Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Woody Guthrie meets Charles Olson, 1942: a letter by Pete Seeger

It may be true: the wonders of the information age are killing off the art of letter writing.
If u cn rd ths, u txt 2 mch.

Undoubtedly this has meant the end of a certain form of communication. When was the last time a letter was written that didn't involve a calculated commercial pitch, at the current percentage rate, or an angry letter-to-the-editor fired off over a political "agenda" from someone who doesn't use (or trust) the internet? Imagine what the technological advance has done to the art of putting pen to paper.

Samuel Johnson (yes, I used the internet to look up this quote) wrote that the true character of men may be found in their letters. In the 1700s, letters -- no matter however ill-conceived or hastily-written -- could be intercepted over the course of delivery, and retrieved. Missives could be recalled, businesses saved, relationships salvaged: usually, calmer heads prevailed after last night's wine.

In the twenty-first century, the email response is instantaneous and mostly free (for the time being, as far as the politicians haven't yet legislated a fee), usually fired off at the height of the evening's outraged intoxication. At the same time, the ability to post an instant reaction to the world around us means that the considered response is in danger of disappearing:
the momentary satisfaction of I'm furious! has replaced the thoughtful reply. We all don't trust each other, and there's no wonder why. Spontaneity breeds the zinger: Umm, no. Epic fail.

There was a time when things were different, though. In the early days of the internet -- 1988 to 1998, s
ay -- there was a grand idea that "the word" might be freed from the bondage, and the price-scale, of the print-shop. The glories of free publication and a truly free press were charming to a class of writers who had previously been locked-out of publishing.

Exquisite Corps
e was one such venture, and which now continues online. Andrei Codrescu and Laura Rosenthal were editors of The Corpse, based in New Orleans, and two volumes -- a generous helping -- of this first-generation net writing was published by Black Sparrow Press in 2000.

Those were the days. Some of the highlights: "Lives of the Poets," including
Pete Seeger on Charles Olson (the Seeger letter follows below); Jan Kerouac on her father, Jack; John Kehoe on Charles Bukowski; Keith Abbott on Ted Berrigan; Edward Field on Alfred Chester; and (notoriously) Mark Spitzer on Ed Dorn. Fiction by Maxine Chernoff, Maggie Dubris, Barry Gifford, Eric Kraft, and twenty-three others. Travel notes (very loosely construed) by Hakim Bey, Andrei Codrescu, Pat Nolan, and Anne Waldman. Translations of Boris Vian by Julia Older, of Vladimir Pistalo by Charles Simic, of Attila Jozsef by John Batki, and of the Romanian poets of the 60's generation by several accomplished hands.

The internet seems to have been taken over by the immediate reply, the marketed and encouraged response, and the incensed consumer with a laptop:
Marketing, marketing -- won't somebody think of the children! But there was a time when the web encouraged a thoughtful reply, as well as a bit of history in response. Here's Pete Seeger's reply to a Corpse article regarding Charles Olson, and Olson's part in helping Woody Guthrie compose Bound for Glory:

I have been reading with interest the poetry newsletter,
Exquisite Corpse, and came across the article on Charles Olson. I never got around to reading his poetry, but you might be interested to know that I did know him. It was a little bit over 50 years ago. I briefly had a job as a cook in Boston when I was a student, and the man I was cooking for invited Olson and another Harvard instructor around to supper; and I made so bold as to enter into the conversation and ended up getting fired a week later. But I stayed briefly in touch with Olson for a few months before I left college, and then lo and behold, a full four years later, I'm walking down Eighth Street in Greenwich Village, and I run into this huge tall guy who, of all things, remembers and recognizes me. "What are you doing these days?" he says.

"I'm living around the corner with some other guys, and we make a living singing songs, calling ourselves The Almanac Singers. Why don't you have supper with us?"

So Olson comes to supper and is completely charmed by Woody Guthrie and ends up asking Woody to write an article for a little magazine he is editing called Common Ground. The article was a beautiful description of folk music by one of the folks, "Ear Music," and started off with Woody explaining that by this term, he does not mean you pluck a guitar with your ear.

Next thing, Angus Cameron, one of the editors at Little, Brown Publishers sees the article and writes a letter to Woody asking him if he'd like to try writing a book. And Woody says, "Sure I'd like to try." And during the next year he's pounding out page after page rapid-fire, and in 1943, a little more than a year later, the book, Bound For Glory, is selling medium-well. At any rate, you might be interested that that's how Charles Olson helped to get Woody into being a published author.

On October 16, Pete Seeger, now 91, joined Patti Smith and others to perform at a benefit for ALBA, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, remembering Americans who fought in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).

No comments: