By John Hoctor
September 15, 2008
“Harsh voiced and nasal, his guitar hanging like a tire iron on a rusty rim, there is nothing sweet about Woody, and there is nothing sweet about the songs he sings. But there is something more important for those who will listen. There is the will of the people to endure and fight against oppression. I think we call this the American spirit.”
- John Steinbeck, foreword to Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People (1967).
On Saturday, September 20, 2008, at the Sleep Train Pavilion in Concord, the legacies of American author giant John Steinbeck and American balladeer legend, Woody Guthrie, will be celebrated at the This Land Is Your Land: A Tribute to John Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie and the American Spirit concert.
Sheryl Crow, The Black Keys, Cat Power, the Mike Ness Band, Son Volt, and Guthrie’s granddaughter, Sarah Lee Guthrie, and her husband, Steinbeck’s great nephew, Johnny Irion, will perform at the concert, selected by promoter Live Nation because of their social activism and dedication to environmental causes and human rights. Through music, art, and the spoken word, these two American heroes of the working class will be celebrated.
The spoken word will be delivered in anecdotal nuggets and a booming baritone by Thom Steinbeck, the son of John Steinbeck, Nobel Prize winner and author of the Depression time capsule, The Grapes of Wrath.
Fog City Journal interviewed Thom Steinbeck by phone last week from his home in Santa Barbara.
“Out of Many, One,” the theme of the concert, Thom Steinbeck lamented, should be an authentic mission statement for this country. But the words mean nothing more to most Americans than those emblazined on US coinage: “E pluribus unum.”
Thom Steinbeck was nurtured on the high meaning of these words.
Steinbeck, 64, is the living embodiment to the enduring legacy of his father and Guthrie, who were both passionate idealists who believed this county and this land could and must be a place of spiritual unity and compassion and concern for all its inhabitants.
During the interview, the highly articulate son of unquestionably America’s greatest Depression-era novelist deftly covered a wide range of topics from undeclared wars to Depression dÃ©jÃ vu including bank shutdowns and home foreclosures. Thom Steinbeck boldly stated that after eight years of the current administration and decades of erosion of New Deal safeguards, people today are experiencing desperation similar to that of which his father wrote in The Grapes of Wrath in 1939.
“Be assured, people will be jumping out of windows,” Steinbeck predicted, if the economic social stratification and isolation in this country continues. “My role at the event is to make sure the audience remembers that we are NOT helpless, NOT alone.”
“My father’s greatest works were steeped in the loneliness of the characters who learn to depend on each other,” he added. “We need to go back and listen to the old teachers and gain their power so we can take the slings and arrows we’re going to have to suffer in the future together—not alone.”
Thom Steinbeck noted that the spiritual oneness of John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie in their devotion to the plight of the common people linked them many times throughout their lives. It also could be seen in parallel themes in their work – intertwined in a letter John Steinbeck wrote about Guthrie – which Thom Steinbeck will read at the concert.
The letter talks about Guthrie’s simple but powerful “Do Re Mi” song, which warns the hordes of Dust Bowl migrants that California may be a land of dreams only for those with the “bread”:
Oh, if you ain’t got the do re mi, folks, you ain’t got the do re mi,
Why, you better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee.
California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see;
But believe it or not, you won’t find it so hot
If you ain’t got the do re mi.
The song parallels a theme in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath where the Joad family is warned by a fellow Dust Bowl migrant to turn back before even worse disaster strikes and relates the unforgettable story that his underfed children are “moaning like pups.”
Steinbeck said that his father joked in the letter that if Woody Guthrie had just recorded “Do Re Mi” earlier, it could have saved him from “having” to write his greatest novel.
“My Father met Woody several times,” Thom said. “There was a mutual affinity there for each other’s creative output even though Steinbeck”—as he called his father at times in the interview—“loved all American music.”
“Dad made it very clear to Woody…you don’t just write ‘folk songs’ you write battle hymns.”
Little animates the theme “Out of Many, One,” better than music.
Woody’s “battle hymns” forged an iconoclastic personal image of the weary boxcar jumping hobo, riding the humming steel rails in rumpled and ragged coveralls, dogged by police who “cause trouble everywhere.”
Go to sleep you weary hobo
Let the towns drift slowly by
Can’t you hear the steel rails hummin’
That’s the hobo’s lullaby.
If there were any doubt about the target of Guthrie’s deadly weapon, the omnipresent words on his guitar removed them:
This Machine Kills Fascists
Thom Steinbeck relishes the power of the This Land in Your Land concert: “This unique concert is going to give the people of the Bay area a context once again—Steinbeck always said, ‘Give the people a piece of poetry and a song to sing, leave ‘em alone, don’t hammer ‘em, and they will make the right decision.”
John Steinbeck once said universal compassion is a painfully acquired skill, requires a lifetime of practice, and is not for the feint of heart. Similarly, Thom Steinbeck said the battle for the country also must be continual, and his father felt the same way: “You might say America is a country born in revolution just to remain in revolution. The moment we’re well fed as a nation we get lazy.”
Thom experienced his own war as a Vietnam War helicopter gunner. He would later meet his father’s close personal friend and commander-and-chief LBJ during a 1964 White House ceremony in uniform as the president awarded John Steinbeck the Medal of Freedom.
“Dad actually commandeered the guns aboard my chopper on a recon once in the early days of the war, he was doing a freelance piece, and he thought Vietnam was WW2. It might surprise some on the left that to my father ‘Commies were Commies.’ By 1968, we both returned to the front lines, me as a photojournalist Dad as a reporter, only to radically turn against the war and LBJ,” Thom recounted.
Thom would return a bitter opponent of the war after brutally documenting the war.
Thom Steinbeck is a writer whose 2003 short story compilation, Down to a Soundless Sea, about the rugged coast and inhabitants of Big Sur was featured recently on Oprah Winfrey. Thom also discussed his father’s East of Eden on the program which Winfrey termed possibly the best novel she has ever read.
An exhibit of historical artifacts and rare video footage from the John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie archives will be on display at the concert. Concert goers are encouraged to bring canned food to the Sleep Train site: LiveNation President Lee Smith said that the goal of this concert “is to educate, and let the musical part of the program Saturday inspire us all to action.”
If this concert is a success, he added, more will follow in other venues.
A portion of the proceeds will benefit the John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie family foundations, which preserve the manuscripts and materials and educate the public about Steinbeck and Guthrie.
Tickets for This Land Is Your Land are on sale now at Livenation.com. The concert begins at 2 p.m., Saturday. Ticket prices range from $19 to $80.50.