We finished The Grapes of Wrath and are starting A Gathering of Old Men, but I was gone for a few days. Now, I had intended to do this earlier, but I had time today and we had “music day.”
We listened to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” and look at the final two verses in particular which are often not used when singing this tune. Most of the song is so hopeful and positive, but the last two verses change the feel and meaning of the song.
As I was walkin' - I saw a sign there And that sign said - no tress passin' But on the other side .... it didn't say nothin! Now that side was made for you and me! In the squares of the city - In the shadow of the steeple Near the relief office - I see my people And some are grumblin' and some are wonderin' If this land's still made for you and me.
Next, we listened to Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” as we finished off The Grapes of Wrath. The kids were at first curious about the song’s folksy sound and gradually got into the tune while easily connecting its ideas and its final verse to the novel. The kids told me it was “cool” that people today still sing about Steinbeck’s work.
Then I talked to the class about how Springsteen may be becoming the voice of new generation. We started out listening to “Born in the USA” and focused on the desperation and sadness in the tune. Believe it or not, I used the film and novel First Blood starring Sylvestor Stallone (we didn’t actually watch the film) to discuss the post-Vietnam society and the veterans themselves as a connection to Springsteen’s 80s hit: the unemployment, the hopelessness, the frustration, and the decision to make a stand. Of course, this connects quite well to Ernest Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men. We also briefly discussed the irony of how “Born in the USA” became such an American anthem while being a less than patriotic song.
Lastly, we listened to and examined the lyrics of “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday. My students were shocked by the title metaphor and the juxtaposition of the “pastoral scene” and the “gallant South” with the image of a hanging man. Quite a few of the kids actually questioned the truthfulness of the song’s subject, but I also have some pictures of actual lynchings with people smiling and pointing proudly to their handiwork. The kids were horrified at the sight of the pride in the photos. I’m glad they can’t imagine events like these occurring in their community, but I also want them to understand the magnitude of these horrific events and their influence on Gaines’ novel.
All in all, today was a great day and the kids were sad to leave the room at the period’s end.