Posts Tagged ‘Woody Guthrie’

oklahoma-mapA lot of us probably don’t think too much about Oklahoma and when we do, it’s probably as a result of the latest blow dealt to it by Mother Nature.  This past week’s tornado devastation in the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore is the latest such natural disaster to bring our eyes back to Oklahoma, near the very center of our country.  As we do whenever a disaster anywhere occurs, we as a nation come together and give the full benefit of our gathered strength in aid and support.  We are doing this now for the folks in Moore, Oklaoma and if you can, donate a bit to the Red Cross or one of the other relief organizations that will be helping them back on their feet.

Oklahoma has always had a special appeal in the American psyche .   It lives in our minds with Curly riding the plains in that idealized burgeoning new frontier in the musical from Rodgers and Hammerstein.  John Steinbeck set  his fictional Everyman Tom Joad, the plain-spoken hero and seeker of fairness from The Grapes of Wrath,  in the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma.  He remains oone of my heroes and I  think of Tom Joad as the epitomized conscience of America.

I have a lot of other heroes from Oklahoma.  Growing up, whenever I heard mention of that state I immediately thought of Mickey Mantle and Johnny Bench, both OK natives.   And you can’t forget that perhaps the greatest athlete of his time, Jim Thorpe, was also from OK.   Or hero astronaut Gordon Cooper.  Oklahoma also gave us the sharp stick of humor that Will Rogers wielded as the greatest observer of  our country in his time and another observer in the form of Woody Guthrie whose songs are filled with the American soul.  His This Land Is Your Land is a tribute to our unity as a nation.

Even in these divided  partisan times, Oklahoma sits near the heart of this country, both geographically and figuratively.  Like I said, give them a hand make it OK again for them.  Here is a take  from one of my favorites , the Kinks,  on the American vision of Oklahoma as seen through British eyes.

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I mentioned Woody Guthrie in yesterday’s post and it reminded me of a musical release that is coming out in the next month.  It is the release of Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions from Billy Bragg and Wilco, which incorporates the remastered first two volumes from the original 1998 release with a new volume of 17 songs. 

 These sessions were the result of the Guthrie family asking singer/activist Billy Bragg along with Wilco to have a go at interpreting some of the many songs left after his death in 1967.  Guthrie didn’t read music so his unrecorded songs’ melodies were stored only in his memory, leaving only the lyrics.  But the lyrics were terrific and provided Bragg and Wilco plenty of inspiration to produce a memorable set of music.  I have used several songs here over the years and often find myself switching on Mermaid Avenue (named after the street in Brooklyn where Guthrie lived at the time of his death)  in the studio to work by.

Here’s one of my favorites, Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key.


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It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.
–Pablo Picasso
This short sentence from Picasso is  one of my favorite quotes.  It both makes me smile whenever I hear it and brings to mind my own struggles with recognizing my own creative voice, something that used to be a real internal battle in the early formative years.  There was always a pull between the craft side, as might be represented by Raphael in Picasso’s quote, and the side where one paints naturally and intuitively, as the child might.
 I knew I would never paint like a Raphael.   I never cared to tie myself to any one tradition of painting and wanted the liberty of free expression, the ability to freely display emotion, even in the most mundane scene.  Wanted my own voice, preferring the colloquial over the classical. Kind of like wanting to sing like Woody Guthrie versus singing like Pavarotti.  For as beautiful as Pavarotti’s voice might be I found a quality in Guthrie’s voice and songs that spoke more directly to me.  Native simplicity I suppose it might be called.  Over the years, my voice has evolved and there are pieces where there is often a bit of this native simplicity in the work that really pleases me, makes me feel as though I am somewhat painting in the way a child might.  Or at least in a way that might speak as well to children as it did to adults.
The piece shown here is such an example.  A 10″ by 30″ canvas, it is an extension of the work I have done recently, work that I have called internal landscapes.  Called Native Rise, it is painted very intuitively and speaks plainly.  It has an attractive harmony in its elements that lets it speak easily and be asorbed quickly – if you like this sort of voice.  For me, I see this piece as being very symbolic of my true voice,  how I see and express the world as I internalize it.  It is painted easily and in my own voice.   And like my own voice, it is far from perfect but tries to speak plainly.  And truthfully as to how I see my world.
At least, that’s the way I see it   It’s funny how much more difficult it is to describe  with words my own native painting voice, something that comes so easily on the canvas.  Perhaps one shouldn’t try…

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A couple of things stuck out recently for me when following the mass media.  On The Daily Show,  comedy writer Merrill Markoe appeared this week and during her interview made the statement that there are now so many socially acceptable ways to exhibit a pathological lack of empathy.  I knew this  already but it was so succinctly put that it stuck in my mind, especially when listening to the GOP candidates such as Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich basically attack the poor in recent appearances, blaming the poor’s own lack of initiative for their condition. 

 I do not disagree there are ways for some to dig out from the depths of poverty.  But for some it is a pit that can’t be escaped.  I often think of a man I worked with for a number of years at the Perkin’s Restaurant where I worked when I first started painting.  He was a few years older than me which put him around forty years old at the time.  He worked as a dishwasher and busboy making around six dollars an hour.  I can’t remember what the minimum wage was at the time since I was a waiter and was only paid $2.35 per hour.  This fellow’s wife was ill with some sort of chronic disease and it was constant struggle to stay afloat without assistance for their medical bills.  To me, he remains the face of the working poor.

Now this man had no escape routes in his life.  He had little education and it was painfully obvious.  His prospects for doing a lot better than his current position were slim, at best.  The jobs that once might have paid more in the factories and plants of our area were gone and probably weren’t coming back anytime soon.  He couldn’t leave.  He didn’t know where to go and if he did, he couldn’t afford to move what little he did have.   He made a few extra dollars helping a friend pick junk but he was unfortunately near the top of his potential.  This was a man who worked hard and did the right things, all that he knew,  but still found himself at the very bottom. 

He deserves our empathy.  He deserves a hand extended. 

Instead he and many thousands, maybe many millions, like him are categorized as merely lazy slackers who suck on the public teat.  The hubris dispalyed by these politicians makes me angry.  They anxiously seek to protect the wealthiest among us whose fortunes have been made possible by the blood and sweat of people like this dishwasher, who have been both the primary workers and customers for their businesses.  Yet do they feel a tinge of empathy for anyone other than the so-called job-creators?

I don’t think so.  At least, it’s not something they dare to exhibit in public.

Maybe I’m wrong in talking about such things here.  Maybe this verges on political statement.  I don’t care.  Too many of us have remained silent and on the sidelines or have started to buy into that Ayn Rand-ish tenet that selfishness is a virtue that these people spout at every turn.  Maybe someone will not like what I say here and suddenly find my work not to their liking. 

So be it.  I have to believe that people who find something in my work  also have high capacities for empathy towards others.  Those are the people for whom I want to paint.  People who believe there’s a better world a-coming, as Woody Guthrie sang in his song many years ago.  When I see how forcefully he stood up for his beliefs and the rights of others, I am ashamed at how little I have done myself.  Here’s his song:


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I was going to talk a little about one of Woody Guthrie’s songs about an incident that occurred in the formative years of the labor movement, the Ludlow Massacre of 1914

It’s a haunting song about a haunting event which happend in Colorado where striking miners who had formed a tent village were set upon by the National Guard on the orders of the Colorado governor.  They snuck in and soaked the outer tents with kerosene and set them ablaze then opened fire on the miners and their families as they fled.  20 were killed, including 11 children.  Just another of many incidents in our history that is practically unknown to the average man in the street, the person who doesn’t realize that the importance of protecting the working class against the avarice of those who would exploit them is rooted in such tragedies.  People who don’t realize the historical importance of the labor movement in this country and how it relates to the present standard of living.

There’s a lot more to be said, of course.  But it’s Sunday and the world deserves a rest.  You can find Guthrie’s Ludlow Massacre on YouTube, along with many of his classic documentations of working America.  I thought I would play a little less dark song by the great American troubador/poet/pot-stirrer instead.  Here’s So Long It’s Been Good to Know You. 

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Mermaid AvenueIt’s yet another Sunday morning and I’m a bit tired.  Time for a little music.

Casablanca was on TCM last night and, of course, we had to watch.  It’s one of those films that I could watch on an endless loop.   It has so much going for it- great performances, great story, memorable writing with lines that became part of our language, incredible characters (Conrad Veidt’s  Strasser is the prototype for  Nazi film  villains), romance, action and surprisingly great humor.  

It also has the glow of Ingrid Bergman.

That brings us to my selection for the day from the CD, Mermaid Avenue, from the collaboration of Billy Bragg and Wilco with their versions of song  lyrics from Woody Guthrie.  For more info, click on the album cover above.

This is the song, Ingrid Bergman, from that CD.  I wish I had a better video to accompany it but enjoy the song anyway…

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