Calling back and forth across time
Daniel Wolff’s book, Grown-Up Anger: the Connected Mysteries of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Calumet Massacre of 1913, carefully unspools the mysteries of Dylan’s early life, then Guthrie’s youth, then the early days of the copper industry in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The cycle repeats, spinning through these histories one after the other until a profound defiance rises from the text. Wolff’s characters are engaged in a fight for self-worth and self-determination in a fast changing world. In every inevitability, someone searches for purpose, and in every finality, someone turns their collar toward the future.
Instead of trying to solve the riddle, the book explores these “connected mysteries” to better understand them. It presents evidence piece by piece before honing in on Christmas Eve in 1913, which left 73 people in Calumet, Michigan dead. Occurring a year after Guthrie was born in Oklahoma, and thirty before Dylan’s birth, the lives of the singers shed light on the tragedy which echoes into the present day. Following the folk tradition, Guthrie turns the event into a song. Decades later, Dylan rewrites Guthrie’s song into one of his own. Wolff chronicles the events surrounding these songs as they call back and forth across time to show how they inform each other along with the larger struggle of working people in a changing world.
Singing the unsayable, saying the unsingable
Woody Guthrie’s song “1913 Massacre” serves as the book’s guiding transmission. Like Grown-Up Anger, the song lays out the story step by step. “1913” starts at the scene of the crime: at “Italian Hall / where the miners were having their big Christmas ball.” Guthrie offers to “let you shake hands with the people you see,” and Wolff’s rendition does the same. The history of labor relations, from the ideals of visionaries like Guthrie and Dylan to the struggle of the copper miners and their families, runs mineshaft deep in the book and in the song. Guthrie’s lyrics tell the story of the miners and their families throwing a party to save their spirits in an uncertain time before “copper boss thugs” scream “fire!” in the packed building. Blocking the only exit, the thugs trap the panicked crowd in a stairwell which results in scores of deaths, many of them children. Guthrie’s voice conveys a solemn weariness and his rubato performance slows down and speeds up to say more than seemingly possible in a three minute song, concluding with “look what your greed for money has done.” In the examination of the long history that precedes the song, and the longer history that follows, Wolff uncovers a latent indignation that Guthrie leaves unsung.
Who is Bob Dylan?
The answer seems obvious to anybody with even a cursory knowledge of American pop music, but Wolff makes it clear that Dylan was never so certain. Dylan’s life is a few generations removed from the events of 1913. When the sympathetic characters in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula begin a struggle for human dignity in the face of harsh working conditions, and those in Guthrie’s time sought to bring the nation together in the same struggle, Bob Dylan arrives to a movement dismantled by political and economic changes. The heroes of Guthrie’s life, like Pete Seeger, buried their politics to keep their jobs during McCarthyism and the red scare and Guthrie himself is hospitalized with a terminal disease. Wolff follows Dylan as he finds his own expression of identity amid a new exaltation in the face of his disillusionment.
Grown-Up Anger ends with the author travelling the streets shaped by the copper industry in Northern Michigan. He takes the reader to the gravestones of those who died on Christmas Eve, 1913 and the copper mines’ abandoned machinery that mark the industry’s own grave. The struggle of the strikers in Calumet to determine the worth of the life and labor of the working class, carried by Woody Guthrie, seems to have vanished. The book suggests that this struggle must live on somewhere. But where? Wolff leaves the reader with endless clues, and the reader feels compelled to follow them. The soundtrack is bound to be pretty good along the way.