"You must always know the past, for there is no real Was, there is only Is." - William Faulkner
"If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable Man must be of learning from experience." - George Bernard Shaw
"[History] is just one damned thing after another." - Arthur Toynbee
One of the classes I teach at Goucher College is "Art as Activism." We look at the role art plays in social and political commentary, within its particular historical context, starting with the 1930s and moving right up to the present. The final assignment has the students creating their own work of art about a contemporary issue that matters to them and writing a combination research paper/artist statement about the project. It's a lot of fun, both for the students and for me.
Of course, we see lots of issues coming up again and again over the eighty or so years we study. Right now, there's a lot of talk swirling around about the state of the economy, how current events eerily echo the Crash of 1929. I've joked that I'm going to have my students throw away their textbook on the Great Depression and subscribe to the New York Times instead. There is a sad truth in the cliche about history repeating itself. Or rather, Faulkner seems to have it best -- history is an unbroken continuation of human experience, not a collection of isolated incidents that richocet back to us again and again like a lopsided superball.
One of the artists we study is Woody Guthrie. My students often only know of him from singing, "This Land is Your Land" in summer camp -- or at least, they know the first two verses. They don't realize what a kick-ass radical he was until we start to examine his life and his music. And the more I teach him, the more I realize how relevant his work is to the issues that consume us today.
Woody Guthrie in the 1940s
The lyrics of the song "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)" were written by Guthrie in response to a plane crash in California on January 29, 1948. The passengers were Mexican agriculture workers who were being deported back to Mexico after picking fruit in the orchards of the Pacific Northwest. Of the 28 workers killed, only 12 were ever identified; they were all buried in a mass grave near Fresno. Guthrie's words were set to music in 1958 by Martin Hoffman. The version below, sung by Arlo Guthrie and Emmylou Harris, comes from a 1988 documentary called "A Vision Shared."
Another singer/songwriter whose work has special resonance today is Pete Seeger. The selection below is the famous censored clip from "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" in 1968. The reason Seeger had only performed on TV once in 17 years, as Dick Smothers mentions, was because he'd been blacklisted. (The quality of the clip isn't very good; it seems to have been taped off a TV broadcast. Tommy Smothers has only now started to release the show onto DVD, starting with, for some reason, the third season.) Seeger performs a medley of war songs from history, which seems to reinforce both Shaw and Faulkner. Seeger, by the way, is still going strong at 90, although he doesn't perform anymore.