Jul. 14, 2012

Not the End of the World

by Paul Hostovsky

"Unhand her, vagabond," was my one line
in the school play. I had the part of the cop,
a minor role compared to Beth Levine's,
the heroine, or Billy Wiesenkopf's,
the vagabond. Still, I took my part seriously.
So although he forgot to take her hand, right on cue
I yelled, "Unhand her, vagabond," and it struck me
and everyone else, that my line made no sense. Then I knew:
this is the kind of mistake that will end the world.
A question of bad timing will hang in the air
like an empty trapeze swinging above the smoke
of that final disaster. Someone will utter a word
too late to take back, reach for a hand that's not there,
and "It's not the end of the world" will not be spoken.

"Not the End of the World" by Paul Hostovsky, from Bending the Notes. © Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Billy the Kid was shot and killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett on this date in 1881 in New Mexico Territory. Billy the Kid, néeWilliam McCarty Jr., was born in a poor Irish neighborhood in New York City. When he was 14, after his father died, McCarty and his mother moved out to the New Mexico Territory. His mother died of tuberculosis the following year. Four years later, after some time as a horse thief, McCarty was going by the name "William Bonney," and he was working for a rancher, John Tunstall. Tunstall decided to open a store in Lincoln County, which had until then been monopolized by a wealthy businessman named Lawrence Murphy. It set off a power struggle between the two factions of cattle ranchers, each side with its own lawyers and criminals. Tunstall was killed by a sheriff's posse in 1878, and Billy the Kid, who had been quite close to Tunstall, retaliated by ambushing and killing the sheriff and a deputy. He went on the run for two years, was captured, and escaped the jail again. Finally, the new sheriff, Pat Garrett, heard he was holed up at Fort Sumner, about 140 miles away. With two deputies in tow, Garrett ambushed Bonney at the fort and shot him. Bonney was 22 years old.

The life and death of Billy the Kid inspired numerous books — the first of which was written by Pat Garett himself—as well as novels, poems, dozens of movies, and songs by artists like Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Aaron Copland, and Marty Robbins.

100 years ago today Woodrow Wilson — aka "Woody" — Guthrie (books by this author) was born in Okemah, Oklahoma (1912). Guthrie took occasional jobs as a sign painter and started playing music on a guitar he found in the street. During the Dust Bowl in the mid-1930s, Guthrie followed workers who were moving to California. They taught him traditional folk and blues songs, and he began to write songs about the people who'd lost their farms and their homes.

One of Guthrie's first famous songs was "So Long, It's Been Good to Know Yuh," in which he wrote, "A dust storm hit, an' it hit like thunder; It dusted us over, an' it covered us under; Blocked out the traffic an' blocked out the sun, Straight for home all the people did run, Singin': So long, it's been good to know yuh."

His songs grew increasingly political — sympathetic to the plight of people facing hard times during the Great Depression, and he often performed on a guitar that bore the slogan "This machine kills Fascists." Like many people at the time, he thought the Depression was a sign that capitalism had collapsed. He wrote a column, called "Woody Sez," for the Communist Party newspaper The Daily Worker. But he never officially joined the Communist Party. He said, "I ain't a Communist necessarily, but I been in the red all my life." He was one of the only American artists whose reputation never really suffered because of his communist associations.

Guthrie went on to write thousands of songs, including "Hobo's Lullaby," "Hard, Ain't it Hard," "Pastures of Plenty," "This Train is Bound for Glory," and "I Got No Home in the World Anymore." In 1940, he wrote the folk classic "This Land is Your Land" because he was growing sick of Irving Berlin's "God Bless America." He sometimes varied the lyrics when he performed it, making it more political, or less, depending on his audience. The song enjoyed renewed popularity in the 1960s, and it has been adapted in many other countries, like India, Ireland, and Namibia, to include their landmarks.

Today is the birthday of Swedish director and writer Ingmar Bergman, born in Uppsala (1918). His father was a very strict Lutheran minister who gave out harsh punishments for even the smallest childhood misdeeds, and Bergman lost his religious faith by the age of eight. When he was nine, he traded his toy soldiers for a "magic lantern," a rudimentary projector, and began putting on shows.

He studied theater in college, and made his way into the film business in 1941, rewriting screenplays. Over the next decade, he wrote and directed more than a dozen movies. His first big international success came in 1955, with Smiles of a Summer Night, which won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries followed in 1957.

Bergman became known for making films about mortality and isolation. In a 2004 interview, he admitted that he couldn't watch his films anymore because he found them depressing. He influenced an entire generation of young filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese, who said, "If you were alive in the '50s and the '60s and of a certain age, a teenager on your way to becoming an adult, and you wanted to make films, I don't see how you couldn't be influenced by Bergman." And Woody Allen called Bergman "probably the greatest film artist, all things considered, since the invention of the motion picture camera."

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