Outside Memorial Hall, library workers in 1930s gingham dresses handed out brochures. Inside, the hall smelled like a school lunchroom, thanks to a "Depression-Era Soup Line" with steam tables of Campbell's chili, a big salad bowl, plates of industrial-looking cookies and a church-sized coffee urn.
Mayor Joe Reardon read a proclamation. David Kipen, director of literature at the National Endowment for the Arts, talked about how reading makes people better citizens.
Then Moore broke out the six-string. And I had a prediction about how his serenade would end.
See, the first few verses of Woody Guthrie's 1940 song, about the redwood forests and the Gulf Stream waters, the endless skyway, the golden valley — they make a person feel good about America. But the later verses paint a much darker portrait of our country:
In the shadow of the steeple, I saw my people/By the relief office, I seen my people/As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking/Is this land made for you and me?
Those last lines sum up The Grapes of Wrath — hell, I knew that, and I hadn't even read the book. I'd seen the movie, so I knew the plot: An Oklahoma family gets shoved off its land by a corporation and heads for California in a broken-down truck. They face indignities and heartbreaks while the hero, Tom Joad, grows more radical. Near the end, he makes a famous speech, promising, "I'll be ever'where — wherever you look. Wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there."
Sure enough, Moore didn't sing Guthrie's last verses.
Later, he told me that he sings the song to bring people together. "I tell people this could have been our national anthem. It's a beautiful song about the greatest country in the whole world." He said he's not trying to make a political statement. "I know everything's not perfect, don't get me wrong. But I use the song as a rallying cry."
Too bad he missed a chance to use Guthrie's little-known verses as a real rallying cry. Because today's America isn't so far from John Steinbeck's.
Just a couple of days before WyCo's Big Read kickoff came news that the gap between rich people and poor people had grown again. "The top 1 percent of Americans — those with 2005 incomes of more than $348,000 — received their largest share of national income since 1928," reported The New York Times. People earning more than $100,000 had a share they hadn't enjoyed since before the Depression.
Steinbeck's villains talk about Okies like some folks gripe about today's Mexicans: "They'll steal anything. They've got no sense of property rights.... They bring disease, they're filthy. We can't have them in the schools. They're strangers."
You have to hand it to a librarian who suggests that everyone in her town read this book.
The main protagonist is an ex-con, I discovered when I started reading. One of the heroes is a preacher who left his calling because he couldn't stop bedding teenage gals after tent revivals. Almost all of the characters are unimaginably poor.