July 14th was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Woody Guthrie, singer, songwriter and political activist: a date that he appropriately shares with the revolutionary insurrection in Paris in 1789. The centenary did not get a lot of attention so all credit to the group who organised the Happy Birthday Woody Guthrie event at the Hyde Park Cinema that evening. There was live music from David Broad, Michael Rossiter and Jonny Hick: readings with a contemporary slant from Kuselo Kamau: and two films from Woody’s era – the Great Depression. A large and appreciative audience enjoyed all of these.
The Plow That Broke the Plains(USA, 1936) is one of the major films in the great wave of rhetorical documentaries in the 1930s. The film was screened in a pristine 35mm print from the bfi, one that showed off the fine cinematography and editing. The soundtrack, relying on early sound techniques was slightly variable, but displayed the musical accompaniment well. The film runs for 30 minutes and provides a historical commentary on the developments that led to the dustbowl disaster of the 1930s and the subsequent mass migration by ‘Okies’.
There is a noticeable disjuncture between the bulk of the film and the closing sequence, which presents the policies of the New Deal, designed to address the agricultural disaster. This partly reflects the government sponsorship, but also reflects on tensions with the film’s production. The originator and director of the project Pare Lorentz recruited a trio of cinematographers from the radical New York Photo League: Ralph Steiner, Paul Strand and Leo Hurtwitz, (Strand was partly responsible for Redes/The Wave, 1936). Lorentz was aware of the restraints involved in Government sponsorship: the three cinematographers, who provided some beautiful and evocative images of the ‘grasslands’ and the ‘dustbowls’, were very conscious of how the project detailed the effects of a rapacious capitalist system.
The film’s images are presented in a typical stentorian male voice of the documentaries of the decade, (the type of voice ironically copied in Welles Citizen Kane). They are also edited together in an effective rhythm, at time emulating the montage form of the Soviet films. Lorentz worked on the editing with Virgil Thomson, who also composed the score. The music is full of associations, some fairly radical, as in the marching song that accompanies the wheat drive during World War I. Thomson was keen on the use of folk music and the score provides a number of familiar themes from the period.
That the film survives is no thanks to the political and industrial establishment of the period: as rabid in their prejudices as the current ‘tea party movement’. The Hollywood studios barred Lorentz (and other government-sponsored projects) from their libraries of film stock. He had to rely on surreptitious assistance from the likes of King Vidor. Republican politicians foamed at the mouth about ‘propaganda’. And even the sponsors, the Roosevelt created Resettlement Agency, got cold feet and refused Lorentz’s bills when he went over budget. A distribution block was finally broken by the New York Rialto Theater who screened it with the advertisement ‘The Picture They Dared Us to Show!’ Eric Barnow, in his Documentary (revised 1993), records reports of audiences cheering during screenings. Quite rightly the film remains both a classic documentary and an important record from a decade with clear lessons for the present.
The second documentary film screened was To Hear Your Banjo Play (1940), a film featuring Pete Seeger (a companion singer with Woody Guthrie) discussing several folk songs. The film was directed by Willard Van Dyke, who had worked as a cameraman on Pare Lorentz’s 1937 film The River.
BBC Radio 4’s Archive Hour that daywas devoted to theretracing some of Woody Guthrie’s travels in the 1930s by his biographer Joe Klein. And The Guardian newspaper has a special offer on a three-CD box set of Woody Guthrie Troubadour.