Let me tell you a true story, metaphorically. In 1913, in Michigan, in a building called Italian Hall miners and their families gathered for a Christmas party. Most of the workers were on strike demanding better conditions in a nearby copper mine. That was one of the longest and most organized miner strikes at the time. It started in July of 1913 and ended in April of the the following year. Demands were very basic – a reduction of endless work hours and pay increase.
During that Christmas night, goons payed by those who owned the mines decided to play a prank. They alarmed everyone present of the building being on fire, they also locked the main and only exit doors. There were 400 people in the building. It did not take long for panic to ensue. Men and their families rushed the stairs toward an exit trying to find salvation. This horrific stampede left 73 people dead, 59 of them were children.
This machine kills fascits
I’ve learned of this story through a song, 1913 Massacre, written and sung by Woody Guthrie, troubadour of the working class, protest and injustice poet, inspiration to many well known names in the rock and roll poetry scene, names such as Bruce Springsteen, Joe Strummer, Jeff Tweedy, Billy Bragg…
Known for his guitar which bore a slogan: This machine kills fascits, Guthrie marked an era of american folk music in the first half of the twentieth century. In the time of Great Depression he traveled the country with the farmers who lost everything, all that was left to do was moving around looking for a better life. Along the way he listened to their stories, learned their songs. His activism linked him to the United States communist groups, though he was never a member of any party.
Even terminally ill and nearing the end of his life Woody Guthrie was a mentor to Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and through him, a mentor to Bob Dylan as well. All his teachings are boiled down to: “If you want to learn something, just steal it—that’s the way I learned from Lead Belly”.
Dylan and Ramblin’ Jack are the ones who after Guthrie’s death made sure that their audiences got to know and appreciate him as an american folk icon he was and carry on the legacy of his life through his priceless songbooks.
Ballad of a thin man
I don’t recall my first Dylan encounter. If you love music the way I do that encounter is unavoidable and often, weather you care for him or not. The fact that he has named himself after poet Dylan Thomas is simply phenomenal. During my college days in Sarajevo, I had a roommate –a mad professor of music, former punker, then jazzer, and current composer of contemporary music-. In his room filled with books he also had a double bass and a turntable, for days it spun nothing but Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. Yes, this is the album that opens with a cult number Like a Rolling Stone. But that wasn’t the song. The one that put me under the everplaying Highway spell was the last one on Side A – Ballad of a Thin Man. That song is my Bob Dylan.
Everything fell into place. I found the missing piece. The one I missed out on as a middle school kid, when I was fascinated with Beatles, the one from Yer Blues:”… I feel so sucidal, just like Dylan’s Mr. Jones…”.
Just as it should be, everything has its time, especially certain verses. We need to live certain things, jump over some walls, get lost in some forests, swim across rivers. Then we have much better chances of truly meeting and getting to know Dylan’s Thin Mr. Jones. Ask Mike Patton if you don’t believe me.
Song to Mr. G
There is a story written by a great writer and a dear friend, Vladimir Arsenijević. I had the honor of reading it in its manuscript form, and early this year it has been published in a collection of short stories This is not a happy place.
The book title is also the very first sentence of a story Song to Mr G. It is told from the perspective of a nurse in a psychiatric institution where Guthrie stayed, and where she cared for him, having no idea how important that man in the last stage of Huntington’s disease is, still treating him as if he were her favorite patient, which he was.
The culmination of the story is the arrival of an unknown mysterious young man who visits his idol to play him his very first song, one he wrote in his honor. This expert blend of fiction and actual biographical facts makes for my favorite kind of story and Arsenijević does it masterfully.
If we go back to the beginning, back to the song 1913 Masacre we happen upon a fact that Dylan used its tune to write one of his first songs Song to Woody. This was in the early sixties and it found its place on his debut album Bob Dylan, released in 1962.