Dylan offers a summary metaphor, more pithy and powerful than any historian would ordinarily use: “Back there, America was put on the cross, died and was resurrected.” As important is where Dylan later claimed that perception took him: “The godawful truth of that would be the all-encompassing template behind everything I would write.”

That shows how seriously Dylan takes history. And looking back at some of his major efforts at historical perception, from his early songwriting through Rough and Rowdy Ways, it’s plain that his use of history has matured and become more sophisticated and nuanced over the decades.

A mural by Brazilian muralist Eduardo Kobra in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2020 Brian Peterson/Star Tribune via Getty Images

Dylan debuted his first obviously historical song, “With God on Our Side,” written when he was twenty-one years old, at Town Hall in April 1963. Although it became something of a favorite over the next couple of years, most famously as performed with Joan Baez, it fell out of his repertoire in 1965, and has remained largely untouched ever since. A sanctimonious lecture about American sanctimony—a counternarrative to what he portrays as the false one the history books tell us—the song is in keeping with an easy iconoclasm, asserting that the American history you’ve been fed is a pack of lies designed to glorify war and conquest. That easy iconoclasm is very much with us amid today’s social and political turmoil, but many of the feelings, as well as observations, inside that song are long out-of-date, stuck inside the high cold war, ban-the-bomb period of American antiwar protest, when every day felt as if human existence was on the brink of superpower thermonuclear annihilation. (In 1989, just as the Berlin Wall was falling, the Neville Brothers recorded an updated version of the song that substituted a new verse about Vietnam for the original one about World War II and the Holocaust. It didn’t catch on.)

As a songwriter’s history lesson, “With God on Our Side” is barely coherent. It has a point to make about the US military’s slaughter of the Indians, and maybe another about the futility of World War I. About the Spanish–American War, though, all it can is say is that the war had its day, whatever that means. It doesn’t know what to make of the Civil War, by which, a historian might point out, the US Army and Navy, with upward of 200,000 Black recruits, nearly half of them formerly enslaved, killing and dying to the strains of “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah,” effectively brought about slavery’s abolition—something the emancipated reasonably regarded as a godly outcome. The song’s most graphic, unsettling line concerns not American war crimes but Nazi Germany’s eradication of the Jews. The song’s final betrayal, of Jesus by Judas Iscariot, though assuredly timeless, invokes absolute evil in ways that reduce American history into foreshortened fable.

What can be said on behalf of the song is that it expresses an outrage, utterly innocent of tragedy, which encapsulates the first two critical lessons anyone needs to learn about American history alongside its achievements and promise: first, that the deadly gap between reality and the nation’s proud, sometimes messianic professions has, at its worst, been real and too often wide; and second, that America the beautiful also has some twisted roots planted in dark and bloody ground. “With God on Our Side” is a preachy song that Dylan had to outgrow, but without its historical foundation, there would have been much less for him to grow on.

“Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” written less than two years later and released on his fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home, is no less a protest song than “With God on Our Side,” but the similarities end there. One of the first efforts in Dylan’s shift from folk to rock, it is seemingly a song about what used to be called the discovery of America, and it is as rollickingly uplifting and zany as its predecessor was sententious and leaden. The recorded version opens with a carefully edited false start, but the musicians regroup for a six-and-a-half-minute roller-coaster ride, more joyful than scary, a display of clackety exuberance that brushes the guardrails yet stays on course. Dylan has written of how much, in his early New York years, he came to admire the frenzied comic work of the downtown artist Red Grooms, and “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” sounds like a Red Grooms composition put to music. That Dylan has thought to perform it publicly only six more times since that recording session fifty-odd years ago might signal that, unusually for him, he’s decided he likes the recorded version well enough that there’s little to be gained from revisiting it.

Unlike “With God on Our Side,” “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” puts us in a real, if also fantasized, historical place—“I think I’ll call it America,” Captain Ahab/A-rab announces early on from his ship as the place comes into view. The song gives us a couple of actual historical names and events—but, as in a dream, the names slip: A-rab’s ship starts out as the Mayflower then morphs into the Pequod; and at the end, when A-rab and the crew prepare to shove off back to sea, they spot the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria sailing their way, to discover an America that’s already been discovered. And so, as the names slip, time does, too.

The song’s protagonist, one of A-rab’s men, was already familiar to Dylan listeners from an earlier song, the Chaplinesque figure, assumed to be a traveling salesman, forever getting in and out of jams in “Motorpsycho Nitemare” (of which “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” is a rewrite, with the identical melody). But this time, the maybe salesman is a hipster sailor traveling across a historical landscape where it’s sometimes 1620, sometimes 1851, sometimes 1492, but always 1965 as well—and could just as easily be America today, which is really the point. From the start, when A-rab, momentarily transformed into Peter Minuit on Manhattan, sets about writing deeds, building a fort, and buying the place with wampum, America’s history collapses into stories of sharp dealers and confidence men, with a handsome ambiguous male waitress dressed in a powder-blue cape, and an undertaker who’s only interested if you’re dead, and people demanding not “Ban the Bomb” but “Ban the Bums” along what Peter Stuyvesant knew as the Bouwerie—an America that always has been and always will be: a newfound land that is frantic, exasperating, jumbled, and irrational beyond the point of absurdity.

Eighteen years later, in 1983, Dylan wrote what some have considered a historical masterpiece.“Blind Willie McTell” is as allusive as “With God on Our Side” is didactic, and as spare and exact as “115th Dream” is rambunctiously ramshackle. It’s another traveling song, but this time, the road is time, starting in a condemned Southland soaked with martyrs’ blood, moving back to the closing-down of a nighttime country tent show, then further back to slavery days and the Civil War, then up to the present via a chain gang and rebel yells, ending with the traveler on the road, his mind on the recurring, punctuating presence of Blind Willie McTell, the Georgia songwriter and bluesman who made his name recording in the 1920s and 1930s. The song offers a lesson about human greed and corruption, envisaged inside Southern history, born of slavery’s whips, the Middle Passage, and Sherman’s March to the Sea, yet with a trace of redemption, or, at any rate, of enduring beauty, and heard as sung and played in a blind black man’s blues.

I’ve sometimes seen “Blind Willie McTell” described as an updated protest song, intended to chart the continuing tragedy and suffering of Blacks in the American new world, and that’s there to be heard in the version recorded nearly forty years ago. But Dylan famously had doubts about the song in 1983 because he didn’t think it was finished, which is why it didn’t appear on Infidels, and, although it’s now esteemed, even beloved among Dylan’s songs, he’s struggling with it still. In contrast to “With God on Our Side” and “115th Dream,” he’s performed it frequently in concert (more than two hundred times since 1997), but over the years, the song has changed and continues to. None of Dylan’s work is fixed, but some songs are less fixed than others, and “Blind Willie McTell” is one of those—though even so, as with every song he alters, the original version never disappears. It is a matter of multiplication, not substitution.

Dylan’s current version of “Blind Willie McTell” eliminates the verse about burning plantations and slavery’s ships; and the chain gang and the rebel yells are gone, too. The song now confines itself historically more or less to McTell’s own time, or maybe as far back as the 1880s; and the verse that is now one of the two remaining historical verses, involving a woman and a fine young handsome man, notes that “Some of them died in the battle/Some of them survived as well,” leaving both “them” and the battle they fought to the listener’s imagination.

I can’t say why Bob Dylan has struggled with the song or why the struggle has led him here, but just as history seriously rendered has ironies and ambiguities as well as certainties, so a master of ambiguity has made this historical song more ambiguous, the suffering less specific, less singular, and less explicit, yet leaving nothing easy about it; while the “power and greed and corruptible seed” that the singer sees everywhere taint us all.

Ironies, more than ambiguities, mark what was, until recently, Dylan’s most ambitious and dedicated work of history: “’Cross the Green Mountain,” written nearly twenty years after “Blind Willie McTell” as part of a film soundtrack, one bright spot in an otherwise abysmal Ted Turner movie about the Civil War. In a mournful arrangement notable for Larry Campbell’s keening fiddle, and written in the style Dylan showcased two years earlier on Love and Theft (released, as luck had it, on September 11, 2001), it is a song of war that the precocious author of “With God on Our Side” could scarcely have imagined writing, yet with a curious possible connection to that older song.

Not a shot gets fired; no bugles blare; you can’t tell one army from the other. The song dwells upon soldiers in a ravaged land just before the fog of war descends or just after it’s started to lift. Walt Whitman, who spent three years in Washington hospitals tending to mutilated, sick, and dying troops, wrote in his notebook, shortly after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, that “the real war will never get into books.” Dylan tries to get some of that real war into his song.

Two striking verses, both reworkings of relatively obscure Civil War poems, spring cruel ironic traps, with a touch of Ambrose Bierce’s spirit, as well as Whitman’s. The first, containing a line lifted from an Ohio-born Confederate poet, relates the moment of the death of “our Captain,” “killed outright he was by his own men.” The second, a condensed rewrite of one of Whitman’s lesser-known poems, relates a mother’s initial shock at receiving a letter that her son has been severely wounded, shock relieved by the letter’s assurance that he has survived and is recovering in a hospital bed—“but,” the narrator encroaches, “he’ll never be better, he’s already dead.”

The living God’s presence pervades “’Cross the Green Mountain,” as something real and not an instrument for warmongering propaganda. But as the song’s cruel ironies dramatize, God’s ways are as inscrutable as His purposes. In that inscrutability, there is an important restatement of “With God on Our Side,” with a twist and a much deeper resonance. There is no godly side in “’Cross the Green Mountain”—Dylan certainly chooses no sides, either in the poetry borrowed or the stories related. And while we know that both Northerners and Southerners prayed to the same God and proclaimed He was on their side, in the song, at least, the Almighty picks neither.

Instead, Dylan writes of “an avenging God,” to whom all must yield—but whom or what, exactly, is God avenging? Abraham Lincoln, in his second inaugural address, began at one point to indict blasphemous Southern justifications of slavery—slavery, which he called the fundamental cause of the war—but he stopped short, lest he turn pharisaical, remarking, “Let us judge not that we be not judged.” Lincoln ventured, rather, that God had inflicted terrible carnage on both the North and the South, as both sides had shared in “the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil.” Dylan, who has certainly read Lincoln’s address, is chiefly interested in other aspects of the war, but his invocation of God the Avenger, smiting “the land of the rich and the free,” squares with Lincoln’s.

Just past sixty years old when he recorded “’Cross the Green Mountain,” Dylan has, over the two decades since, seen the world in which he started out crumble to dust, and watched fiercely urgent events he wrote about in traditional forms pass into history. He was drawn, early on, to the ballad form, not simply as the source of mythic archetypes like John Henry and Stagolee but also as a means of rendering deadly incidents of injustice that touched him. He has lived long enough now for his once-current ballads to become as ancient-seeming as the original ones that inspired him. Give or take a few years, today we stand as distant in time from the killings of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, and Hattie Carroll as Dylan stood, in 1963, from the killings of William “Billy” Lyons in “Stagolee,” Albert Britt in “Frankie and Albert,” and Delia Green in “Delia.” Longevity has similarly shaped Dylan’s most recent approaches to history, as he has inhabited old ballads about monumental catastrophes from well before his time and invented new ones about catastrophes he remembers well.

Other songwriters’ ballads about the sinking of the Titanic, in 1912, form a subgenre all their own, with a dozen or more different compositions, of which Lead Belly’s “The Titanic” and the campfire favorite “It Was Sad When That Great Ship Went Down” are among the best known. Of all these, Dylan’s “Tempest” (from the album of the same name, released in 2012) is by far the longest, its melody and some of the lyrics lifted from the Carter Family’s “The Titanic,” recorded in 1956. Dylan must have thought the Carters’ version unfinished, and he supplied the missing material, including a couple of time-warp cameos by Leonardo DiCaprio, borrowed, in turn, from James Cameron’s overblown movie. There is a recurring tragic note of a sleeping watchman, but otherwise, the song is a plain yet progressively riveting account that turns to horror: a chaos of floating dead bodies, flooded cabins, and exploding engine rooms, at times resembling a Civil War battle in which, as Dylan sings of the sinking ship, “Brother rose up against brother/In every circumstance/They fought and slaughtered each other/In a deadly dance.” The song offers vignettes of unreflective heroism alongside vignettes of betrayal, human nature in all its complexity amid the disaster.

And so, finally, eight years after that song—that is, in the plague year of 2020—Dylan’s historical quest brought him to the venerable presidential assassination genre with the song “Murder Most Foul” on Rough and Rowdy Ways. He would have known the traditional songs “Charles Guiteau” (about James Garfield’s assassin) and “White House Blues” (about William McKinley’s death) no later than when he first listened to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, released in 1952, in which both appear. Around the same time, he would also have heard Bascom Lamar Lunsford performing “Mr. Garfield” on Lunsford’s Smoky Mountain Ballads album, which had been released by Folkways in 1953.

Long-mislaid manuscripts from late 1963, rediscovered and later obtained by Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills, and Nash in 1989, show that Dylan was deeply affected by John F. Kennedy’s assassination, scribbling lines that included what would become the central image in “Chimes of Freedom.” His only public reaction at the time of that event consisted of his notorious, bungled, confrontational remarks three weeks later, upon receiving a civil liberties award, about seeing something of Lee Harvey Oswald in his own alienated self. He later denied that Kennedy’s killing had stunned him: If it had so affected him, he asked, why hadn’t he written a song about it? Today, just at the point when his songs from 1963 are passing from memory into history, he has written “Murder Most Foul” as a kind of incantatory ballad.

Kennedy’s murder inspired an important song in 1966, perhaps Phil Ochs’s finest, “Crucifixion,” even if its starry imagery, recalling Whitman’s elegy to President Lincoln, at times whirls a little grandly. (Ochs suggested his song was not only about JFK but about Dylan himself, also.) Like Ochs, Dylan presents Kennedy as a lamb led to ritual slaughter. Dylan, however, wishes for little imagery: although the song warps time and constructs its own truth, “Murder Most Foul” is as literal as can be, as literal as the Zapruder film (the footage that is described by the song’s narrator as ugly, vile, and deceitful, but which he has watched thirty-three times or more, trying and failing to make sense of what happened). Unlike the older assassination songs, which focus on the assassin or the deed’s aftermath, “Murder Most Foul” dwells on the actual killing, one cold fact after another feeding the tale, to the point at which Kennedy himself—though, in reality, his head would have just been shattered by the assassin’s bullet—describes falling into his wife’s lap, realizing in a flash he’s been caught in a trap.

The song begins by describing the assassination as a coolly calculated conspiracy, with Kennedy, like Julius Caesar, murdered shamelessly, mockingly, in the broad light of day. The singer then calls upon a mysterious wolfman to howl about the evil deed, when suddenly the song jumps from 1963 to 1964 and the Beatles’ arrival in the US, and then moves ahead in time to the rise and fall of the hippies’ Aquarian Age. Yet the irrepressible evil deed just as suddenly intrudes, uncontained; time slips, bits and pieces from the assassination story swirling around and piling up and blotting out the rest.

The Who’s Acid Queen flashes but swiftly disappears into the song’s most horrible couplets, placing us inside the presidential Lincoln at the fatal instant. We then encounter what seems like an odd reference to Patsy Cline, which in turn refers to Lee Harvey Oswald as a “patsy,” no longer a fellow alienated young man as Dylan had pegged him in 1963 but a fall guy.

Then, out of nowhere, the mysterious wolfman reappears, and he’s none other than the famous rock-and-roll disc jockey Wolfman Jack, crazed, shouting, speaking in tongues, just maybe a prophet, and it’s radio request time, and thence begins the better part of the entire second half of Dylan’s longest song ever, a six-hundred-word cascade of callouts, from Nat King Cole to On the Waterfront’s Terry Malloy to Etta James to Charlie Parker, some of the best of what America has had to offer the world (plus Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata), tilting to the years since World War II. As in “Blind Willie McTell,” redemption or at least beauty glimmers out of a monstrousness that one of the song’s characters suggests has marked the arrival of the Antichrist. Yet nothing seems to work, and as the requests rampage, the fatal day returns to the song like a revenant, one more time. The perfectly timed bullet left the nation forever changed, forever conflicted, forever haunted: “Play ‘Love Me or Leave Me’ by the great Bud Powell,” the song concludes, Dylan’s voice combining elements of fear, resignation, and menace, “Play ‘The Blood-Stained Banner’—play ‘Murder Most Foul.’” The song becomes a part of the mercurial history it has just related, a history from which there seems to be no escape.

Dylan has studied the events closely, right down to the minute when Lyndon B. Johnson got sworn in. He connects Dealey Plaza with different layers of American culture, from the horror franchise Nightmare on Elm Street to the legendary Dallas barrelhouse and red-light district from which the traditional song “Deep Ellum Blues” takes its name, two miles from the old Texas School Book Depository sitting at 411 Elm Street. He sees the assassination as a ripping point, not a tipping point, when the three Graces died and when the nation, its soul torn away, began “to go into a slow decay.” With the full story unknowable, never to come out—“What is the truth, where did it go/Ask Oswald and Ruby—they oughta know”—“Murder Most Foul” is in part about the nation’s calamitous failure to come to terms with what happened. You don’t need to buy into the song’s conspiratorial set-up, reminiscent of Oliver Stone’s paranoid fantasy film JFK—which might even appear to be a symptom of the cynical nihilism that the assassination unleashed and that has poisoned the nation—in order to find its larger point deeply moving, the point about reckoning and failing to reckon with the dreadful moment in November 1963, when the fall of America began.

More history appears in the songs that precede “Murder Most Foul” on Rough and Rowdy Ways. In “Mother of Muses,” which sounds inspired by something he’d seen in the Nobel Prize medal that he finally picked up in 2017, Dylan looks back in honor to the military he’d denigrated in his 1963 song, when he sang about “the names of the heroes/l’s made to memorize/With guns in their hands/And God on their side.” “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” weaves subtle references to the dead bluesman into a juxtaposition of holiness and sex that is at least as old as the tent show in “Blind Willie McTell.” The awful killing of President McKinley as rendered by Charlie Poole’s slightly macabre 1926 recording of “White House Blues”—not the shooting itself, which the song barely mentions, but McKinley’s unexpected death from gangrene eight days later—is the entryway to Dylan’s “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” a dreamlike song about a divine paradise, way down at the end of the line.

Bob Dylan performing in Hyde Park, London, England, July 12, 2019
Dave J Hogan/Getty Images for ABA

Thus, then nearing eighty, Dylan concluded his latest meditations, with American history all over the place. It turns out that Dylan was being straight in Chronicles, if not necessarily about every detail of what happened in 1961, then about a deeper truth in all that followed: if the songs have been, as he has said, his lexicon and prayer book, the American past has come to serve as his template for viewing, in a multitude of ways, an explosive culture of feeling, a place where human nature is visible in its full complexity. In his historical view, this is an America utterly different from our own and yet, in some mysterious and traditional way, not so different at all.

Along with the raging mayhem of history, there has been, also, a powerful elegiac quality to Dylan’s recent songwriting in this vein: a backward glance over traveled roads that appears elsewhere in his recent output, especially in the paintings of American cityscapes and byways in his “The Beaten Path Series,” first exhibited in 2016. That quality, which pervades Rough and Rowdy Ways, actually dates back many years, before Chronicles, and is tied to a feeling that a time is soon coming, if not already here, when truth will be erased and, with it, traditional songs and even history itself. Then, he intimates, anything that came before the here-and-now will be time out of mind. “Look out! there wont be songs like this anymore, factually there arent any now,” he wrote in his liner notes to World Gone Wrong, back in 1993. It’s become a late autumnal feeling in his work—call it November-ish, while recalling that November 22, 1963, was a hot, sunny day in Dallas—a feeling that speaks to a wider condition that has built to this very moment.

It’s hard not to tremble in these dystopic days in American history—days when everywhere you look, the center seems undone—peering out from East Thirty-Eighth Street and Chicago Ave in Minneapolis, or from wherever you happen to have spent the plague year, all the way to the US Capitol, desecrated and bloody. These are days of schism, of evil for evil, when it’s unclear whether we’ll ever reverse the long decay diagnosed in “Murder Most Foul,” or whether, as may be the fate of life on Earth itself, it’s just too late: desire and destiny have already been dismembered, and it feels as though America is back on the cross, with only the slimmest chance that wisdom or redemption will follow. As much as to the past, Bob Dylan’s historical vision speaks to this, our moment.

Sean Wilentz is the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton. His most recent book is Richard Hofstadter: Anti-­Intellectualism in American Life, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Uncollected Essays, 1956–1965, the first in a multivolume edition of Hofstadter’s work that he is editing for the Library of America. (July 2021)

‘Cross the Green Mountain by Bob Dylan – A Lyrical Examination

In a lifetime of writing and performing music, Bob Dylan has constructed a considerable body of work comprised of innumerable songs that speak to individual listeners in distinct yet profound ways. It is my belief that Dylan’s song writing abilities have only increased with the passing years, and that the some of the songs he has composed since his creative “rebirth” in the late 1980’s are equal – if not superior – to anything he wrote in the halcyon days of his youth. I think that whilst his earlier lyrics captured the desired spirit of a generation – which ultimately catapulted Dylan to the forefront of public consciousness – in a more powerful and immediately persuasive manner, I think that in reaching maturity, Dylan has even more to say; and his breadth of understanding of history, contemporary society and his craft has allows him to  articulate lyrics that are considerably more controlled than the lyrics of youth, but that don’t compromise the extent to which evocative imagery and alluring ambiguity operate as key components of his style.

Songs such as “Dignity”, “Series of Dreams”, “Ain’t Talkin” and “Not Dark Yet” are magnificent songs that contain lyrics of the highest calibre. It is the depth and complexity of ideas and feeling that render them works of such stark beauty. They also typify Dylan’s current style of ambiguous and resonant simplicity, as opposed to the unrestrained, passionate imagery of earlier times. Each of these songs deserves fulsome analysis, if only to ensure time is actually given over to enjoying them. But it is “’Cross the Green Mountain – Dylan’s contribution to the largely unwatched civil war film, “Gods and Generals” – that in my opinion sits on par with his finest ever lyrics. It is a bold, rich, evocative and ultimately redemptive exploration of conflict on earth. It may take the American Civil War as an inspiration, but the implications of the themes it contains transcend historical connections. It certainly seems to have been designed to encourage listeners to forge meaningful connections between events, peoples and concepts; the very kinds of connections that I would argue that Dylan views as necessary to avoid the kind of bloodshed that he evokes so poignantly.

The song opens with a multilayered invitation to an experience grounded in reality and reflection, via the allusion to dreams and flood. The framing of the ensuing narrative with the context of “monstrous” dream lends the entire lyric a reflective and meditative air. The image of something rising out of the sea seems an image readily associated with the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2005; an event contemporaneous with the song’s origins.

The final lines of the opening stanza attain a level of authoritative ambiguity that Dylan sustains throughout the lyric; the ominous notion of something rising Leviathan-like out of the sea – a kind of vengeful force. But what is interesting is why a vengeful force would strike a land rich and free; intriguingly, the “otherness” of ‘something’ obscures motive, and Dylan’s selection of “rich” as opposed to brave suggests some uncomfortable possibilities.

The image of a “merciful friend” in the song’s second verse conjures an image of death as saviour or one capable of offering release from struggle or strife; but Dylan blurs this redemptive distinction through the placing the image within a question, and then transfers the narrative from the present to the future tense in a manner that accentuates doubt and emotive resonance, rather an any kind of reassuring certainty.

The concluding lines of the second verse are amongst Dylan’s very best. He twists the Shakespearean sentiment of parting as sweet sorrow into a subversive rejoinder, where in death, the departed meet. In the context of a lyric penned as an accompaniment to a civil war dramatisation, one wonders of whom Dylan is thinking when he “thinks of the souls in heaven who will meet”, as the notion of those on opposing sides meeting and accepting each other in death is a tragic counterpoint from which to consider lives lived and lost in brutal conflict.

The apocalyptic imagery of burning altars in the first couplet of the song’s third verse acts an horrific counterpoint to the battleground imagery of advancing troops in its second. Significantly, Dylan moves fluidly, if mysteriously, from either side of the rather abstract conflict that he recounts, so that listeners cannot easily align themselves to the conflict’s heroes. His shifting, elegiac and compassionate narrative dissolves the hero-villain dichotomy into something far more human, and more tragic.

The notion of a foe having crossed over from the other side is mordant and obtuse, an image that, in the context of far-reaching flames most strongly evokes the notion of the devil walking amongst man. It’s a disconcerting image, as is the notion of those soldiers with “more brave blood to spill”, whose sacrifice is simultaneously poignant and pointless, driven both by honour, desperation, and bloodlust. No wonder the flames fall wide, and that the foe has crossed over; it is as though the actions of man have enlarged hell itself.

The shift from foe to God in the fifth verse is startling; suggesting perhaps that an  “avenging God” and the foe could be one and the same. The wide streets and dim lines seem oddly redolent of the chartered world of Blake’s “London”; a comparably savage mediation on troubled times. It segues poignantly into one of those eminently quotable Dylan lines sagely reminding us that “lessons of life can’t be learned in a day”. In this context, the grey world seems a neglected pot of wisdom, unwisely discarded.

It’s here that again the boundaries between historical account and contemporary reflection blur darkly. And the fact that our narrator listens while he “stands” is a fascinating detail. Within lies the possibly that this is an act of remembrance, and that the music from a far better land is that of the past, or of Heaven. It’s curious that the natural tendency is to extrapolate forward or backwards in order to locate the better land, even though it may be a lateral leap that is required. Perhaps inevitably, Dylan has drawn upon the innate ethnocentrism inherent in all cultural examinations. The important question that remains all but unanswered is the source of the superiority of the better land; but the return to conflict and loss in the following verse gives a world-weary clue.

The death of the Captain seems drawn with the broad brush-strokes of an oil painting; the lament for what horridly would be termed today a “friendly fire” death seems a poetic tragedy, reclaimed in this context from the self-serving euphemism of the ‘friendly fire’ cliché. There is also, buried within these lines subtle allusion to rebellion and to mutiny; and the “great” is as much an affectation as it is affection. Again, Dylan has selected imagery that is readily interpretable, but with multiple, frequently contradictory possibilities.

In the following stanza, where a seeming time of judgement draws inexorably closer, the “unknown world’s” nature can be simultaneously seen from opposing sides: one on hand it is the hellish uncertainty subsequent to an annihilated world, but on another, it is the world beyond the vicious vices of mankind, where even virtue – perhaps no longer needed in Dylan’s utopia – exists only as memory. The “happy year” images makes the former more plausible than the latter, but both readings exist on an implicit level, and it is the latter interpretation’s presence that shades the deathly imagery of the lyric with such profound melancholy.

The assertive declarative tone of the lyric’s eighth verse is fascinating yet elusively troubling. The notions of blasphemy are disturbing, as is the persona’s exhortation of loyalty to truth and right, in spite of blasphemy being on “every tongue”, which logically must include its own. The irony is resolved only through an embracing of the kind of pluralism that accusations of blasphemy logically preclude through their very existence.

The hectoring self-righteousness of the persona at this point seems satirically designed to induce a knowing inscrutability, one that ultimately coheres with the lyric’s weary blend of compassion and indifference to those involved in the central conflict, albeit in a rather opaque manner. The stated fealty to “truth and to right” seems to be advocating a kind of declarative autonomy fused with an ambiguous incarnation of faith or

fidelity, whereby the writer has simply conveyed things as they are, which serves, bewilderingly, to obfuscate the meaning and message of the lyric still further, behind yet another layer of possible interpretations.

The next verse is one of Dylan’s finest ever creations. It delves further into an exploration of the relationship between purpose, perspective and meaning, with the command to “serve God and be cheerful” seeming both logical and ludicrous in equal measure, in that it may be the only sane choice, in spite of an insane context of war.  The choice to link the instruction to serve with being cheerful is fascinating, in that being cheerful can be read as either the end product of serving God, or a second (necessary or tautological) instruction. Depending on how this enigmatic half-line is read, it is either comforting, cynical or something else again. And yet, the concluding, tense-defying “look upward beyond” with its otherworldly overtones seems to yolk together an existence both earthly and spiritual into a single decree, startling in its fusion of futility and its lack of stated alternatives.

These words connect with the following line via one of Dylan’s better employments of the technique of enjambment, as two distinct meanings emerge from within lines that are distinctly (and rhythmically) complete. The notion of looking upward “beyond/the darkness that masks the surprises of dawn” is a surreal subversion of night and day imagery, as the song (and particularly the music)’s somnambulant creep staggers through a world of dark, disturbing visions; and, rather than emerge into a clear, comforting world, it is the night that becomes the place of certainty – underscoring its allure – thereby reinforcing the notion that our day’s actions are little more than an illusory defence against the true darkness and the empty anxieties of each new day.

In this context, the men’s position within the “green grasses of the bloodstained world” seems strangely logical; as though our day’s delusion will inevitably hold sway over other possibilities. At a stroke, Dylan gently, implicitly endorses the notion that reality is little more than smoke and mirrors, but to set it aside is akin to abandoning consciousness, which is as unfathomable in war time as it is in peace time.

The tenth verse is almost unbearably poignant, with its evocation of a world where ghosts permeate every pore of existence. With a deft shift in emphasis, Dylan’s directs the reader/listener’s gaze from the stars above – and their heavenly associations – to a world where the living are “walking in dreams, whoever you are”. Walking in the dreams of the living, including one’s own. And even more powerfully, walking in the dreams of the dead. It’s a startling image of the spirit world; one that simultaneously decries the futility of war, whilst painting the entirety of existence as a sacred place. The final couplet is tightly focused, suffused with sense of stifled grief that comes in acknowledgement of all that must needs be unspoken in times of tragedy and loss,  both in terms of the loss of human lives in conflict and in the loss of human possibility that inevitably comes from clinging to the coldly familiar and shunning the bright unknown.

The lyric’s penultimate verse is its most personal, with the tantalising personal touch of a wounded soldier and his mother, where the solider lives on – if only for a fleeting, tragic moment – in the illusion of a letter that lists him as wounded, rather than deceased. It’s a deftly cutting dramatic touch, positioning the reader/listener to feel – apart from sympathy for the mother and her son – that the real tragedy is the delusion.

It’s at this point that the narrator detaches from his worldly reportage, signified initially by notions of being “lifted away”, but ultimately realised in its shift to a collective first-person point of view. Here, Dylan pulls off the astonishing narrative trick of rendering the present and future into the past tense, and acts as the conscience and consciousness of the entirety of humanity. In it, two key understandings are offered: that the fate of humanity rests of the surrendering of fear – or perhaps the fear of fear – and the embracing of the uncertainty and weakness inherent in change and growth; and secondly, that the past, present and future are tangible, malleable and extant, and that the world we inhabit is a stranger, darker, more beautiful and more tragic reality than our limited perspectives allow us to see.

“’Cross the Green Mountain” is truly one of Dylan’s finest creations. It is astonishing and maddening that such a towering achievement was initially hidden away on a soundtrack, and even despite it’s release on “Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Volume Eight” is yet to receive anywhere near the attention a lyric of this calibre deserves. In twelve remarkable verses, Dylan essays a civil war history, a visionary history of humanity and a grimly insightful summation of the likely path ahead for us all. It’s a strange, sad species that would choose maintaining a grip on destructive reality, but it is our world; and in Dylan’s hands it is brought into stark focus, and seems all the more revealing of our true nature because of it, as in charting our dreams, our strife and our struggles, he shows that the best and worst of who we are, who we were and who we can be are all strands of a single thread. An elegy, a tribute and a lament, this song is beautifully hewn tale of tragedy that reaches far beyond its overt themes and into the hearts and minds of all who seek to walk a clearer path in a confusing world.

They say artists hold a candle to the world so we all can see it a little more clearly. On this occasion Dylan’s light is searing, and we can see just how rocky are our surroundings, and just our precarious our footing. But certainty – however daunting – must eventually hold sway over delusion. It’s just that reality might be a little more complex – and considerably less tangible – than we would like it to be.

Bob Dylan – ‘Cross the Green Mountain

I crossed the green mountain, I slept by the stream
Heaven blazing in my head, I dreamt a monstrous dream
Something came up out of the sea
Swept through the land of the rich and the free.

I look into the eyes of my merciful friend
And then I ask myself, is this the end?
Memories linger sad yet sweet
And I think of the souls in heaven who will meet.

Altars are burning with flames falling wide
The foe has crossed over from the other side
They tip their caps from the top of the hill
You can feel them come; more brave blood to spill.

Along the dim Atlantic line
The ravaged land lies for miles behind
The light’s coming forward and the streets are broad
All must yield to the avenging God…

The world is older, the world is grey;
Lessons of life can’t be learned in a day.
I watch and I wait and I listen while I stand
To the music that comes from a far better land.

Close the eyes of our Captain; peace may he know.
His long night is done; the great leader is laid low.
He was ready to fall; he was quick to defend;
Killed outright he was, by his own men.

It’s the last day’s last hour, of the last happy year
I feel that the unknown world is so near
Pride will vanish and glory will rot,
But virtue lives and cannot be forgot.

The bells of evening have rung
There’s blasphemy on every tongue;
Let them say that I walked in fair nature’s light,
And that I was loyal to truth and to right.

Serve god and be cheerful, look upward beyond
Beyond the darkness that masks the surprises of dawn
In the deep green grasses of the bloodstained world
They never dreamed of surrendering; they fell where they stood.

Stars fell over Alabama, I saw each star;
You’re walking in dreams, whoever you are.
Chilled are the skies, keen in the frost
The grounds froze hard, and the morning is lost.

A letter to Mother came today;
Gunshot wound to the breast is what it did say.
But he’ll be better soon; he’s in a hospital bed.
But he’ll never be better. He’s already dead.

I’m ten miles outside the city and I’m lifted away
In an ancient light at the start of day
They were calm, they were blunt we know them all too well,
We loved each other more than we ever dared to tell.

 

Rhiannon the Revelator – In the dark times will there also be singing?

In the dark times will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.
Bertolt Brecht, motto to Svendborg Poems, 1939

Brown girl in the ring, raise your voice and sing

Rhiannon Giddens, a multifaceted singer, musician, folklorist and storyteller brings American history alive in her her drive to unearth the stories of forgotten people so that her audiences and listeners may remember them.

On Moon Meets The Sun, a defiantly joyous song, Giddens and her comrades of Our Native Daughters sing in the round over a polyrhythmic lacework of banjo and guitar, vowing not to let radical suffering diminish humanity. “You put the shackles on our feet, but we’re dancing”, she sings, “You steal our very tongue, but we’re dancing” “Ah, you sell our work for your profit, but we’re dancing,” she scoffs. “Ah, you think our home we have forgotten, but we’re dancing.” Then she recedes into the jubilant tangle of voices: “You can’t stop us now (We’ll be dancing). You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)”. 

As Leonard Cohen sang, “that’s how the light gets in”. 

Songs of Our Native Daughters is at once a harrowing ride through early America’s darkness and also, a celebration of resilience and resistance. As  Rhiannon Giddens describes it:

“There is surely racism in this country — it’s baked into our oldest institutions – just as there is sexism, millennia old. At the intersection of the two stands the African American woman. Used, abused, ignored and scorned, she has in the face of these things been unbelievably brave, groundbreaking and insistent. Black women have historically had the most to lose, and have therefore been the fiercest fighters for justice — in large, public ways that are only beginning to be highlighted, and in countless domestic ways that will most likely never be acknowledged.” (NPR – First Listen to Our Native Daughters)

‘… slavery is not a historical event but rather an intrinsic, dominating, and ultimately destructive part of everyone’s day-to-day reality’ (CE Morgan’s “great American novel”)

When the day is done
The moon meets the sun
We’ll be dancing
When the day is done
The moon meets the sun
We’ll be dancing

You put the shackles on our feet
But we’re dancing
You steal our very tongue
But we’re dancing

Brown girl in the ring
Raise your voice and sing
Sing us solace
Sing us freedom
Hold us steady
Keep us breathing
We’ll endure this
You can’t stop us
And we’re dancing

You steal our children
But we’re dancing
You make us hate our very skin
But we’re dancing 

We’re your sons
We’re your daughters
But you sell us
Down the river
May the God
That you gave us
Forgive you
Your trespasses
We’re survivors
You can’t stop us
And we’re dancing

When the day is done
The moon meets the sun
We’ll be dancing
When the day is done
The moon meets the sun
We’ll be dancing

Like the rabbit
We won’t bend to your will
Like the spider
The smallest will still prevail
The stories of our elders
We find comfort in these
We smile to the sky
We move to stay alive
And we’re dancing

You steal our work for your profit
But we’re dancing
You think our home we have forgotten
But we’re dancing

Step into the circle
Step into the ring
Raise your voice and sing
Sing freedom
Sing freedom
You can’t stop us now
You can’t keep us down
We’ll be dancing

When the day is done
The moon meets the sun
We’ll be dancing
When the day is done
The moon meets the sun
We’ll be dancing

You can’t stop us now (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t stop us now (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t stop us now (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t stop us now
You can’t keep us down
You can’t stop us now (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t stop us now (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)

Quasheba, Quasheba
You’re free now, you’re free now
How does your spirit fly?
Blood of your blood
Bone of your bone
By the grace of your strength we have life

From the Golden Coast of Ghana
To the bondage of Grenada
You kept the dream of hope alive
They burned your body
They cursed your blackness
But they could not take your lights

Raped and beaten, your babies taken
Starved and sold and sold again
Ain’t you a woman, of love deserving
Ain’t it somethin’ you survived?

Quasheba, Quasheba
You’re free now, you’re free now
How does your spirit fly?
Blood of your blood
Bone of your bone
By the grace of your strength we have life

You dreamt of home, you dreamt of freedom
You died a slave, you died alone
You came from warriors who once built empires
Ashanti’s kingdom carries on

You were forgotten, almost forsaken
Your children founded generations
Your strength sustained them
They won their freedom
Traced their roots to find you [waiting?]

Quasheba, Quasheba
You’re free now, you’re free now
How far your spirit’s flown
Blood of your blood
Bone of your bone
By the grace of your strength we are home

Blood of your blood
Bone of your bone
By the grace of your strength we are home
By the grace of your strength we are home
We are home
We are home
We are home

Also in In That Howling Infinite,  Soul Food – music and musicians, a collection of posts on matters musical, My Country ’tis of thee, a collection of posts on american history, politics and music, Blind Willie McTell – Bob Dylan’s Americana, and The Sport of Kings – CE Morgan’s “great American novel”

Postscript

I am reminded of  Pete Seeger’s adaptation of the old Baptist hymn:

 My life flows on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the real, thought far off hymn
That hails the new creation
Above the tumult and the strife,
I hear the music ringing;
It sounds an echo in my soul
How can I keep from singing?

and of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem

I can’t run no more
With that lawless crowd
While the killers in high places
Say their prayers out loud
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up
A thundercloud
They’re going to hear from me

Here is the wondrous Éabha McMahon of Celtic Woman:

 
 
 

The Bard in the Badlands 2 – America’s Shakespearean dreaming

Two years ago, we published The Bard in the Badlands – Hell is empty and the devils are here,  a contemplation on the part played by William Shakespeare in the history and society of the American West – and more specifically in those original and excellent HBO series Westworld and Deadwood. It quotes Daniel Pollack-Pelzner  in Slate Magazine::  

“What these portentous allusions don’t seem to register … is the actual role that Shakespeare played in the American West…(Settlers) performed Shakespeare from Missouri to San Francisco in the Wild Frontier. Gold-miners queued up to land a plum part in favorites like the bloodthirsty Macbeth or Richard III. “Traveling through America in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville observed “There is hardly a pioneer’s hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare. I remember that I read the feudal drama of Henry V for the first time in a log cabin.” An army scout in Wyoming traded a yoke of oxen for an edition of Shakespeare; mines named Cordelia, Ophelia, and Desdemona dotted the Colorado mountains. More recent evocations of this period link the Bard to territorial conquest…When the United States prepared to defend the newly annexed state of Texas from Mexico in 1846, Ulysses S. Grant was cast as Desdemona in an army production of Othello in Corpus Christi”.

President Abraham Lincoln used to love reciting, and was particularly enamoured of Macbeth, the play, not the disturbed anti-hero; ‘Nothing equals it’, he confided, “I think it is wonderful: he confided. John Wilkes Booth, his murderous nemesis, was also an aficionado. Booth, from an acting family, had a particular liking for Henry IV’s fiery and treasonous Geordie rebel, Hotspur, and was impressed in a less theoretical way by the regicidal Brutus in Julius Caesar.  

Whilst Shakespeare  and his plays attracted countless aficionados of high and low estate, he also found himself involuntarily conscripted into the young nation’s contentious race and immigration debates. eminent abolitionist and and former president John Adams believed that Desdemona was a “wanton trollop” for falling in love with a blackamoor”. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge opposed immigration and used the Bard as one of his weapons against the ‘Calibans” from Southern or Eastern Europe.

These are just a few examples of how The Bard of Avon popped up in at times in American history like a figurative and literary Doctor Who as guide, mentor, exemplar and even catalyst. in his new book, Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro informs us that when great (and small) things happened in the United States, someone, somewhere, was brushing up their bard – as the following review from The Times illustrates. These do not include, however, the present resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue who “may be the first American president to express no interest in Shakespeare”. Or else, as the reviewer remarks, “maybe we’ll see a tweet soon revealing that at private school his Desdemona was accounted the most fabulous Desdemona ever seen”.

See other posts on American history from In That Howling Infinite: Blind Willie McTell – Bob Dylan’s Americana, Rebel Yelland The Bard in the Badlands – Hell is empty and the devils are here,.

Androids Dolores and Teddy enjoy the Westworld view

Deadwood’s wild bunch

The Bard in America’s Uncivil Wars

David Aaronovitch, The Australian, 14th March 2020

On May 10, 1849, outside the Astor Place Opera House in New York, more than 10,000 residents turned out to try to stop the great British Shakespearean actor William Macready giving an interpretation of Macbeth that they didn’t care for. The militia and the hussars were mobilized, artillery was deployed and in the ensuing riot more than a score died and twenty thousand were injured. This was arguably the most extreme event in the history of drama criticism.

This was just one example, according to Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro, of the way in which the playwright turns up at critical moments in American history as guide, mentor, exemplar and even catalyst. When great things happen in the US, someone, somewhere, is brushing up their Shakespeare.

In the case of the 1849 riots, the Bard was largely a pretext. The poor of the city were being roused by populists to attack the wealthy who exploited them, and the blacks and newer immigrants whom they despised. But the bard was a crowd magnet – on one turbulent night, ten thousand New Yorkers saw Macbeth in three separate productions.

Shakespeare in a Divided America

As Shapiro explains in his new book, Shakespeare in a Divided America, the theatre then was cheap and became a place where people of all classes gathered. The public battle about how to play Hamlet between Macready and the much more masculinist American actor Edwin Forrest was taken up by partisans as being a matter of tribal importance.

When demonstrations (including the flinging of animal carcasses on stage) led to Macready being invited to perform more safely in a new, smarter, more expensive venue — the Opera House — the “mob” took it amiss. So Shakespeare became a proxy for the war between the wealthy and cosmopolitan on the one hand, and the poorer and angrier on the other.

Indeed, it was a contention of more sophisticated exponents of American nationalism and nativism that Shakespeare was more like the Americans than like the British. His spirit was more authentically represented by those pioneers who left England for the New World than by the descendants of those who remained.

Certainly it is true that some of our best, most popular Shakespearean scholars have been American, and Shapiro is one of them. Readers who have invested in his two books about seminal years in Shakespeare’s creative life, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare and 1606: Shakespeare and the Year of Lear, know what a lucid, lively joy he is to read.

And his dissection of the controversy over whether the Elizabethan Mr S wrote his own plays, Contested Will, settles the issue for any sensible reader.

Shapiro is the erudite tip of an American iceberg. He tells us that there are no fewer than 150 summer Shakespeare festivals in the US. I looked them up and decided that the Fairbanks Festival in Alaska looked particularly committed.

This enthusiasm is not universal, however, for, as Shapiro points out, the present incumbent “may be the first American president to express no interest in Shakespeare”. Or maybe we’ll see a tweet soon revealing that at private school his Desdemona was accounted the most fabulous Desdemona ever seen.

This was a fate narrowly avoided by Ulysses S Grant, who as a young officer was slated to play opposite Othello in an army production. His Civil War boss, Abraham Lincoln, though never called to act a part on stage, adored Shakespeare, had a particular affection for Macbeth and would recite long and apposite chunks when he felt moved to.

It was ironic, then, that his murderous nemesis, the actor John Wilkes Booth, was also an aficionado. Booth, from an acting family, had a particular liking for Henry IV’s Hotspur and was impressed in a less theoretical way by the regicidal Brutus in Julius Caesar. Indeed, he was playing as Mark Antony opposite his brothers to 2000 playgoers in a large theatre on lower Broadway in 1864 when Confederate sympathizers set fire to the building next door, hoping the flames would spread. Had the plot worked, it would have been the biggest death scene in theatre history.

Booth’s murder of Lincoln was animated by Lincoln’s promise to give limited suffrage to American blacks. And Shapiro writes a brilliant chapter on how Othello was interpreted in the first part of the 19th century as America’s original sin of slavery began to dominate the nation’s politics.

He focuses on the writings of the former president John Quincy Adams, who in 1836 published an essay on The Character of Desdemona. In it Adams wrote of Desdemona that “when Othello smothers her in bed, the terror and the pity subside immediately into the sentiment that she has her deserts”. Why?

As Shapiro tells us, two years earlier Adams had been at a dinner in Boston with the visiting British actress Fanny Kemble. According to her journals, he told her much the same thing, “with a most serious expression of sincere disgust that he considered all her misfortunes as a very just judgment upon her for having married a ‘n***er’ ”. Kemble had married a Texan slave owner. And she noted the Southern hypocrisy about “amalgamation”, given that, as she now knew, “throughout the South a large proportion of the population is the offspring of white men and coloured women”. One of those instances in which British bluntness punctures US social hypocrisy.

This isn’t a long book and it’s easy to read, elegant, to the point and with well-chosen quotes. Other chapters range from how the character of Caliban informed immigration debates in the early 1900s, to the way in which the screenplay of the movie Shakespeare in Love was watered down because of concerns about positive gay themes and Will’s unpunished adultery.

Possibly my favourite chapter convincingly links the musical Kiss Me Kate (based on The Taming of the Shrew) to the post-war situation of American women. During the war, when Rosie was a Riveter, American women went into occupations previously only held by men. And they liked it.

With those men due back from serving abroad, social psychologists and marriage experts expected trouble. Their answer was clearly that women needed to go back into the home and re-become pliant wives.

That many didn’t meekly accept their lot may be measured in the soaring divorce rate, and possibly in the hugely increased incidence of domestic violence. And it’s at this point that one of America’s most successful Shakespeare-inspired productions, Kiss Me Kate, appears, first on stage and then on film. In the film, one of the most famous scenes is when Petruchio puts Kate over his knee and “spanks” her. It’s even on the poster (see the featured image).

This spanking scene, though it had never occurred in any of the previous productions of The Taming of the Shrew, was by now common in US movies. Shapiro tells us there were five films featuring men spanking grown women in 1945 alone. Now Google the words of that most famous song from the show and you’ll see that Brush Up Your Shakespeare is practically a hymn to wife-beating. Someone really should tell the President.

David Aaronovitch is a columnist at The Times.

Shakespeare in a Divided America, James Shapiro Faber, $39.99

 

The last rains came gently – Steinbeck’s dustbowl ballad

The highway is alive tonight
Where it’s headed everybody knows
I’m sitting down here in the campfire light
With the ghost of old Tom Joad
Bruce Springsteen

In the last of our posts commemorating 1968, we pay tribute to author and Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck who died fifty years ago this month.

Back in the day, The Grapes of Wrath was included in our GCE A level curriculum, nearly thirty years after its publication and its iconic status. It was, to our formative minds, a pleasantly surprising choice. In the mid ‘sixties, before Vietnam became the quagmire that sapped America’s blood and treasure and trashed its post-war reputation as a force for good in the world, the land of the free and home of the brave was also was a beacon of bright consumerism, great movies, and pop music. The idea of an American novel in English Lit, so long the preserve of Britain’s literary canon, wonderful though it was, has a certain excitement to it. It gave to us a new literary language, a different sensibility, a fresh perspective.

But Steinbeck’s America was new to us, an America far removed from of the hope and glory that we’d been accustomed to in the years following what was seen as the US’ triumph in World War Two (the costly and critical contribution of the Soviet Union, now our ostensible foe, was singularly downplayed during these years). The Grapes of Wrath was a revelation, an eye-opener, a primer, indeed, for a youthful awareness and politicisation that would be further nurtured by the escalating war in Indochina and the rise and rise of the civil rights movement in the US.

The inevitable examination question in the summer 1967 was exactly that: why were studying an American novel? Any discerning reader taking in the opening pages of chapter one can answer this in a trice. The simple beauty, the lyrical and descriptive power, the gradual but relentlessly unfolding narrative is such that I can recite parts of it from memory over half a century later.

To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

I have reproduced chapter one in full below. In a few short pages, it describes how the the last rains fell on Oklahoma’s cornfields and how the searing summer sun rendered the land to dust, creating the dust bowl so chillingly portrayed by filmmaker Ken Burns in his singular documentary of that name, and propelling tens of thousands of destitute ‘Okies’ “on the long, hard road of flight” (as Bob Dylan would describe it in Chimes of Freedom)  to California. As a literary record of an unfolding environmental disaster, it is without equal.  It is poetical, powerful, and profoundly unsettling, and there’s worse to follow.

There are few books that strike such a chord with me – books that I reread in whole or in part once in a while, often aloud, just for the verbal and lyrical thrill. Moby-Dick is such a one, Herman Melville’s classic treatise on seafaring, whales and obsession – from which this blog takes its name – particularly chapter forty one which brilliantly describes the demented and doomed sea captain’s descent into madness.

Whilst few writers can lay claim to have written the “great American novel”, Steinbeck and Melville cracked the code. My own personal contender would also be CE Morgan’s Sport of Kings, a long and deep story about a old Kentucky horse-breeding family – the “kings” of the title. Like The Grapes of Wrath, it is a harrowing journey through America’s dark soul. Morgan’s debt to Steinbeck  is transparent in her descriptive power.

Far across the road, cattle moaned with longing for a night coming in fits and starts. The air was restless and the crickets thrummed. The hot, humid breath of August was lifting now from the ground, where it had boiled all day, rising to meet the cooler streams of air that hovered over it. Airs kissed and stratified, whitening and thinning as the sun slipped its moorings and sank to the bank of the earth. 

Following the excerpt from The Grapes of Wrath, I republish an informative essay from The Independent with regard to a new biography of Steinbeck on the anniversary of his death. He was a gifted, complex and at times, unpleasant man. His stories of the lives of migrants and workers during US’ Great Depression, most notably in The Grapes of Wrath, and his short stories Cannery Row and Of Mice and Men, resonate today, prefiguring as they do the mass migration of populations due to climate changes, infrastructure collapse, the heartless hypocrisy of trickle-down economics, the reluctance and even refusal of the powers-that-be to help those cast by the wayside or onto the scarp-heap, and the demonisation of those are forced to take to the roads and oceans of the world in search of a better, safer life for themselves and their children.

In a 1952 radio interview, Steinbeck said:

“People were starving and cold and they came in their thousands to California. They met a people who were terrified of Depression and were horrified at the idea that great numbers of indigent people were being poured on them to be taken care of when there wasn’t much money about. They became angry at these newcomers. Gradually, through government and through the work of private citizens, agencies were set up to take care of these situations. Only then did the anger begin to decrease and when the anger decreased, these two sides got to know each other and they found they didn’t dislike each other at all.”

I recall Tom Joad’s parting words in the 1940 film adaptation when he leaves his family to fight for social and economic justice:

“You don’t aim to kill nobody, Tom?”
“No. I been thinkin’, long as I’m a outlaw anyways, maybe I could — Hell, I ain’t thought it out clear, Ma. Don’ worry me now. Don’ worry me.”
They sat silent in the coal-black cave of vines. Ma said, “How’m I gonna know ’bout you? They might kill ya an’ I wouldn’ know. They might hurt ya. How’m I gonna know?”
Tom laughed uneasily, “Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one – an’ then -”
“Then what, Tom?”
“Then it don’ matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where – wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ — I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build –  why, I’ll be there. See? God, I’m talkin’ like Casy. Comes of thinkin’ about him so much. Seems like I can see him sometimes.”

And now, let Steinbeck set the scene for why Tom Joad and his family abandon their farm, pile their possessions on on old truck and head into the west …


The Grapes of Wrath, Chapter One

To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

In the water-cut gullies the earth dusted down in dry little streams. Gophers and ant lions started small avalanches. And as the sharp sun struck day after day, the leaves of the young corn became less stiff and erect; they bent in a curve at first, and then, as the central ribs of strength grew weak, each leaf tilted downward. Then it was June, and the sun shone more fiercely. The brown lines on the corn leaves widened and moved in on the central ribs. The weeds frayed and edged back toward their roots. The air was thin and the sky more pale; and every day the earth paled.

In the roads where the teams moved, where the wheels milled the ground and the hooves of the horses beat the ground, the dirt crust broke and the dust formed. Every moving thing lifted the dust into the air: a walking man lifted a thin layer as high as his waist, and a wagon lifted the dust as high as the fence tops, and an automobile boiled a cloud behind it. The dust was long in settling back again.

When June was half gone, the big clouds moved up out of Texas and the Gulf, high heavy clouds, rainheads. The men in the fields looked up at the clouds and sniffed at them and held wet fingers up to sense the wind. And the horses were nervous while the clouds were up. The rainheads dropped a little spattering and hurried on to some other country. Behind them the sky was pale again and the sun flared. In the dust there were drop craters where the rain had fallen, and there were clean splashes on the corn, and that was all.

A gentle wind followed the rain clouds, driving them on northward, a wind that softly clashed the drying corn. A day went by and the wind increased, steady, unbroken by gusts. The dust from the roads fluffed up and spread out and fell on the weeds beside the fields, and fell into the fields a little way. Now the wind grew strong and hard and it worked at the rain crust in the corn fields. Little by little the sky was darkened by the mixing dust, and the wind felt over the earth, loosened the dust, and carried it away. The wind grew stronger. The rain crust broke and the dust lifted up out of the fields and drove gray plumes into the air like sluggish smoke. The corn threshed the wind and made a dry, rushing sound. The finest dust did not settle back to earth now, but disappeared into the darkening sky.

The wind grew stronger, whisked under stones, carried up straws and old leaves and even little clods, marking its course as it sailed across the fields. The air and the sky darkened and through them the sun shone redly, and there was a raw sting in the air. During a night the wind raced faster over the land, dug cunningly among the rootlets of the corn, and the corn fought the wind with its weakened leaves until the roots were freed by the prying wind and then each stalk settled wearily sideways toward the earth and pointed the direction of the wind.

The dawn came, but no day. In the gray sky a red sun appeared, a dim red circle that gave a little light, like dusk; and as that day advanced, the dusk slipped back toward darkness, and the wind cried and whimpered over the fallen corn.

Men and women huddled in their houses, and they tied handkerchiefs over their noses when they went out, and wore goggles to protect their eyes.

When the night came again it was black night, for the stars could not pierce the dust to get down, and the window lights could not even spread beyond their own yards now the dust was evenly mixed with the air, an emulsion of dust and air. Houses were shut tight, and cloth wedged around doors and windows, but the dust came in so thinly that it could not be seen in the air, and it settled like pollen on the chairs and tables, on the dishes. The people brushed it from their shoulders. Little lines of dust lay at the door sills.

In the middle of that night the wind passed on and left the land quiet. The dust-filled air muffled sound more completely than fog does. The people, lying in their beds heard the wind stop. They awakened when the rushing wind was gone. They lay quietly and listened deep into the stillness. Then the roosters crowed, and their voices were muffled, and the people stirred restlessly in their beds and wanted the morning they knew it would take a long time for the dust to settle out of the air. In the morning the dust hung like fog, and the sun was as red as ripe new blood. All day the dust sifted down from the sky, and the next day it sifted down. An even blanket covered the earth it settled on the corn, piled up on the tops of the fence posts, piled up on the wires; it settled on roofs, blanketed the weeds and trees.

The people came out of their houses and smelled the hot stinging air and covered their noses from it. And the children came out of the houses, but they did not run or shout as they would have done after a rain. Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn, drying fast now, only a little green showing through the film of dust. The men were silent and they did not move often. And the women came out of the houses to stand beside their men—to feel whether this time the men would break. The women studied the men’s faces secretly, for the corn could go, as long as something else remained. The children stood near by, drawing figures in the dust with bare toes, and the children sent exploring senses out to see whether men and women would break the children peeked at the faces of the men and women, and then drew careful lines in the dust with their toes. Horses came to the watering troughs and nuzzled the water to clear the surface dust.

After a while the faces of the watching men lost their bemused perplexity and became hard and angry and resistant. Then the women knew that they were safe and that there was no break. Then they asked, What’ll we do? And the men replied, I don’t know. But it was all right. The women knew it was all right, and the Watching children knew it was all right. Women and children knew deep in themselves That no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole. The women went into the houses to their work, and the children began to play, but cautiously at first. As the Day went forward the sun became less red. It flared down on the dust-blanketed land The men sat in the doorways of their houses; their hands were busy with sticks and Little rocks. The men sat still—thinking—figuring.


John Steinbeck: A flawed genius

Martin Chilton, The Independent 20th December 2018

It’s the 50th anniversary of the death of Steinbeck, who will be the subject of a new biography in 2019. The Nobel Prize-winning author of The Grapes of Wrath was a complicated and controversial man, explains Martin Chilton in The Independent 20th December 2018 

New light was shed on the writer when interviews given by his second wife were found in a loft in Wales last year

“I have left a lot of tracks in my life,” said John Steinbeck, a giant of 20th-century literature, who died on 20 December 1968 at the age of 66. Novels such as Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden made him world famous, yet some of the truth about his past has taken half a century to come to light. Steinbeck was a complicated and contradictory man – and weirder than you might have thought.

Mad at the World is the title of a new biography to be published in 2019, and there is little doubt that Steinbeck was an angry man. He was outraged by injustice, poverty and prejudice, as his books make clear. He was also capable of more personal animosities, whether that was towards Adolf Hitler, his second wife or even book reviewers (“what lice they are”).

The quirkiness of his character was evident at a young age. Steinbeck was already dreaming about becoming a professional writer when he enrolled as an English major at Stanford University at the age of 17. He tried to sign up for a practical course in how to dissect corpses. “I want to learn about human beings,” he told a clearly unimpressed dean of the medical school. His application was rejected. Medicine’s loss was literature’s gain, and he went on to win a Pulitzer Prize in the novel category (1940), the Nobel Prize in Literature (1962) and the United States Medal of Freedom (1964).

Although he never got the chance to cut up bodies, he was to spend a lot of time in hospital, because illness and freakish accidents were a recurrent theme in his life. The pattern started at high school in Salinas, the Californian town where he was born on 27 February 1902. At age 16, Steinbeck contracted pleural pneumonia and came close to death. A doctor saved him by cutting through his rib cage to drain the fluid. Around a year later, he was seriously ill again and had to have his appendix removed.

Things were little better in adulthood. He had a serious kidney infection that required hospital treatment. He had an operation on a detached retina, an operation to remove varicose veins and another to repair a shattered knee cap after a balcony rail gave way on the second floor of his Manhattan home. In 1959 he suffered a stroke, in 1960 he had a suspected heart attack. At the end of his life, he was poleaxed by a back injury that required complicated surgery.

As fate would have it, an injury to a stranger was one of the decisive factors in pushing Steinbeck towards full-time writing. After leaving Stanford without graduating, he had spells working on farms and as a painter’s apprentice before moving to New York in the mid-1920s. In New York, he worked on a building site, ferrying wheelbarrows loaded with 100 pounds of cement, during the construction of Madison Square Garden. Six weeks into the job, a co-worker fell to a bloody death near where Steinbeck stood. The horrific sight made Steinbeck throw up. He quit his job that night.

His uncle helped him land a job as a reporter for the New York American, a William Randolph Hearst newspaper, but he quickly became disillusioned by journalism and returned to California. He worked as a tour guide and it was in that job he met his first wife Carol Henning. His wedding came shortly after the publication of his first novel, 1929’s Cup of Gold. It was the start of a career that would produce 16 novels and novellas, two sets of short stories, 11 non-fiction books, two plays, two screenplays and a large volume of letters.

Steinbeck sometimes played up to the image of a struggling writer whose upbringing was hard financially. Throughout the 1920s, however, Steinbeck was getting an allowance from his father, the treasurer of Monterey County, of $50 ($700 or £550 in today’s terms) a month. “Most people imagine that Steinbeck came from an impoverished background and was almost one of those workers in The Grapes of Wrath, but his family home in Salinas was a beautiful Victorian house with maids and servants,” said his biographer Jay Parini in 1994. “His was a self-conscious identification with working people, but he always travelled first-class and stayed in suites at the Dorchester in London and the Georges Cinq in Paris,” Parini added.

After a series of well-received novels, including 1935’s Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck won critical acclaim in 1937 for his novella Of Mice and Men, the moving portrait-in-miniature of 1930s California, seen through the friendship of oddball ranch workers George and Lennie. Two years later came The Grapes of Wrath, one of the defining novels of the 20th century, a work of rich descriptive power, in which Steinbeck showed his ability to summon poetry out of poverty in the lives of the “Okie” Joad family.

This deeply affecting story about the oppression of migrant workers, who were fleeing from the Dust Bowl states to California, struck a chord with an America reeling from the Great Depression. By February 1940, the novel was in its 11th printing, having sold nearly half a million copies. More than 15 million copies were bought in the next eight decades and around 50,000 copies are still bought in America every year.

The impact of Steinbeck’s work on the American people was momentous. When I met the singer and actor Harry Belafonte, he told me Steinbeck “was one of the people who turned my life around as a young man”, inspiring “a lifelong love of literature”. Arthur Miller wrote of Steinbeck, “I can’t think of another American writer, with the possible exception of Mark Twain, who so deeply penetrated the political life of the country.”

The 1940 film adaptation of the novel, starring Henry Fonda, is considered a Hollywood classic. Only a bitter legal dispute over the writer’s estate (between Steinbeck’s stepdaughter Waverly Scott Kaffaga and his daughter-in-law Gail Steinbeck) prevented Steven Spielberg from going ahead with his proposed remake of the movie in 2017.

Steinbeck rarely gave interviews, but in 1952 he spoke to the radio network Voice of America about how he had been “filled with anger” at the ill-treatment of migrant workers. “People were starving and cold and they came in their thousands to California,” Steinbeck said. “They met a people who were terrified of Depression and were horrified at the idea that great numbers of indigent people were being poured on them to be taken care of when there wasn’t much money about. They became angry at these newcomers. Gradually, through government and through the work of private citizens, agencies were set up to take care of these situations. Only then did the anger begin to decrease and when the anger decreased, these two sides got to know each other and they found they didn’t dislike each other at all.”

Many years later, it emerged that the FBI file had begun to keep files on the writer at this time, justifying it with claims that “many of Steinbeck’s writings portrayed an extremely sordid and poverty-stricken side of American life”. Thankfully, more enlightened minds than FBI director J Edgar Hoover were in positions of influence when Steinbeck won literature’s most illustrious award. It is notable that the Nobel committee praised his “keen social perception”.

The Grapes of Wrath was making Steinbeck world famous just as the 41-year-old began to fall for a 22-year-old nightclub singer called Gwyn Conger, whom he married in 1943. Three decades later, as a divorcee in her late fifties, Conger gave a series of interviews in Palm Springs to a show business writer called Douglas Brown. These interviews remained unpublished for more than four decades, until they were discovered in a loft in Wales in 2017.

After they had two children together – Thomas, born in 1944, and John Steinbeck IV, born in 1946 – the acrimony became unbearable and she divorced him in 1948. “The impulse of the American woman is to geld her husband and castrate her sons,” Steinbeck wrote to a friend shortly after his marriage ended. “American married life is the doormat to the whorehouse.” He would exact his revenge a few years later when he based Cathy, the wicked alcoholic character in East of Eden, on Conger. He would also fight her in court throughout the next decade to avoid paying child support.

Steinbeck, a heavy drinker, was not blind to his own failings and mood swings. “I know of no sadder people than those who believe their own publicity,” he said. Steinbeck had suffered from bouts of depression in the 1940s and even after meeting and marrying his third wife, Elaine Scott, he was frequently brought low by what he called his “what-the-hell blues”. Steinbeck said he “hit the bottom” in October 1953, a year after the publication of East of Eden, when he was treated at Lenox Hill Hospital by psychologist Gertrudis Brenner. “A sad soul can kill quicker than a germ,” he remarked.

In this period of mental health problems, he produced some of the strangest work of his career. In 1955, he published a short story called The Affair at 7 Rue de M, a horror-like tale about a child who is unable to get rid of a piece of bubble gum. Wherever he puts it, the gum keeps finding its way back into the boy’s mouth. In desperation, the father cements the gum to a dining table and it takes a week for the piece of gum to die. Steinbeck later burned dozens of stories from this period. He also abandoned a novel about a man who watches one too many westerns on television and then puts on a cowboy hat and heads out to be an urban vigilante.

Poet Ezra Pound once dismissed accounts of a writer’s life as a mere “laundry list” and Steinbeck shared this disdain for focusing on the personal life of an author. Perhaps he has a point. What can we ultimately conclude from the knowledge that Steinbeck preferred writing with pencils (using up to 60 in a day), that he liked jazz, enjoyed playing the harmonica, laughed at jokes by Bob Hope, preferred smoking small cigars and regularly snacked on tuna-covered crackers, washed down by red wine?

“The fact that I have housemaid’s knees or fear yellow gloves has little to do with the books I write,” he said. He derided the public’s need to “create a Steinbeck out of its own imagination” and insisted there were more important matters on which to focus. In 1938, for example, shocked by reports of the Nazi looting and burning of Jewish homes and synagogues in Germany, he was among a small band of writers, including Dorothy Parker, who sent a telegram to President Franklin D Roosevelt urging him to cut all ties with Hitler. Steinbeck became a war correspondent for The New York Herald during the subsequent conflict, reporting from England, North Africa and Italy.

Steinbeck was certainly a progressive in a backward era of race relations. He asked for his name to be taken off the screenplay for the wartime Alfred Hitchcock film The Lifeboat, because he was furious that the “dignified and purposeful” black character he had created had been “distorted”. He wrote to 20th Century Fox to complain about the addition of “a stock comedy negro”, blaming them for “strange and sly obliquities”. Not only did the Fox bosses deny his request, they actively stepped up a publicity campaign that highlighted Steinbeck as the screenwriter. The Oscar nomination he received simply added salt to the wound.

Despite these laudable actions, he was not above his own dirty tactics. In 1958, he was asked by Adlai Stevenson’s fixer, William McCormick Blair Jr, to write a novel that featured a corrupt version of presidential candidate Richard M Nixon. Steinbeck rejected the idea and instead suggested attacks on Nixon’s character, “kidney punch” zingers as he called them, such as starting rumours about Nixon and wife-beating. “All of these are dirty, but as I said, the man who tries Queensberry against gutter fighting is going to get the hell kicked out of him,” Steinbeck wrote to Blair.

John Updike said that for most Americans in the post-war era, Steinbeck’s reputation was as “a best-seller as well as a Nobel Prize-winning author of high intent”, but during the 1960s Steinbeck’s politics moved away from the liberalism that had earned him a reputation as America’s social conscience. He became friends with President Johnson (helping him to write his acceptance speech) and reported sympathetically on the Vietnam war from late 1966 to early 1967.

Observers in Vietnam noted Steinbeck’s fascination for American weaponry, especially the Douglas AC-47 Spooky gunship, nicknamed “Puff the Magic Dragon”. It could fire a hundred rounds of 50-calibre bullets every second. The writer loved going target practice shooting with the same type of M16 rifle the troops carried. He even manned a US army outpost during a night of sporadic fire.

His sons Thomas and John were on active duty in the US army at the time of his visit. John later became a fierce opponent of the war, a stance that put him at odds with Steinbeck, who wrote publicly about how Vietnam peace protesters gave him “a shiver of shame”. Steinbeck derided the hippie demonstrators for their “dirty clothes, dirty minds and their shuffling drag-ass protests”.

It is a characteristically odd twist that the 64-year-old who was able to survive a night taking on the Vietcong – and an attack on a helicopter in which he was a passenger – did himself irreparable harm with the innocuous action of lifting some beer. In Hong Kong, travelling back from Vietnam with his wife Elaine, he helped a Chinese delivery man. As he lifted the case of beer, he ruptured a spinal disc. Six months later, still in agonising pain, he had a five-hour operation on his back. The last few months before his death from a heart attack at his East 72nd Street home in New York were deeply miserable.

Biographers Jackson Benson (1984) and Jay Parini (1995) have previously battled with the character of Steinbeck and that challenge has now been taken up by William Souder, whose biography Mad at the World: John Steinbeck and the American Century will be published by WW Norton & Company in 2019.

There is no shortage of fascinating material for Pulitzer finalist Souder to re-examine. As well as Steinbeck’s writing (the prize-winning novels and less-well known masterpieces such as Cannery Row, The Pearl and Sweet Thursday), there is his sometimes madcap life, such as his drunken treasure-hunting escapades in the Bahamas. Even his friend, the noted psychological novelist Sherwood Anderson, admitted that he couldn’t “figure out Steinbeck”.

With Steinbeck, the unexpected was the norm. When his New York house was burgled in 1963, for example, the police report listed the stolen items as “a television set and six rifles”. The writer enjoyed the idiosyncrasy of humans. When he was asked for his “rules for life” by a friend in Vietnam, Steinbeck replied with his four mottos: “Never make excuses. Never let them see you bleed. Never get separated from your luggage. Always find out when the bar opens.”

Souder says he is excited by the challenge of writing about such a complex figure. “One of the things that attracted me to Steinbeck is that he was far from perfect – as a man, a husband, a writer, he had issues,” Souder told the website Steinbeck Now. “He had a permanent chip on his shoulder. He got side-tracked by ideas that were a waste of his time and talent. Some of his work is brilliant and some of it is awful. That’s what you want in a subject – a hero with flaws. Steinbeck was a literary giant who wouldn’t play along with the idea that he was important. I love that. He was mad at the world because it seemed somehow mad at him.”

Steinbeck wasn’t always mad at the world, though. Ten years before his death, this conflicted genius wrote a memorable letter to Thomas Steinbeck (the full version is available here), after his 14-year-old son revealed he had fallen desperately in love with a girl named Susan.

“There are several kinds of love,” he wrote, signing the letter as “Fa”. “One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you – of kindness and consideration and respect – not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had … don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens – the main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.”

These tender and optimistic words of advice remain, like Steinbeck’s best writing, an absolute joy, despite the flaws of the man.


Here are other posts in In That Howling Infinite with regard to 1968:  Things fall apart – the centre cannot hold;  Springtime in Paris – remembering May 1968Phil Och’s Chicago Blues ; and Tanks for the memory – how Brezhnev changed my life

And the ‘sixties: Encounters with Enoch; Recalling the Mersey PoetsThe Strange Death of Sam CookeLooking for LehrerShock of the Old – the glory days of prog rockWindow on a Gone WorldBack in the day; and, The Incorrigible Optimists Club