than a hundred years after American poet Walt
Leaves of Grass, the race of singers he
once imagined would follow in his footsteps continues to amplify
his legacy, singing the praises of the working man and celebrating
the ideal of American democracy.
his recently published book A Race of Singers: Whitmans
Working-Class Hero from Guthrie to Springsteen, Bryan
Garman 98G explores the rich thematic connection
between the vision of America that inspired Whitmans poetry
and the music of Garmans own heroes, folk rock legends
Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen.
Whitmanthe nineteenth century poet widely considered a
kind of spiritual progenitor of many progressive ideaseach
of these singers has deliberately sought to advance a liberal
agenda on cultural, social, and political fronts. But Garman
says their message is fraught with contradictions that ultimately
undermine their success.
themes and subtle ironies surface repeatedly throughout the
music and lyrics of Garmans subjects. They exalt a working-class
hero and aspire to represent himtake, for instance, songs
like Guthries You Gotta Go Down and Join the Unionbut
often to the exclusion of other Americans, including women,
gays, and blacks.
folk songs such as Dylans North Country Blues
(about the exploitation of miners) and countless others, they
bemoan the misfortune of the worker and denounce capitalistic
greed; yet for the most part their high-profile careers were
firmly grounded in the wealthy American music industry.
advocate sexual freedom and explore elements of homoerotic attraction
in their own sexualitySpringsteen, for example, ritually
gave his male, black saxophonist a deep soul kiss
at the end of the song Thunder Road during his Born
In the U.S.A. tourwhile never relinquishing their public
image of heterosexual manliness or exposing themselves to homophobia.
web of conflicts has created a musical tradition which constantly
critiques established social and political systems, but never
calls openly for them to be toppled, Garman saysmaybe
because as white men, these singers are privileged by the very
oppression they question.
heroes have dedicated themselves primarily to confronting the
most fundamental American quandary: how does one balance individual
freedom with social equality? Garman writes. Their
desire to be working-class heroes, to rise from the ranks of
common men to become quite uncommon, has often done more to
exacerbate than to assuage this tension.
work arose from his early devotion to Guthrie, Dylan, and Springsteen.
Even as a kid, he says, he used to play his dads Dylan
records over and over again, learning them by heart. Years later,
in college and then in graduate school at Emorys Graduate
Institute of the Liberal Arts, Garman began to examine their
relationship to Whitman and assess the impact of the poet on
American culture. While writing A Race of Singers (originally
his Ph.D. dissertation), Garman won a coveted ten-week graduate
student fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington,
D.C. , an opportunity he calls a real turning point
for the project.
was given access to the Moses and Frances Asch Collection, which
housed the papers of Folkways Records, a recording company Asch
founded in 1947 in New York City, Garman says. His
studio served as a meeting house for the leftist American Folksong
Movement, and Woody Guthrie spent endless hours at Aschs
office. Asch had the foresight to save every scrap of paper
that Guthrie touchedannotated books, pencil sketches,
song lyrics, letters, poems, paintings. I spent most of my time
examining these materials and listening to recordings that were,
at the time, unreleased.
also had the chance to meet Nora Guthrie, Woodys daughter,
who allowed him to visit the Woody Guthrie Archive in New York
before it officially opened to the public. She also spoke at
length with Garman about her father.
was so generous about sharing her memories and experiencesshe
transformed this historical figure I had spent so much time
studying into a human being, Garmans says. Shortly
after the book came out, she called to thank me for writing
their limitations, Garman says, the race of singers that arose
in Whitmans wake have profoundly, positively influenced
American culture by adding alternative voices to a dialogue
dominated by conservatism and capitalism. Like Whitmans
I Hear America Singing, the songs of Guthrie, Dylan,
and Springsteen are laced with optimism and admiration for the
American workingman, illuminating the simple dignity of skilled
laboran aspect of folk music Garman fears will be lost
in the era of technology.
ideas that Whitman articulated in the nineteenth century became
such a part of leftist culture that they are present whether
Dylan or Springsteen was actually drawing on Whitman directly
or not, Garman said in an interview from his Washington,
D.C. home. But now this tradition is changing. The whole
notion of work has changed in our society. Its hard to
have a working-class hero in this post-industrialist world,
work is less heroic, the labor movement is not as prominent.
Its hard to celebrate Dilbert, you know? Somebody
working in a cubicle is not a hero like, say, a steelworker.
Garman, who is now chair of the history department at a Quaker
high school in Washington, says he has found a handful of current
singers and musicians who evoke Whitmans legacy while
broadening and stamping the core ideology with their own mark.
One is singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco, who beat the odds when
she turned her back on the recording industry and successfully
founded her own label, Righteous Babe Records, in 1990. DiFrancos
radical, anti-establishment lyrics and intense musical style
have earned her a devoted young following, although she refuses
to identify wholly with any group or movement; in her anthem,
Not A Pretty Girl, she sings, Generally my
generation wouldnt be caught dead working for the
man, and generally I agree with themtrouble is,
youve got to have yourself an alternate plan
also points to lesbian folk-rock singers the Indigo Girls ,
both Emory graduates (Amy Ray 86C and Emily Saliers 85C),
who have adapted Whitmanesque notions of social justice and
equality to their particular brand of advocacy, speaking out
on behalf of women, gays, Native Americans, and the environment.
kids I teach are listening to them, which is nice, Garman
says. The tradition is still very much alive. P.P.P.