“This train is bound for glory, this train is bound for glory…don’t carry nothing but the righteous and the holy…this train don’t carry no gamblers, liars, thieves, nor big shot ramblers…this train don’t carry no smokers, two bit liars, small time jokers…this train don’t carry no con men, no wheelers dealers, here and gone men…this train don’t carry no rustlers, side street walkers, two bit hustlers, this train is bound for glory, this train.”
First things first; I really, really don’t like Bob Dylan’s music. I agree Like a Rolling Stone is one of the greatest songs ever written; I sang Blowing in the Wind with my ten year old classmates at a school concert (our other song was Eleanor Rigby – what was our teacher’s problem?); and I believe that the pessimism and fatalism that paralyzed the end of the 60s (and all generations since) began when the energy fueled by songs like The Times They Are a Changin’ and A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall was neutered by the murders of two Kennedys and a King. So even if I do insist on holding onto such disparate and potentially contradictory beliefs, at least they helped inform and guide me through previously troubled waters; and with the water currently five feet high and rising, there aint no Johnny Cash to help us no more.
The quote above is from This Train Is Bound For Glory, a song by Woody Guthrie who you may or may not have heard of. You may better know him as the man behind This Land Is Your Land. I myself first heard of Woody in a genetics lecture at university! Guthrie was a famous folk singer who died in the 1960s from Huntington’s Chorea, a progressively degenerative genetically acquired disorder of the central nervous system. If you have it, there is no cure. If one of your parents has it, you stand a 50:50 chance of developing it yourself. Symptoms first appear in your thirties but a simple blood test can confirm whether or not you have the disease; many people choose not to take the test, better not to know. I suffer from a chronic curiosity and it was such curiosity that drove me, two or three years ago, to learn a little more about Bob Dylan and what others saw in his music.
It all began simply enough with the Martin Scorsese-directed dictionary, No Direction Home. This is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen and in the era of Michael Moore, Exxon and Al Gore, provided a fitting reminder that documentaries need not always ram uncomfortable truths down our throats until we gag on the inconvenience of it all. No Direction Home runs to almost four hours yet only documents Dylan’s early career until his motorcycle accident in 1966.
It whetted an appetite which I tried to sate with Dylan’s ‘autobiography’, Chronicles Vol. 1. Maddeningly obtuse but no less illuminating, Chronicles, like No Direction Home, is haunted by the ghost of one wandering troubadour and the struggles of another. The first is Woody Guthrie (without whom there would be no Dylan) who wrote a book describing his own adventures wandering back and forth across America, hoboing on freight trains, collecting, learning and writing increasingly political folk songs such as the one quoted above. That book was Bound for Glory and, along with Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, it persists as a lasting testimony and document of an almost forgotten America that begged, bartered and limped its way through the Great Depression from 1929 to 1940.
Bound for Glory is also the title of the film biography of Guthrie’s life. Starring David Carradine, Bound for Glory was directed by Hal Ashby, now nearly forgotten but in his day Ashby had one of Hollywood’s greatest directorial streaks starting with Harold and Maude in 1971 and continuing through The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, and Coming Home, until Being There in 1979. Whether deeply personal or overtly political, Ashby’s work both epitomized and mourned the spirit that saw America through the Great Depression while simultaneously channeling it to salve the wounds inflicted on America during the Summer and Fall of love.
Another name that strides through Chronicles and No Direction Home is that of Pete Seeger, the Johnny Appleseed of American folk music. Seeger achieved national fame with a string of hits in the 1950s with The Weavers, including Leadbelly’s Goodnight Irene and Woody Guthrie’s So Long It’s Been Good to Know You. Their success was cut short when members of the group became blacklisted as Communist sympathizers by Senator Joe McCarthy and radio coverage and studio backing subsequently dried up. Seeger himself went unnoticed for the next decade until the likes of Dylan, Joan Baez and The Chuckle Brothers refused to go quietly and dragged their friend and inspiration up onto their stages and back into public view. This time around, instead of hit records and chart toppers, Seeger took up political causes and used his music to both inspire and remind America of the power its people held, if only they would stand as one and not be moved. Pete Seeger is now 91 years old and has written such songs as If I Had A Hammer, Where Have All The Flowers Gone?, Turn, Turn, Turn, and, We Shall Overcome. He is also responsible for the initiation of the conservation scheme to clean up the Hudson river. Pete Seeger: Power of Song, the documentary that relates his incredible journey was released in 2007 and has to be seen to be believed. One man; all of this from just one man.
All of which leads me to a personal favourite. A Mighty Wind tells the tale of a group of washed up folk musicians who come together to play a tribute concert to honour the passing of one of the great names of the 1960s folk movement. Told in a mockumentary style the film follows three different groups who are struggling to exist in 21st century America but have a chance to roll back the years and shine onstage one more time. The cast are familiar enough from other Christopher Guest films (Waiting For Guffman, Best In Show, For Your Consideration) and the score is a tour de force of on the nail parodies and faux folk classics that were written and performed live by all cast members. In the closing moments as every musician takes to the stage the laughter stops and A Mighty Wind becomes both powerful and heartbreaking; “A mighty wind is blowing, it’s blowing peace and freedom, it’s blowing equality.” Sentiments thirty years old that should by now be commonplace but are instead naively nostalgic. A test we took and failed as parodied in the satire of the final lines, “it’s blowing you and me.”
The recent mid-term trouncing of Barack and his buddies first set me on this train of thought. Not so much the defeat and roll back of optimism, change and ‘yes we can’; moreso, its rollover replacement with old familiars and significant steps backward to the era of The Tea Party and it’s Chief Mad Hatted Monster, Sarah Palinstein (copyright howlatesthemovie 2010).
The evidence of the last ninety years is there for all to see, read and hear; the times they are indeed a changing and there is very little to suggest that we shall overcome but if you need a movie to watch sometime in the next few weeks then you could do a lot worse than any one of these – The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, Bound For Glory, Power of Song, No Direction Home, Bobby, Coming Home, and, best of all, A Mighty Wind. Gone Baby Gone is pretty damn good too, even if it is directed by Ben Affleck.