“This machine kills fascists”: Nick Hayes’ Woody Guthrie, the Dustbowl Ballads

Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl Ballads Hardcover,

Nick Hayes,

Jonathan Cape

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This land was his land as much as the next man’s. Like the folk songs he sang, it belonged to everyone, so it belonged to no-one…”

Guardian cartoonist Nick Hayes made his graphic novel debut a couple of years ago with the intriguing – not to mention large – Rime of the Modern Mariner, an interesting contemporary riff on the classic Coleridge poem with a strong ecological message and some amazing artwork and use of pacing and rhythm. This, his second full-length work, follows Woody Guthrie, arguably one of the most famous and influential folk musicians of the last century, and a lasting influence on many later artists (not least Bob Dylan), but this is no straightforward biography told in comics form. No, what Hayes does here is more interesting than a straight biographical narrative – this is about the man, yes, but it is even more about the events and times that made him and shaped the music he sang throughout the land, criss-crossing the vast landscape of America, riding the box-cars with hoboes and with men seeking any place that had work and the promise of a better life during the heart of the Depression.

The art is mostly in a mixture of browns and coppers and beiges, recalling an old sepia photograph, and very stylised, sometimes Woody and other characters looking fairly cartoony, in other scenes the artwork looks almost like an old woodcut, and it ranges from depicting the miserable suffering of the twin economic and ecological disaster of the Dust Bowl and Depression, or the desperation of the shanty towns in and around most large American cities full of the poor looking for work that just wasn’t there, in their ‘Hoovertowns’, named after the president on whose watch these disasters happened (the shanty towns contrasting with the new gleaming skyscrapers making their early appearance on the skyline).

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It’s scenes we know from Steinbeck and the Grapes of Wrath and a thousand photographs, but here Hayes works it directly into how Woody is shaped, passing through all of this, seeing men like his father go from respected, well-off successful businessman to menial work just to hold his head above water, and knowing that was better than millions could manage. No work, mass unemployment, homes and farms being foreclosed on by banks which themselves had overstretched and failed helping to create the crisis in the first place then blaming their customers for not being able to repay those mortgages and loans. It all has far too much resonance to our own troubled times since the global financial meltdown, caused, ironically, in part by a lifting of the regulations on banks and finance that were brought in after this Great Depression to stop it happening again.

But this isn’t just a walk through the horribly dust-blown suffering of those who lost everything, who tried to believe in the American Dream, that they could always move on, start again, make something of themselves then, by the million, often through no fault of their own, because of powers beyond them that could ruin their lives from afar, finding themselves destitute. While Hayes does show this suffering and desperation and how it fuels Woody’s lifelong rage at social inequality and injustice, he shows hope, he shows traditions, many brought over from the old countries, this being the early part of the 20th century when many Americans were only a generation or two off the immigration boat.

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And among these traditions, songs: the shared common folk-songs, rarely written down, passed along, known by all, the communal cultural heritage of the many, telling of their own times and those of their predecessors. Woody takes these, fascinated by the stories they told, the way the songs gave voice to a poor mass of the population that would otherwise be silent, preserving their sense of identity and culture in the face of all disasters (a history for those who don’t usually get to write their own histories, preserved instead in ballads shared among the community, generation to generation) and offering little moments of joy in the misery, all singing and dancing in a local hall, troubles forgotten for a night.

Son, down here we own the land like a hand owns its body. It don’t belong to us. We belong to it. The land was here long before we came and will be here long after we’re gone…”

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Into this political-financial-ecological time of disaster Hayes also weaves a much more fantastical element, contrasting the lines closing off tracts of that vast continent, both the physical lines of fences (no trespassing, private property, keep out) or the ones on paper (bank records, congratulations, you’ve bought all this land and can do what you want, eject who you want). Hayes contrasts this with that great Westward Expansion dream that powered the previous century in the US, the seemingly endless land to be exploited (until it is over-exploited, as with the Great Plains, ancient ecology ruined without thought leading to Biblical levels of disaster) and the horizon forever free, and those astonishing landscapes, from the Great Plains to the stunning deserts. He shows the ‘patriotic’ songs of the period, which strangely enough tend to be popular with those who have done well out of the system, grasping at everything to make it turn a dollar, the 1920s and 30s version of the “1%”, even the land commodified. And out of those he starts to fashion his most famous song, “this land is your land, this land is my land…”, both song and book contrasting the promise, the dream of that astonishing, vast, continent with all its resources and space, everyone on a seemingly equal footing, except of course they’re not, there are always the smaller groups who control it all, but the dream of that freedom to be and do what you want and to make something of yourself is still there.

It’s about history, it’s about the exploitation of the many by the small elite, it’s about financial and ecological disasters and how the two are often entwined, but it is also about the music and the people, and how you can’t separate the two, how the music is made by the people but it is also a part of them and shapes them, their sense of who they are, where they came from, giving them strength to struggle on, inspire them, keep them going, tell their story. A beautiful work, beautifully executed, with enormous relevance to our own very troubled times. Stick on a best of Woody Guthrie CD then sit back and read it.

Carnival

The Fringe – the world’s biggest arts festival – and the main Edinburgh Festival and Edinburgh Book Festival start in August, but we’re currently already in the Jazz and Blues Festival, which kicked off last weekend with with a carnival style parade along a packed Princes Street on a very hot day, then down into Princes Street Gardens afterwards where some performers put on shows in the Ross Theatre (open air theatre in the gardens, right below Castle Rock) and others did little bits on the parkland around the theatre too.

I loved this very colourful costume and the lettering round his tuba:

Of course, being Edinburgh as well as exotic musicians and dancers we had a pipe band:

This is how busy the Ross Theatre in the Gardens was after the parade:

Asian performers waiting to go on stage in the Gardens:

Performers relaxing on the grass after the parade

Celtic warrior woman putting on sword fighting display while band plays

Didn’t catch this foreign band’s name, but they were belting it out and really getting the crowd going

Music in film

It’s probably not surprising given I am a huge cinephile that I also really enjoy a lot of film soundtrack music. The other day I was listening to Gershwin when the album reach Rhapsody in Blue and right away I was mentally visualising that wonderful monochrome opening to Woody Allen’s Manhattan “he adored New York… for him it still pulsated to the great music of George Gershwin…”

And it made me think how sometimes certain pieces of music can become eternally associated with a scene from a film. I don’t just mean original soundtrack music – like John Williams’ opening for the original Star Wars, for instance, conjuring up that amazing (for the time, young me had seen nothing like these gigantic ships thundering across the screen after the opening crawl of text) opening of that saga, or Hans Zimmer’s powerful Inception soundtrack. No, I was thinking on music which had existed in its own right before being borrowed for us in a film – sometimes it can be a little known piece of music, or at least little known to the wider public, such as Barber’s Adagio in Platoon or Strauss’ waltz in the famous space docking sequence in 2001. Obviously classical music admirers knew those, but the films brought them to a wider audience and also indelibly linked those pieces forever in most people’s minds with those scenes in the movies.

Of course there is Herman Hupfeld’s “As Time Goes By” which originally dated from the early 1930s, but really became better known – any by better known I mean immortal – in the 1940s when used in Casablanca. If not for that I doubt most of us would ever have heard of the song, whereas now if we hear it we connect it to one of the best films of all time right away.

Sometimes it can be a well-known track a lot of folk had in their collection from years back, which suddenly leaps back into the pop-cultural landscape, fresh for a new audience, a nostalgic flashback for older fans. Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life suddenly gained a second lease of life when used in the pounding opening of the film version of Trainspotting:

Or Gary Jules’ cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” for Donnie Darko:

And arguably these days for a lot of folk these days those songs will always be associated with the films. And then there’s the great use of Queen’s mid 1970s hit Bohemian Rhapsody for 90s cult hit Wayne’s World:

And Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock & Roll” with a very young Tom Cruise dancing around in his socks in Risky Business:

And the Pixies’ brilliant “Where is my mind?” for the closing of Fight Club:

And a personal favourite of mine, Goth classic “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus used in the opening to The Hunger – this one going so far as to actually use Pete Murphy and the boys in the film:

And there are hundreds more – think Steppenwolf’s rock classic “Born to be Wild” in Easy Rider, the Doors and even Wagner in Apocalypse Now and goodness knows how many more, classical, jazz, pop, rock that either existed before but were little known until selected for use in a film scene or else they had enjoyed their moment of success and suddenly found themselves with a second bite at the cherry (Quentin Tarantino has done both numerous times in pretty much every film soundtrack he’s ever made). I’m sure you can think of plenty of other similar examples off the top of your head.

Making music on the Mound

Walking through Edinburgh on the way home from work the other evening and came across this trio on the Mound, right by Princes Street Gardens, in the space next to the Royal Scottish Academy. They are called Marama and consisted of two drummers and a bagpiper, kicking out the jams to a fabulous beat, folk music but with a more modern edge, which reminded me of bands like Shooglenifty we used to go to see back in our student days who took Scots and Irish folk music but reworked it in a modern style (we danced all night to those, irresistible beat).

They were having a ball, drummers whacking away and the piper frequently dancing around them both as the beat rolled out across the city and the crowd cheered along.

Great fun to come across things like this just ambling home, another sign of moving properly into spring and summer (despite the weather!) as street performers start to appear more often.

And here’s a short video clip of them in action – sorry, being a street scene the audio isn’t that great and doesn’t do them justice really, but was only way I could try and grab at least a bit of of their sound to share:

Going medieval

A little medieval music in the Grassmarket area of Edinburgh recently (an area of the Old Town directly below the Castle, which boasts inns which were centuries old even when Robert Burns came to town), part of a wee medieval fayre which was taking place among the regular farmer’s market that takes place there at weekends, and included some re-creations of Medieval music and instruments:

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And here’s a short video if you are wondering what it sounded like:

Of course there were also some knights on hand…

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And a rather fine selection of replica Medieval swords, which they were kind enough to let us pick up and try – rather heftier than the kinds of swords I trained with in my fencing days!

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We were having a good walk about taking in Doors Open Day when we saw that this was on, a perfect autumnal day too, beautiful, golden autumn sunlight and unseasonably warm for the time of year too, nice little extra bonus seeing this as we ambled around the city.

Free music from Belgium: the Royal Harmony Orchestra

The Royal Harmony Orchestra from Belgium is coming to Scotland in July and among their number if my own family’s Belgian contingent, with a free concert on the afternoon of Monday 9th July at three pm in the Ross Bandstand in the West Princes Street Gardens, right beneath the mighty edifice of Edinburgh Castle, if you are in town then please consider going along and giving them some support (and enjoying some free music to boot)

 

They will also be performing in Edinburgh’s historic Saint Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile on Tuesday 10th July at twelve noon (again free entrance for all the events), the Wallace High Assembly Hall on Wednesday 11th at eight pm, Dunbar Harbour on Thursday 12th at three pm, and Saint John’s Kirk, Perth, on Friday 13th at twelve noon.

 

Lord of the Strings

Lindsey Stirling’s violin medley of music from the soundtrack of the magnificent Lord of the Rings films is simply superb – from the beautiful airs of the songs to the more martial theme of the horse lords that stirs up the blood for a cavalry charge against the Orcish hordes…

And on a non musical note, Lindsey herself is incredibly cute and Elfin.

You’re a creep, Charlie Brown…

This re-edit of clips from the old Peanuts animated cartoon showcases poor old Charlie Brown against the Vega Choir’s beautiful cover version of Radiohead’s fabulous song Creep. It suits it so well, both funny and quite sad at the same time, seems so appropriate for Charlie Brown, one of the nice guys who always seems to get the rough end of the stick be it in baseball or his quest of the little red-haired girl…