Looking back at anger

Looking back at anger

Upper Nyack writer blends music and labor history in new book

Daniel Wolff
Daniel Wolff

Daniel Wolff of Upper Nyack remembers being an angry kid growing up in Westchester. His elders told him he would grow up and out of his rage.

He didn’t think so.

It turned out he was right. “Despite what my elders told me when I was 13, my anger hasn’t gone away,” Mr. Wolff said this week.

Mr. Wolff has, however, harnessed that anger, and the result has been productive. This week his latest book, “Grown-Up Anger: The Connected Mysteries of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Calumet Massacre of 1913,” was published to wide acclaim.

Mr. Wolff already has written books on topics ranging from the singer Sam Cooke to the city of Asbury Park; from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to the history of American education. In 2013, Rockland County gave him its Literary Artist award.

“Grown-Up Anger” begins as the author first hears Bob Dylan’s hit “Like a Rolling Stone,” not all that long after his bar mitzvah. “I thought that was a great song,” Mr. Wolff said. “I thought that guy is telling the truth, and he seems as angry as I am.”

Looking back more than 50 years later, where does Mr. Wolff think his anger came from? “I think it has to do with justice and fairness,” he said. “Is it the Jewish tradition to be angry? I ask that as a question.

“I had a privileged childhood. Personally I was fine. But it didn’t seem like a fair world in many ways. The basic social inequity of haves and have-nots bothered me. It was something people almost appeared not to notice, as if you’re not to supposed to bring it up. It seemed to me very obvious.”

But what about Bob Dylan’s anger? Mr. Wolff traces a line from Dylan to Dylan’s early idol and influence, Woody Guthrie. When Dylan recorded his first album, he sang a composition, “Song to Woody,” which borrowed the tune from Guthrie’s 1941 song, “1913 Massacre.” Which raised the question: “What inspired Guthrie that inspired Dylan that inspired me?”

The short answer is that Guthrie, who was born in 1912, learned about the 1913 Calumet massacre from a book. How accurate that book was, and how accurate was Guthrie’s rendering of it in a ballad, is one of the mysteries Wolff’s book explores.

The gist of the story, Mr. Wolff said, is that in 1913, the workers at the Calumet Copper Company in Michigan were trying to organize into a union — “and getting nowhere. It was a very patriarchal, controlling company. It was a company town. Everyone went to the company school, shopped at the company store, and got buried in the company graveyard.

“They had a strike. The owners figured that if they could hold out to winter, the strike would break.

“The strike appeared to be pretty well over. As a final gesture, the striking miners — mostly immigrants — had a Christmas party for their kids. Someone came in and yelled ‘Fire!’ in the crowded hall. By the end, 73 people — 59 of them children — had been smothered to death in the stairwell.”

Guthrie’s song told the story in 10 stanzas. The final line had the mourning strikers pointing an angry finger: “See what your greed for money has done.”

Which is how a book that starts with an angry rock song came to explore the history of the labor movement, from right after the Civil War until today. “The more I looked at labor history, the more interesting it became,” he said. “It tends not to be talked about a whole lot here.”

The labor movement arose “when industrialism was becoming strong and stronger. Big factories were being built. Workers essentially said, ‘What’s my piece of this? How did this end up being fair?’

“An awful lot of these workers were immigrants,” he continued. “Jews and gentiles, people who had come from Europe and had studied the idea of socialism, the idea of equal distribution of wealth. They came to this new land that seemed to promise that, and they discovered it wasn’t happening. They fought back.”

The book weaves together this history with biographies of Dylan and Guthrie. Mr. Wolff found the singers to be good company.

“Often when you write a book you become tired and angry with your subject matter, because it takes years,” he said. “I came to appreciate Dylan and Guthrie more than when I started. That surprised me. I was surprised by how sincere Bob Dylan is. He often gets pictured as a cynic, something of a recluse. He seems to have been in many ways a very straightforward guy, a Jewish kid from a small little town in the Midwest who had enormous dreams — mostly inspired by music — that he went out to pursue. In some ways I think he did it in the gentlest way possible.

“Dylan and Guthrie have been inspirations to me on how as a grownup you act on anger. I thought, let me try to lay this out for people. It might help other people. I didn’t know we’d have the division in America we have now, but it’s not surprising.

“When people tell you you’ll grow out of your anger, it means adjusting to the inequitable status quo that people like Dylan and Guthrie encouraged me not to adjust to,” Mr. Wolff said.

Does he see Dylanesque anger on today’s American scene?

“We’ve seen manifestations of it in Occupy and Black Lives Matter, and in a bunch of efforts for everything from trying to solve the situation in the Middle East to environmental matters. Both Guthrie and Dylan came about at a time where a large social movement was happening already. We don’t have that kind of focused social protest right now, but I think there’s an awful lot of people who are anxious to make things better.”

And his current project?

“I’m writing a bunch of poetry,” he said. “Often after a nonfiction project I do a lot of poetry as a break.” His most recent book of poems was “The Name of Birds,” published in 2015. “It’s not quite as benign as it sounds,” he said of the book.

Poetry “is a very underground, subversive influence. I think it’s very important. It moves quietly under the surface.

“There are different ways to tell the truth. You can do it in a song or a movie. Poetry is one of the prime ways people do it. That truth may be social commentary, or it may just be personal truth — both of which can be inspiring.”

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