On a recent evening at Parnassus Books in Nashville, the music came from Robyn Hitchcock, Abigail Washburn and Rayna Gellert. The songs came from Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. And the history and ideas came from award winning author Daniel Wolff, who spoke about his latest.
Grown Up Anger: The Connected Mysteries of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and the Calumet Massacre of 1913 is part musicology, part social scholarship and part coming to terms with American progress and protest.
“It’s a way of triangulating the issue. You’ve got Dylan. You’ve got Guthrie. You’ve got this thing that happens up in Michigan. It takes you through the 20th century.”
That thing in Michigan stemmed from a strike by copper miners in and around Calumet MI. At a Christmas Eve party packed with 400 pro-union people, somebody - allegedly an anti-union activist - yelled “fire!” when there was none. The panic led to a crush going down a single set of stairs, killing 73 people, including 59 children.
Woody Guthrie wrote a song about the incident as he took up the mantle of labor-friendly folk singer. Dylan was of course deeply influenced by Guthrie, a subject Wolff investigates in detail.
Wolff said his book was born out of being an angry young teenager, trying to decipher social injustices in the 1960s. In the music of Dylan and Guthrie he found a constructive path, the “grown up anger” of the book title.
“It was a way for me to think about America,” Wolff said.
Asked if social justice has a folk soundtrack today, he said, he hears it in the music of Kendrick Lamar.
“There are people fighting the fight right now,” he noted. “I think hip hop has taken on a bunch of it. If you go to the Woody Guthrie Festival you hear a lot of people. I think it’s one of the great strengths of country music is this narrative. And it’s not what you hear on Top 40 country music, but it’s out there and it’s getting written.”