Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck--Who Will Be the Great Artists of Our Depression?

Yesterday, I spent the day listening to Woody Guthrie's music in honor of his birthday. Actually, I spent the day listening to other people singing his music. I've been listening to this music for decades, and I'm amazed at how fresh and relevant it sounds in light of our current economic woes.

I thought about other Dust Bowl artists, particularly John Steinbeck. I loved his work as a teenager, despite having to read The Grapes of Wrath in one single school night. It was my fault, really. We had had plenty of time to complete the assignment. When our teacher found out that we hadn't finished the book, she declared that we'd have a test on it the next day. Luckily, the plot perked right along, and I'm a fast reader, so it wasn't too bad.

I think about the Joads as I hear the constant stream of news reports of people losing their businesses, their homes, their life savings. I know that nationwide more and more of the dispossessed are setting up semi-permanent tent camps. I know that more and more students are living in their cars.

What I don't know is what to do. I look to the past, as do so many people. Can we get answers from the downturns of the 20th century? Some people look to public policy, but I look to the art created.

Who will be the great artists of this current depression? I'd probably look at people who have been writing about the dispossesssed even when our national leaders denied their existence. I'd nominate Bruce Springsteen, whose song "The Ghost of Tom Joad" moves me to tears each time I hear it. I'd nominate Rage Against the Machine.

I suddenly realized that I could list musicians for days and days. Down here in South Florida, I'm also acutely aware of the power of political painting: some of my favorite artists right now are exiled Cubans.

Where are the poets? I'll start compiling my list; meanwhile, if you have any poets who are creating great poems about the current Depression, I'd love to hear about them.

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