There’s a discussion underway in Calumet right now about the design of a new Italian Hall Memorial. We contributed the following thoughts to that discussion today.
To the Italian Hall Memorial Group and The Village of Calumet,
As producers of 1913 Massacre, the feature-length, 2012 documentary film about the Italian Hall disaster, we strongly support the effort to bring the public into the process of deciding what the new Italian Hall memorial should look like.
As outsiders, it’s not our place to express any strong preferences or opinions about the
design of the memorial. But we think it’s important for us to share one big lesson we
learned in the course of our work on the film and at screenings of 1913 Massacre we did at the Calumet Theatre, around the country, and in Europe over the past five years.
People’s voices matter profoundly when it comes to remembering their history.
There isn’t just one Italian Hall story; there are many, and there will be many more as long as the stories of the Italian Hall are passed down, told and retold.
How should the victims of Italian Hall be honored? Some people visit the cemetery or the Italian Hall site. Others light candles. Some tell stories or share pictures or hum Finnish tunes they learned from grandparents or uncles and aunts. Some people knocked down the Hall itself; that was their way of coming to terms with the story. Others still remember the victims in the way Woody Guthrie memorialized them in a song.
Everyone has his or her own way of remembering and making sense of the events of December 24th, 1913, and the public should be given a strong voice — or many voices, a chorus of voices — in the deliberations of the Memorial Group and the Village.
We encourage you to keep this process open and transparent to the public, and to listen to everyone who wishes to be heard. We look forward to seeing the results of your work next time we are in Calumet.
In an interview with Chris Matthews on MSNBC last night, inveterate liar Kellyanne Conway defended Trump’s travel ban by claiming, falsely, that Trump is only doing what Obama did; then, in a weird twist, she went on to say that Obama “had a six month ban on the Iraqi refugee program after two Iraqis came here to this country, were radicalized, and they were the masterminds behind the Bowling Green Massacre.”
The Bowling Green Massacre? What’s that? Most people never heard about a massacre in Bowling Green, Kentucky, because it didn’t get covered, she claimed. I’m not sure why Chris Matthews let this slide; maybe he’s learned that there is no point talking facts with someone to whom facts “no longer matter,” as Robert Reich put it. To be clear: there’s no such thing as the Bowling Green Massacre. It never happened.
Ms. Conway has taken her canon of “alternative facts” to a despicable new place: now she’s just making up history. To say that we have gone through the looking glass is now an understatement.
History presents many cases where there was in fact a massacre but people are loath to acknowledge it, make up alternative stories to justify or accommodate it, or deny it outright. We found our way into this territory in the course of working on 1913 Massacre, and there are still people to this day who bristle at the word “massacre” (a word Woody Guthrie took from Mother Bloor), or who claim that the doors of the Italian Hall opened inward. Maybe it’s just too much, too horrible to contemplate; maybe outright denial, fussing over terms, or blaming a badly designed door, is a way for people to get by and for neighbors to get along.
When we interviewed labor historian John Beck, he likened the reluctance to acknowledge the truth of what happened at the Italian Hall to the story told in Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (which is based on the actual slaughter of United Fruit Company workers by Colombian government forces in 1928): in the novel, Jose Arcadio Segundo returns to Macondo, where he witnessed the brutal massacre of three thousand strikers, but he can find no one who will believe him. Nobody’s ever heard of a massacre — not even the friends and families of the dead.
When you start playing political games with historical memory, you enter a very tricky, dangerous place. Woody Guthrie knew this (and, let’s admit it, he knew how to play the game). Rational people can argue about interpretations. This is different: when you refuse history, you falsify the present and foreclose on the future. We learned that much in Calumet. And when you make up massacres that never happened, you risk losing sight of those that did.
Update, one week later:
By 51/23 margin, Trump voters say the Bowling Green Massacre shows why his Executive Order on immigration is needed: https://t.co/SY2MAfuuiA
— PublicPolicyPolling (@ppppolls) February 10, 2017
By now you’ve probably heard that Bob Dylan has been awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, and you probably won’t be able to turn on a radio or a TV today without hearing a Bob Dylan song. Sara Danius, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, “advised those unfamiliar with the work of Dylan” — who’s that? — “to start with the 1966 album Blonde on Blonde.”
Not a bad suggestion, but Dylan’s “Song for Woody,” which he set to the tune of “1913 Massacre,” is really the better place to start tracing Dylan’s journey and to appreciate the act of self-creation that turned Robert Allen Zimmerman into Bob Dylan.
In his formative years, Dylan emulated Woody; he even dressed like Woody and combed his hair like him. In 1961, he made a pilgrimage to Woody’s house and visited him in the hospital. Later that year, when performing “1913 Massacre” at Carnegie Hall, Dylan would remember learning the song along with “Ludlow Massacre” from Woody as a “group of two.”
Here’s how Arlo Guthrie remembered Dylan’s visit in an interview we did for the film:
Well I remember the day in 1961 when Bob Dylan came to our house. I was 13 years old. He must have been 20. And ah, he wanted to know where my dad was. And I told him he was down the road, you know he was in the hospital at the time. And the next, within the next few years, there was this massive human undertaking around the world, this great drama of events being played out. And the sound track was Bob Dylan songs. It was an incredible. I mean not just Bob Dylan songs, but they were a major part of the sound track of the times that were going on.
And I think one of the reasons that that probably happened was because he had taken this technique of talking about serious issues, reading the papers, going to places where people were struggling. Writing their stories from their point of view, and doing it with such poetry and such power. Such simple music. Nothing complicated in these Bob Dylan music songs. But poetically, verbally, text-wise, mighty powerful imagery, that goes beyond the average ability of a mind to foresee what’s coming next. It was always surprising. And not only that, half the time it was angry and pissed off and wonderfully so, because he was angry about the same things that everybody else was angry about so when we heard a Bob Dylan song he was speaking for us. In the same way that I think my dad had spoke for a lot people a generation before.
Seeing Oscar Brand’s obituary in the New York Times earlier this week sent me back to the interview we did with Oscar for 1913 Massacre. Here’s a brief audio excerpt from that interview: the story of how Oscar and Woody Guthrie met in 1940, after Woody wrote a song about the gathering of the American Youth Congress in Washington, DC.
As you read this short article from the Sports section of last Friday’s New York Times, bear in mind that Woody wrote “This Land Is Your Land” after he grew tired of hearing Kate Smith singing “God Bless America” every time he turned on the radio:
In the middle of the seventh inning of the Baltimore Orioles’ game against the Arizona Diamondbacks two Friday nights ago, the public-address announcer asked the crowd at Camden Yards to stand and celebrate America’s diversity. Three singers then stood on the first-base dugout and did a rendition of “This Land Is Your Land,” the famous folk song written by Woody Guthrie.
By the time the end of the third verse arrived — “All around me a voice was sounding, this land was made for you and me” — fans had joined in.
In a tradition that dates to the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks in 2001, “God Bless America” is played in major league ballparks around the country, including in Baltimore, during the seventh-inning stretch of Sunday games. The song can also be heard during assorted holiday games, and the Yankees play the song during the seventh inning of every home game.
But Baltimore is the only major league franchise to regularly play “This Land Is Your Land,” which it does at Friday home games. And the song, long considered an anthem of the left because of its populist themes, is meant to be more than a Camden Yards singalong. It is a subtle, yet intentional, message from the Orioles’ management that at the intersection of sports and patriotism, one size does not have to fit all.
Fred Hellerman, the last surviving member of The Weavers, died on Thursday at 89.
The New York Times obituary does not discuss Hellerman’s relationship with Woody Guthrie (except indirectly, where it notes that Fred produced Arlo’s first two albums). Hellerman nevertheless played an important part in the musical story of 1913 Massacre — singing with Pete Seeger and other members of the Weavers “for unions, at picket lines and at hootenanies.”
It was this musical activity, exactly the kind of “singing and dancing” Woody Guthrie writes about in “1913 Massacre,” and the political sympathies it suggested, that aroused suspicion during the Red Scare of the 1950s. Fred, along with Pete Seeger and Ronnie Gilbert, was blacklisted from performing in public. Like Pete, he continued to make music throughout the 60s and 70s and well into his old age.
“His was not a standout voice,” said producer David Bernz, “but it made everything meld together.”
Ryan Harvey, Ani DiFranco and Tom Morello have collaborated on a recording of Woody Guthrie’s “Old Man Trump.”
I wrote about “Old Man Trump” and the bigotry it denounces here, back in January; but I didn’t know about this recording until yesterday, when my friend David Goddy sent along an article about it in The Guardian.
(David, by the way, had a hand in the musical development of 1913 Massacre. It was David who directed me and Ken to Frank Christian, who wrote and performed the soundtrack for our film.)
Will Kaufman, who discovered the Trump song among Woody’s papers, says “Woody is speaking to us from beyond the grave now.”
I don’t know about all that, but I figure David shared the song with me because “Old Man Trump” is a song from 1950 that addresses what’s going on today. It’s sort of a 2016 postscript to 1913 Massacre: a song that pushes back hard against greedy bosses who push people around, decide who’s in and who’s out, prey on people’s suspicions and stir up hate.
Maybe this new recording will help people push as hard against the son as Woody pushed against the father.
We started shooting 1913 Massacre before High Definition video and the 16:9 aspect ratio were widely used, and we kept shooting Standard Definition video and producing in a fullscreen 4:3 ratio even after HD and widescreen 16:9 became the default format.
I once endured a screening of the entire film at the wrong aspect ratio. It was deeply disconcerting. Stretched across the big widescreen canvas, Calumet no longer glows like a pearl. Video artifacts multiply. People are dwarfed and their bodies are distorted in inappropriately comical ways. I could not sit still, so I stood. Then I paced. I screamed silently at the back of the crowd. Fortunately, the audience seemed tolerant and forgiving, maybe because the film was being projected in a crowded room and most people were at an odd angle to the screen and craning their necks to begin with.
To spare others, we’ve decided to include a little notice with every DVD. Something along these lines:
Please note: when playing your 1913 Massacre DVD on a DVD player, set your television’s picture settings to an Aspect Ratio of 4:3 (not 16:9). Most computers will automatically play back at the correct aspect ratio.
Does 4:3 make our film look – gasp — dated? Yes, if dated means merely that it was made in a particular time and place. In that case, every film and work of art and piece of writing is dated. But if dated means more than that — passé, quaint, or expressive only of its time -– then emphatically, No.
It’s a clueless question to ask about 1913 Massacre, which is in part a documentary about how the past asserts itself in the present. And it betrays an impoverished way of thinking about filmmaking and about art in general. New technology will not necessarily produce better filmmaking; I challenge anyone to prove it has. Good films just don’t have a shelf life.
Ken and I talked about this issue just the other day. He reminded me that Russian film pioneer Sergei Eisenstein (in a 1931 essay called “The Dynamic Square”) advocated image formats that did not conform to industry standards, but were instead a fluid element of film’s language, suited to the dramatic demands of the story and to film’s evolving social function. Many experimental filmmakers have pushed the boundaries of filmmaking, and shown audiences new ways of seeing, in pursuit of Eisenstein’s idea.
I don’t want to pretend that 1913 Massacre is a bold experiment in the 4:3 ratio, but in a way it is: every film is a visual and storytelling experiment within the aspect ratio it uses. The 4:3 frame in 1913 Massacre is dynamic: the camera here creates its own language and poetics; the frame opens a portal between past and present.
What’s more, we could never have made this film had we abandoned the discipline of that 4:3 ratio. 4:3 is also intrinsic to the way the film approaches, presents and respects its human subjects and helps establish its directness and candor. Let’s also not overlook the simple fact that we persisted in 4:3 largely because we were shooting on a shoestring budget with makeshift kit, and we were getting great results in the field.
We’ve flirted with the idea of converting our film to HD and a 16:9 letterbox format, but then, we realized, it would just look like everything else out there, which it should not because it definitely is not like anything else out there.