In Search of Grown-Up Anger by Lew Rosenbaum
I’m forever grateful to Lee Ballinger, for writing his review of Grown-Up Anger in Counterpunch. (Read the review here) I don’t have to do the work he did to dig into the history of the Upper Peninsula or the Dustbowl. I don’t have to spend the time recounting the incomparable connections that author Daniel Wolff draws between Dylan and Guthrie (the subtitle of this book is The Connected Mysteries of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Calumet Massacre of 1913), or to spend time on the music (which I am not skilled enough to do anything more than sketch). Instead I can dwell on the title, Grown-Up Anger, and why that is such an important part of this story.
At 18 years old, I was angry about Yale rejecting me, angry that my father wanted me to go to work rather than go to college, angry that Columbia accepted me without automatically giving me a scholarship, angry as an outcast at school, angry that my mother wanted me to stay close to home. I packed my resentment in my suitcases and fled from New Haven, Connecticut to Los Angeles, California to get far away from everything that made me angry. That’s how I started, and that’s what I brought to the table when I started to read Daniel Wolff’s Grown-Up Anger.
“You could start elsewhere,” Daniel begins his book. Elsewhere meaning other than being 13 and angry. “You could start here,” he writes to end the book, describing the molten lava at the core of the earth, at the core of the story of Calumet, at the core of the story of the music of both Guthrie and Dylan. But Wolff starts not with economics, not with anthropology, not with geology. The author starts with music, with hearing a raw voice coming out of the radio, the first time he heard Bob Dylan, “Like A Rolling Stone” representing what anger is all about at 13, and who isn’t angry at 13? Angry at everything, adults dismissing that anger, and, Wolff says, “I swore I’d never forget that look. Never forget how adults dismiss what kids say . . .”
Stay with me now. This is not “just another book glorifying or justifying teenage angst.” Quotes because I can see readers my age shaking their heads with knowing smiles of actualized wisdom. This is a book about perception and reality. Daniel conjures up the pictures of the angry young Dylan and Guthrie, how they see themselves and the world, how their portraits correspond to reality – or not. And, even more important, how these pictures change with changing circumstances.
So Daniel Wolff was an angry 13 year old when he first heard Bob Dylan (on the radio) singing “Like A Rolling Stone.” The more he heard it, the more everything about the song declared, “Outrage was the only way to respond to the world, the only way to get out from under the crust of lies to something like the truth.” And there you have it in one short sentence. There is a world that is a trickster and a sham. But, there is a truth that lies beneath the lies. We are justified in being angry that the world lies to us. How do we penetrate those lies to uncover liberate the truth?
Wolff discovers “Like A Rolling Stone,” discovers Dylan, goes poking around in record bins to find more, and happens a few years later, when in college, on an album by Woody Guthrie. Listening to Guthrie, Daniel Wolff finds it easy to see what Dylan learned from Guthrie. But in searching for more Guthrie (hard to find) he finds an album recently released by Guthrie’s son Arlo, with a song Woody wrote called “1913 Massacre.” The tune, he recognizes, was what led him to Woody in the first place, a tune used by Dylan in his first album, an homage called “Talkin’ Woody.” Now this is a story of how everything is connected, not in some imaginary way grafted on to reality to make it seem to fit like a Procrustean Bed. This is pure dialectics. That Guthrie and Dylan are tied together through this “Talkin’ Woody.” But that the tune of “Talkin’ Woody” comes from an actual Woody Guthrie tune, “1913 Massacre,” that is linked to the context in which both songwriters/singers were coming to terms with the reality, the truth of the world around them.
One thing that’s really great about this book is how Daniel Wolff unpacks the context of the thread he is following—by the time the first chapter ends you know that you will find clues in the massacre in 1913, where more than 70 children died for money and greed. Dylan’s anger, from the days of “Like a Rolling Stone,” has transformed into some kind of icon; while Guthrie’s hopeful music of the world yet to come has receded into some kind of history. “Is that what happens to anger? Is there no way for it to grow up.”
Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie both created myths about themselves, and one part of the book delves into what is the truth, what isn’t, and does it really matter? Or put another way, when is the myth truer than truth? And while it may seem that this question is in the realm of biography, which so often is falsified (especially in terms of celebrities), Wolff also takes his lens to the truth and myth of Calumet on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and the massacre that happened there in 1913. It does matter if the doors in that building opened in or out. It does matter how the mineowners treated their workers. It does matter how the union responded to the demands of the miners. This book is about perception and reality, about context, and, near the end of the book Wolff returns to pursue the theme of anger growing up. Here’s Woody Guthrie, writing about two kinds of anger:
What is an outlaw? . . . [T]he outlaw is beat. Beat to start with. The whole world is against him. Reason why is because he’s not organized. He’s just by his self. Wants to holler, cuss, fight, work to change the world around a little bit better . . .but he’s by his self. Bound to lose . . . Why do people set down and write great songs and ballads about their outlaws?
Here’s why. An outlaw does it wrong . . . And the Union does it right . . . [But] an outlaw does one big thing. What? It’s easy.
Tries his best.
Dies for what he believes in. Goes down shooting.
In “East Texas Red,” Guthrie’s song tells the story of a group of hobos who against a railroad brakeman, known to be the meanest man on the line, who has kicked over their dinner, a pot of stew, and sent them packing. They kill the brakeman next time he threatens them, then sit down to eat their stew, “no compromise” says Wolff, “an outlaw ballad about grown-up anger.”
I don’t mean to imply that Grown-Up Anger is prescriptive. The book is a quest for “The history of anger. Hope. The truth.” Quests are journeys, not end points. An extended description of “Like A Rolling Stone” three quarters of the way through evokes the feeling of listening to the song even years after the author first heard it. The music of the book is as much the author’s poetic voice as his fugal musical sensibility. Far from prescriptive, the most satisfying part, in a way, is how the geology, anthropology, economics, and history of Calumet are also metaphor for the music of the book. For what else is the fiery magma contained within an 1800 mile rock shell and a 5 mile crust holding lead, copper and sulfur than some kind of rage waiting to break free? “You could start there.”