I’m working on a project on Woody Guthrie and, at this point, have been casting a pretty wide net as far as my sources go. Right now I am essentially doing what I can do to get reacquainted with the great American bard as a person and the times he lived through. So last night I watched the movie version of The Grapes of Wrath for the first time. Steinbeck and Guthrie were reportedly pretty tight and the influence of The Grapes of Wrath is evident in Guthrie’s album Dust Bowl Ballads.
As I was watching Grapes I was really struck, yet again, at how non-commonsensical (whoa) the reactions of citizens and authority figures were to struggling Americans. (It is one thing to listen to a song or story of how they were treated, altogether something else to see it acted out.) Here were people who were migrating- moving- somewhere and yet were repeatedly stopped and told to keep moving, often with the sting of a billy club ringing in their heads. Here were people whose homes and farms were destroyed, went to the Promised Land of California looking for work and yet were regarded as being lazy and shiftless.
What is interesting to me about this particular time period and case is that it is just another instance where Americans have shown their true colors. I am not of the notion to put a patriotic, utopian (utopic?) varnish on the total conception of America or American citizenship. On the other hand, I also don’t– like some young people today who are descendants of oppressed people and who are often more angry than their parents or grandparents were at their oppressors– think of Americans as being purely selfish, ignorant pawns of the upper-class. Yet there are too many cases where Americans do, not what isn’t right to each other, but what is the wrong. (There is difference between not doing the right thing and doing the wrong thing.) You’ll find such actions in the cases of Saccho and Vanzetti, the Haymarket Riot, and the Watts Riot of 1965 to name a few. Look at the way Americans act towards other Americans and you get a different impression of the patriotism, righteousness and egalitarianism of Americans throughout history. Again, this is not to say that Americans do the wrong thing in all matters of strife and crisis, but very often throughout our past we have acted in ways towards each other that dispel the myth of American citizenship being righteous, egalitarian or basically anything higher than selfish, violent, ignorant and purely in the cause of big business and the status-quo. Kind of makes you view the status of the country today in a different light.