Last night four of us walked over to Passim, the legendary folk music club in Harvard Square, to hear Arlo Guthrie perform. Passim is a basement room furnished with spectacularly uncomfortable cast-off folding chairs. Vegetarian food is available. The chairs and the food immediately raise the question of, if folk music is supposed to represent the struggle of working-class Americans how come Passim doesn’t serve food that these folks would actually like (e.g., hamburgers) and chairs that would accomodate the typically obese frames of the poor. Most of the time artists at Passim speak out from the stage against U.S. oppression of Iraqis, against George W. Bush, against Republicans, etc. These protests elicit universal applause from the audience, all of whom apparently can agree on these points and all of whom are apparently rather irritated. A true protest at Passim, one that would challenge the prevailing beliefs in the room, would be a leaflet arguing in favor of eating steak, touting its anemia-fighting and mood-mellowing properties. Not to mention the fact that steak encourages the consumption of red wine, which is known to have many health benefits.
Guthrie came on stage after a warm-up by Alastair Moock, whose songs are heavily laced with the modern vocabulary of recovery. The audience was awed by Guthrie’s impressive guitar playing, songwriting, and storytelling. The guy has been on the road for most of his 57 years!
Arlo Guthrie is a lot less bitter about the American political situation than the average performer at Passim and the average audience member. He pointed out that there is only one guy in the White House and lots of folks outside the White House. Guthrie further noted that if the world were truly full of peace and love like all the folk singers wanted and if everyone were in perfect health then it would be awfully hard to accomplish any positive changed. By contrast, “in a world as fucked us as this one it has never been possible to do so little little and achieve so much good.”
Guthrie drew a lot of strength from the final words of “Ma” in Grapes of Wrath: “we will always be here, because we’re the people”, explaining that politicians come and go but the people remain to do the work and therefore can’t be ignored. It occurred to me that perhaps this idea is obsolete in an age of offshoring. In the old days there was always work for unskilled uneducated American labor. Now that Mexico, India, and China are tied to us with Internet and container ships is that still true?