A masterful tale of music, social, and economic history.
In 1965, when poet and essayist Wolff (The Names of Birds, 2015, etc.) was 13, he first heard Bob Dylan’s “sound of anger” on the radio. “Like a Rolling Stone” impressed him mightily. He sought out his earlier albums, and on Dylan’s first, there were two original songs. One was “Song to Woody,” which was “the sound of someone looking back in order to tell the truth.” This led the author to find out more about Woody Guthrie and to hear his music. He discovered a great singer/songwriter and political activist. That search then led him to Arlo Guthrie and his album, “Hobo’s Lullaby,” which included one of his father’s songs, “1913 Massacre.” In Calumet, Michigan, mostly striking mine workers, their wives, and children were having a crowded Christmas party in a large hall when someone falsely yelled “Fire!” In the desperate crush to escape, 73 people died. Listening to the song, Wolff realized Dylan had used the very same melody for his song about Guthrie. The pieces were falling into place: “Follow that darkish vein back to find…what? The history of anger. Hope. The truth.” The author takes us on a stunning, riveting journey as we learn about the young Dylan, Woody, Joe Hill, the famous singer/songwriter and union leader, the small town of Calumet, with its copper-mining operations in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and the unions and miners who were constantly taken advantage of by management and the mine owners. Along the way, Wolff introduces us to Woody’s fellow activist musician Pete Seeger and noted song collector Alan Lomax. He also tells the story of union organizer Ella Reeve “Mother” Bloor, who first told Woody the Calumet story, and Alexander Agassiz, son of the famous scientist, who hired James MacNaughton as the union-busting manager of the Calumet mine in 1901. Wolff’s elegantly intertwined historical drama is consistently revelatory.
A dazzling, richly researched story impeccably told.