January-February 2016

The History of My Column

By Ross Altman, PhD

Commonsense-smI wrote my first column, "How Can I Keep From Talking," in 2000, shortly before what became the great contested election that put George W. Bush in the White House. I told my small number of readers (rather prophetically, I now think) that it looked like it was going to be a very close election, so be sure to vote. It was published in the Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club newsletter, The Cat & Banjo, for a membership of roughly fifty. My first FolkWorks column—under the same masthead—did not appear until January 2003—masquerading as a review of a concert at Royce Hall. It was titled “Dinosaurs and Troubadours”. That was my first appearance in FolkWorks and—thanks to my loyal editor/publishers Steve and Leda Shapiro—became my bully pulpit to this day. So having been your faithful correspondent for going on 13 years I thought it not amiss to look back and tell you something about how it all got started—a creation myth if you will—of this reporter’s opinion.

As some of you know (from an earlier column) I have a PhD in English from the State University of New York at Binghamton. That was the culmination of a lifetime of reading both English and American literature; during which I also earned a BA in English from UCLA and an MA in Speech from UCSB. The writers who most influenced me in becoming a columnist were not surprisingly essayists in what British critic F.R. Leavis dubbed The Great Tradition. I don’t write like a journalist—short, pithy sentences that—as I wrote in one column adhere to the memorable TV show Our Miss Brooks’ high school principal Osgood Conklin’s rules of good writing: “Be brief, be clear, be gone.” E.B. White—famed author of The Elements of Style—not to mention the children’s classic Charlotte’s Web—could not have said it better.

Try as I might, however, I seem unable to avoid the lengthy, quixotic maze-like sentences of the 18th Century masters who invented the periodical essay—Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, who literally created this quaint literary form on April 9, 1709 with the publication of The Spectator in London,, written they said, “To enliven morality with wit.” They also published The Tatler, continuing in their newly minted great tradition.

Following Addison and Steele came the greatest literary figure of the 18th century, and my personal literary hero, Samuel Johnson, who single-handedly penned the first major Dictionary of the English Language. Dictionaries would soon become the province of whole teams of writers working under the supervision of an editor (such as the Oxford English Dictionary’s editor-in-chief James Murray). But it never occurred to Dr. Johnson to employ (nor could have afforded to do so) subordinate writers to complete his task. He was the first great do-it-yourselfer in English literature whose name has been forevermore associated with “Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary.” It was he whose definition of patriotism stands to this day as the classic warning against smug flag-wavers everywhere: “The last refuge of the scoundrel.”

After Samuel Johnson came such remarkable essayists as William Hazlitt (who like Johnson was also a major Shakespeare critic who helped rescue Shakespeare from the bowdlerizers who tried to sanitize his plays), Charles Lamb (devoted friend to poet John Keats who refined the periodical essay into the personal essay), and another of my favorite English essayists and author of the one-of-a-kind literary classic Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Thomas De Quincey—whose addiction left him so impoverished it cost him his marriage and resulted in him having to live on the street, where nonetheless he continued to write his essays.

While Dr. Johnson was compiling his masterpiece—the Dictionary—he somehow found time to write both poetry and essays, which he managed to publish in his periodic journal The Idler, and following this, The Rambler. What folk singer would not be drawn to a writer who published a periodical called “The Rambler”? Not Woody Guthrie, and not me. (I think that’s a double negative, which shows you why I am not a journalist, which we are supposed to avoid like the plague.) (I think that’s a split infinitive, which we are also supposed to avoid like the plague.) (I think that’s a cliché, which we are also supposed to avoid like the plague.) You get the idea—this writer’s trade ain’t easy—there are so many rules to follow.

At around this time we can look across the pond and discover the great American essayist—who emigrated from England and so is also an English essayist—Thomas Paine, the author of Common Sense during the American Revolution. Paine’s best-known line, however, which inspired the modern folk classic “Wasn’t That a Time,” by Lee Hays and Walter Lowenfels, came not from the pamphlet Common Sense but from his essay series, The Crisis, which begins, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Had Paine written nothing else he would still be in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations for that one line.

AmericanCrisisThomas Paine was the great American revolutionary essayist who inspired George Washington during the fateful winter of December 1776, when he was holed up freezing with his gallant men at Valley Forge. To keep them warm and to keep them from getting demoralized he assigned them the task of variously reading Paine’s essays from The American Crisis. That was the occasion for Paine having penned these immortal lines on December 19 of 1776: “These are the times that try men's souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” They were read aloud to the Continental Army on December 23, 1776, for whom Paine wrote: “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”

At the beginning of that year, January 10, 1776, Paine had published Common Sense, the most widely distributed pamphlet (over 100, 000 copies) of the American Revolution, and for which Paine received no royalties at all. He described his motive as follows: “As my wish was to serve an oppressed people, and assist in a just and good cause, I conceived that the honor of it would be promoted by my declining to make even the usual profits of an author.” With the little he made from his other writings he purchased woolen mittens for Washington’s soldiers to try and mitigate the cold from which they suffered. Paine was to my mind the most principled and admirable of the Founding Fathers, for in addition to his extraordinary services to the revolution he also was the first to condemn African-American slavery and never soiled his hands or soul with the ownership of slaves. In that regard he stood apart from both Washington and Jefferson and became the conscience of the new nation.

And as an essayist—the subject of this column—he was nonpareil. A clear line of descent from Paine—who life story was told in the modern classic Citizen Paine by Howard Fast—leads us down to America’s first naturalist and dissident essayist Henry David (H.D.) Thoreau, author—in addition to Walden—of the “Essay on Civil Disobedience,” which later lead both Gandhi and King towards the path of nonviolent resistance to evil. Thoreau, like Paine, not only talked the talk but walked the walk. By refusing to pay his military tax that went toward supporting the War with Mexico he wound up in the Concord city jail. He was prepared to spend a considerable amount of time there, but his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson paid his bail and got him released after one night, much to Thoreau’s consternation. “What are doing in here?” Emerson asked him, to which Thoreau famously replied, “What are you doing out there?”

Every war and tax resistor from Joan Baez and David Harris to David Dellinger to the Reverends Daniel and Philip Berrigan owes (and acknowledges) a profound debt to Thoreau for having created the most compelling argument for the very idea of “a higher law” that is one’s moral conscience, and becoming the founding father of all conscientious objectors in that essay. It was Thoreau who stated unequivocally that he may not be morally bound to help everyone in need—he may have other aims he feels bound to pursue—but he is morally bound not to pursue his own ends whilst “standing on someone else’s back.” He must first get off his back before engaging in his own pursuits. He has no right to exploit anyone else in the pursuit of his own ends. It was also Thoreau who first gave to what Thomas Paine had called The Rights of Man a new name that stuck: “Human rights.” From the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights of 1948, to Amnesty International to the Los Angeles Commission on Human Rights, each and every one of them owes a debt to H.D. Thoreau, who inspired them with the concept of Civil Disobedience.

What can one essay do? Thoreau’s essay—that grew out of a grand tradition of essay writing on both continents—led Dr. Martin Luther King to a Birmingham jail, from which he wrote his own essay, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” that galvanized the civil rights movement in 1963. I still have an original pamphlet of Dr. King’s Letter, in which he explained his impatience to those fellow ministers reluctant to join his movement. It became the book Why We Can’t Wait. It led him to the National Mall in Washington D.C., where on August 28 that same year in front of the Lincoln Memorial he told America about a dream he had, “a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” “I have a dream,” he said, “that one day little black boys and little white boys and little black girls and little white girls will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” Even Dr. King dared not dream that one of those tables would be in the White House itself.

And finally, both Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger left a rich legacy of prose writing to say things that did not fit into their songs. In fact Pete wanted to be a journalist before he became a folk singer. For decades he wrote a regular column for Sing Out!, first called “Johnny Appleseed,” and later on “Apple Seeds.” Pete was not a prose stylist, but had such a curious and omnivorous mind that he was always throwing out bits and pieces of useful and fascinating information from all corners of the world—both about folk music and the world of social activism. Pete’s column is where I first came upon the saying “Think globally, act locally.” It’s where he described his view of the difference between folk and other kinds of pop music: “Some songs can make you forget your troubles; some songs can make you understand your troubles; but a very few songs can help you do something about your troubles” Those were the songs he most cherished; and why Pete is so missed today. His view of music simply transcended everything else in pop—he saw it as instrumental (you’ll excuse the pun) in the collective effort to create a better world.

Woody wrote a humorous Will Rogers-inspired column for The People’s World under the heading “Woody Sez.” They were finally collected by his longtime friend Ed Robbins and published as an anthology of his short pieces—written mostly during the 1940’s. But his best volume of prose was collected and published by MacMillan in 1967 under the great Guthriesque title Born to Win—including many of his longer essays and wonderful drawings and cartoons—and a few of his uncensored Rabelaisian erotic writings as well. Woody was a great prose stylist as you will see in his classic autobiography Bound for Glory, written in 1940. In his “Woody Sez” column he signed off with his great tag line: “Take it easy, but take it!”

Addison and Steele, Dr. Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, Thomas De Quincy, Thomas Paine, H.D. Thoreau, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger—they are all on my mind today as I recall how this column began, and why it continues to mean something to me. I walk in their shoes; I stand on their shoulders.

They are my history; they are yours. Happy New Year, dear Reader, for 2016.

Los Angeles folk singer Ross Altman has a PhD in English; Ross may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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