Roots of the Common Good

LATELY I’VE been on a campaign to read some of the classic novels that I should have read decades ago. This summer it’s been John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. There, I confessed it. All these years I’ve been coasting on repeated viewings of the John Ford film adaptation. But I’m reading the original now. And despite the hunger and hardship faced by the Joad family, I find myself experiencing nostalgia for those old hard times.

Americans fell into the Great Depression of the 1930s without the safety net of unemployment insurance, food stamps, or federally insured bank deposits. In fact, victims of the current depression have those benefits because of the things their ancestors did 80 years ago. Back then, Americans pulled together with the sure belief that we are all responsible for each other and that no one of us can, or should, stand alone. They recognized that a common plight required common action, and they gave us a trade union movement and a New Deal.

In The Grapes of Wrath, that recognition is rooted in the primary value of family solidarity, which grows to include neighbors and co-workers, and, finally, in Tom Joad’s famous speech, extends to all people struggling for justice (“whenever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat”), and even to all humanity, past and present (“maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of”).

Obviously, that sense of solidarity is hard to find in 21st century America. Today’s Joads, while also motivated by family values, are more likely to blame their problems on big government and to vote for free-market fundamentalists who will cut taxes on the rich.

Solidarity may be all but dead in our politics, but that forgotten country—the one inhabited by the likes of Tom Joad—still lives around the edges of our culture. In fact, I glimpsed it just a few days ago at a music festival in Owensboro, Ky., headlined by Old Crow Medicine Show and the Carolina Chocolate Drops, two groups that have given up on the contemporary American scene and planted their flag instead in the deeper soil of traditional music and culture.

Old Crow is a group of young (or youngish) white men who play music from the old-time string band tradition that predates the country music industry, and even recorded music. Their early recordings leaned heavily on traditional string band numbers, but more recently they’ve focused on writing original material that fuses their influences and brings them to bear upon the contemporary scene. They are capable of the Steinbeckian Big Statement. One of their songs flatly proclaims, “We’re all in this thing together, walking a line between faith and fear.” When I saw them in Owensboro, they played about half of their new album, Carry Me Back, and all but one of those songs dealt with political and economic traumas inflicted upon rural working people—from the collapse of domestic tobacco farming to having the family homestead flooded by the federal government to a Virginia boy’s death in the last Iraq war.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops are even more unusual. They are young African Americans on a crusade to revive a long-moribund black string band tradition. In the process, they are exposing the common DNA shared by African and European Americans. This leads to surprising combinations such as Chocolate Drop Rhiannon Giddens singing a song entirely in Scottish Gaelic, accompanied by hip-hop style beatboxing.

So maybe there is still hope for America in 2012. If there is, it is where it has always been, in our capacity to empathize with one another and to recognize our common origins and common fate.

Danny Duncan Collum teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort. His latest book is the novel White Boy.

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