Rock music has found some of it’s most passionate expression as a result of anger. From the teenage angst of the Seattle ‘Grunge’ scene to Neil Young’s wrath in “Ohio,” to the recent plight of musical artists responding to the current state of affairs, universal discontent has provided a reckless motivation to Rock and Roll. Behind their contemporary disquiet is a long history of songs expressing indignation, fury and outrage. It’s that tale of pent up anger, unresolved class struggle and shared untruths that form the dramatic background for an excellent new book from Daniel Wolff titled, Grown Up Anger: The Connected Mysteries of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and the Massacre of 1913.
Now I know what you’re thinking, do we really need another book about Bob Dylan? In this case, yes, because Wolff’s well researched history explores so much more than Dylan and his lyrics. In fact, Dylan becomes nothing more than a link along a long history of union and worker’s rights that Wolff masterfully connects to a relatively unknown incident when dozens of children are killed by mysterious events caused by rising tensions and worker’s unrest in a Michigan mining town near the beginning of the 20th century. Wolff brilliantly weaves the tale of Guthrie, Dylan, American Communism and corporate American greed into a fine exposé of music and its roots as a social monitor of accepted norms.
Wolff explores the deep rooted musical connections not just of Guthrie and Dylan, which has been explored in dozens of tomes, but rather of the working man’s music then and now while providing enlightening insights into the contributions made by Irving Berlin, Jimmy Rodgers and Muddy Waters. He craftily draws the creative lines from John Steinbeck’s Tom Joad (Grapes Of Wrath) by Guthrie’s work with Pete Seeger and others instrumental in creating Folk music thru Dylan’s ‘Like A Rolling Stone,” leaving the reader with a map of connections that go a long way to help explain the current political discourse in our country.
Using the backdrop of a relatively unknown human made catastrophe in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in 1913, Wolff links the past with the present and the one emotion connecting them all as he writes “It’s the sound of what’s been covered up, but refuses to stay away, refuses to leave the past alone: the sound of anger.” There are frightening flashback moments that sound all to familiar like Teddy Roosevelt’s response to union leaders presence at the time calling them “undesirable citizens” or Dylan’s awkward acceptance speech when receiving the prestigious Tom Paine Award from the American Civil Liberties Union by stating he saw himself in President Kennedy’s assassin- Lee Harvey Oswald.
It’s an anger that took time to build and Wolff offers the blueprints of its origins while prolifically detailing its soundtrack. He provides a tale of American angst riddled with political intrigue, accepted half truths and artist ’s attempts to heal. After the journey, one can understand the plight of the working man who has provided the muse for Bruce Springsteen to Steve Earle, the malaise that drove Neil Young and his protégé Kurt Cobain to speak for their generations thru song. It’s a tale of the past, but like our musical heritage, it’s all so connected with the song and verse of today.