Today is my birthday. I was born on an Air Force base in France, where July 14 is Bastille Day. My mom always told me that when I was born they had parades and fireworks and people took the day off to have a picnic; it was years before I realized that these celebrations had nothing to do with me. I've always found it thrilling to be born on Bastille Day, and later, as I discovered the influence of the French Revolution on some of my favorite British authors, I've been even more happy to have been born on Bastille Day. Even my knowledge of how the French Revolution turned out (boo Napoleon!) doesn't dull my appreciation of the event. I see it as one of the important world events that paved the way for the world of freedoms that so many of us in the first world enjoy.
So, you're not ready to stop celebrating the human drive for freedom from tyranny, you're in luck! Bastille Day is the French Fourth of July, and you could make a strong case that both revolutions should be celebrated in tandem. The French began their revolution in the decade after the American colonies broke away, and for the next century, maybe 2, abusive leaders worried about the example set by these revolutions, how these revolutions showed that ordinary citizens could change the world.
It's also the birthday of former president Gerald Ford, which impressed my elementary school classmates (sharing a birthday with the president!) more than it impresses anyone now. Now I'm most happy about sharing my birthday with so many great artists. Woody Guthrie was born on this day, as was Irving Stone. It's also the birthday of Isaac Bashevis Singer--not bad to share one's birthday in such company!
I'm most happy about sharing a birthday with Woody Guthrie. I find Guthrie fascinating as an artist. Here's a singer-songwriter who doesn't know music theory, who left behind a treasure trove of lyrics but no music written on musical staffs or chords--because he didn't know how to do it. For many of the songs that he wrote, he simply used melodies that already existed.
I think of Woody Guthrie as one of those artists who only needed 3 chords and the truth--but in fact, he said that anyone who used more than two chords is showing off. In my later years, I've wondered if he developed this mantra because he couldn't handle more than 2 chords.
I love this vision I have of Guthrie as an artist who didn't let his lack of knowledge hold him back. I love how he turned the deficits that might have held a lesser artist back into strengths. I love that he's created a whole body of work, but his most famous song ("This Land Is Your Land") is still sung by schoolchildren everywhere, and how subversive is that?
If I could create a body of poems that bring comfort and hope to activists, as well as one or two poems that everyone learns as schoolchildren, well I'd be happy with that artistic life. If I could inspire future generations the way that Guthrie did, how marvelous that would be. I could make the argument that artists like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and the members of U2 would be different artists today, had there been no Woody Guthrie (better artists? worse? that's a subject for a different post).
Here's a Woody Guthrie quote to help you celebrate Bastille Day and the spirit of freedom, wherever it blooms. Those of you who listened to and loved The Alarm may remember Mike Peters quoting it during concerts (want to listen? see if you can find a copy of Electric Folklore Live and enjoy that soaring music one more time). Here's the Guthrie quote, which makes quite a good vision statement, for those of you in need of one:
"I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling.
I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built.
I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work."
The Summer of Reading
4 weeks ago