The Cannery Row Scarecrow

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”John Steinbeck, Cannery Row

The Cannery Row Scarecrow

This is, perhaps, one of the greatest first sentences ever written into any novel. Steinbeck is best known for  The Grapes of Wrath, the novel that won him the Nobel prize for literature.  For me, I’ve always been a fan of his book, Cannery Row; this is the one I’ve always regarded as Steinbeck’s masterpiece.  In this book, Doc, the  oddly dislocated marine biologist, and Mack, the putative leader of the local stumblebums  are not put out by their poverty of material, but rather, enriched by their hope and possibility.   Theirs is a world of  flop-houses, tenderhearted and straight-forward hookers, and the natural beauty and stench that surrounds them.

This book is fairly populated by hobos, and in the hobo-lore, canneries were a good place to get work on the West Coast; particularly Monterey, where one could also sleep on the beach.  Steinbeck’s coastal  atmosphere is a pungent slice of down-at-the-heels America, populated by “whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches,”  even though a look through another keyhole would yield “saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” for in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, they are all the same thing.

I love the language in this book.  Very often I heard criticism of Steinbeck as being “too spare;” always from lesser writers who were not fit to  knock on his door.  What  thrills me in his books  is that, like Nelson Algren, he does not appraise his  creations or moralize.  They are who they are.  There are a million reasons people wind up where they do in life.  His bums are the genuine article; fully committed to bum-hood, his whores honest about what  you get for what you pay,  and best of all,  Doc (collector of sea creatures, and  the kind of man who tips  his hat to dogs),  Mack (good natured  hustler and swindler), who is one of those human case studies of  “the good in the bad, and the bad in the good.” Eddie supplies the hobos and bums with recycled booze filched from the backwash of the paying customers’ drinks. . .yum. Dora Flood is the pragmatic keeper of the restaurant/whorehouse, the Bear Flag.

These are Americans.  These are the people of whom the great Nelson Algren once observed, “lived behind the billboards.”   What a joy it has been to become reacquainted with Steinbeck. Dust this one off and rediscover a country no longer with us. We know the people in these books — they may go by different names and occupations now but they still walk the walk.

Published in: on May 28, 2009 at 5:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Mad House Scarecrow

“We die of cold, and not of Darkness” –Unamuno
Madhouse Scarecrow


One of my heroes in the poetry world is Mark Turcotte, the Chippewa poet and author of Exploding Chippewas.  I don’t know a lot about Native American history, but he does.  Every time I’m not sure of my facts when writing about the American Indian, I call Mark; he knows  everything.  He is a student and keeper of this history; a Chippewa griot and the closest thing I regard to a holy man.  He has been very blunt with me about the history of American Indian tribes.  He  has told me that the white man was not the first keeper of slaves on this continent, nor was genocide unknown to this land before Whitey get here.

He is honest, bold, lyrical and sometimes too damned honest for his own good.   Mark is his own man and he brooks no bullshit when it comes to the story of his people.  I’ve read a great deal about homelessness in America and hobos and the people who were displaced in the expansion of America and nobody got hustled  like the Native American.  Nelson Algren used to bait the “America First” crowd with the statement that we lived as a body politic on stolen property.  That every street, every corner, every fruited plain, had the air of larceny about it.  Of course Algren, like my friend Mark Turcotte, was another guy who was too damned honest for his own good.

Years ago, I became fascinated by Kachina dolls, which are made by many Native American tribes, and they range from being genuine medicine to being knickknacks they sell to the tourists like cactus-candy.  I have one that is a Navajo fetish and that’s not quite right–it rather has me.   I’ve looked at it for over 20 years and it is still a mysterious, searching kind of  presence in my life.  It is totemic and loaded with a language that has never been written down.

It occurs to me that scarecrows are kind of white men’s totems.  They send a certain message that is not about scaring birds, but rather, property; as in, “this is mine, go away,” rendered in pagan, throw-away sticks and cloth.  They are totems of ill-will and ownership of landscape.

As Americans, we think of such symbolism as quaint, arcane, or worse yet, as nostalgia.
We attach sentimental ennui to old talismans like the much-loved cartoon, “Injun Summer” with no thought of the grievous and genocidal injury we did to a whole culture.  In my darker moments of making this book, I’ve thought that America is, at its base, the culmination of the best efforts of the most successful murderers in human history.


Published in: on May 21, 2009 at 2:27 am  Comments (1)  
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The Gray Angel

The Gray AngelHey–

My dear friend Steve Earle’s new record Townes was released today.  It is a gorgeous recording of Townes Van Zandt‘s songs done by Steve.  It is also a meditation on their friendship and the mortality of both men, and it is also very much a Steve Earle record.

There have been other “tribute” records, but they pale in comparison.  They were certainly worthwhile efforts,  but at best, they were watery approximations of who Townes was and what he did.  Steve’s record is the raw ether of the real thing and it resonates like no other.  I heard this record in its first incarnation in November and it was like an icicle had touched my spine.  It was almost impossible for me to discern where Townes ends and Steve begins.  It is a melding of kindred spirits as deep and murky and radiant as the ocean.

I started thinking about Townes  after i heard the record again the other day; how naturally he fits in to this narrative of hobos and scarecrows.  I didn’t know him at all,  but hearing Steve’s accounts of funny stories and anecdotes and hearing those lovely, plaintive and searching American songs, a picture emerges; one sad and lonely and more beautiful for being both things in an odd way.

For me, Townes is one of those scarecrow figures in American music. . .one of those fence posts or mile markers.  He set the bar way high and few have ever matched it.  This record is by one of those who did.  Buy this CD.  If you don’t like, it I’ll reimburse you and give it to someone with some taste.

There is a great picture of Townes and Steve in the CD package and Townes is tall, lanky and gaunt as a scarecrow.   He looks like a cowboy; a gray angel of American songwriting.

This one is for him.

Published in: on May 13, 2009 at 1:15 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Devil’s Scarecrow

The Devil's Scarecrow

Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.” — Walt Whitman


Mr. Whitman believed that to travel the  open road freely was one’s birthright as an American. Seasoned hobos took great issue with Mr. Whitman’s democratic vision in that they knew every American place they landed their sorry asses was owned by somebody.   The real culmination of the America we now know was the idea of “private property.”  Gone are the wide open spaces of Whitman’s lovely and idealistic poems; it is all private property now.  The idea of a “common land” was  disposed of  in the crucible of the Civil War.  “Us” and “them” became just “Us.”

In almost every text about hobos and homelessness, there is some mention of “the scarecrow.” These farmland apparitions were not only meant to scare off  birds, but other people as well.   It seems every hobo is chilled by these seemingly harmless symbols.  Many hobow feared that if they died on the road, some rube would truss them up to the nearest cross-piece and bandy  their corpse about to public curiosity.  I’ve read this more than once.

Scarecrows have their origins in warfare in that ancient tribes (Mayans, Aztecs, and many European cultures) would truss up the corpses of their enemies as an object lesson to invading interlopers.  Many hobos feared they would become scarecrows.  They would compare their level of hunger to that of becoming a scarecrow; a talisman of bad luck and dissolution.  In the South, after the Civil War, scarecrow faces were painted and rendered into brutal stereotypes of African-Americans.  In fact, Nathan Bedford Forrest, the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, insisted that his marauders dress in white sheets so that newly freed slaves would believe that they were the ghosts of Confederate soldiers, rather than the cowardly thugs they were.

Scarecrows intrigue me.  I’ve only seen a few in real life, but the ones I’ve seen were spooky; burlap faces and button eyes, carved tin for teeth in the more elaborate ones, or animal skulls for a head and surrounded by tattered rags blowing in the wind.  They are deathly totems that stay with you.  They are still, yet full of evil intention and ill-will.  They are the human…disappearing.


Published in: on May 7, 2009 at 2:10 am  Comments (1)  
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The Healer

The Healer

In a  conversation I had years ago with the late, great bluesman John Lee Hooker, I asked him about his song, The Healer.  He cocked his head and  smiled that rattlesnake smile he had and said it was about a traveling  man; a hobo who rode box-cars and sold snake oil and spoke to the fire.  Hooker recalled as a young boy seeing this man speak to a burn victim of a grease fire.  Hook said that the man didn’t do any of that bullshit of laying on of hands or speaking in tongues–the standard carny-Christian handjob they usually do.   He said that the “healer” spoke right to the fire, whispered in the man’s ear and spoke to the fire itself.   John Lee Hooker said the “healer,” “blew cool air into the man’s ear and blew the heat out of the burn, but when he spoke, in a nasty whisper, he spoke to the fire.”

Hook smiled and told me he thought it  was probably bullshit–that the  burned man chose to believe in the “healer”  and therefore chose to ignore the pain.

This was a shuck common to hobos.  Selling snake oil is as old as pimping religion or any other feel-good bromide.  It’s been around for centuries  and people still buy into it.  I always found  “healers,” “clairvoyants,” “psychics,” and other spiritualists among the most loathsome of matchstick types.  They do real damage to people who ought to be, instead,  getting medical or psychological help.  They exploit the pain of sad people for profit.  Most hobo con men were harmless enough.  During the beginning of The Depression, lots of them wound up in the boot-legging business, especially those who were on the bum around the waterways of the Northeast.

The selling of moonshine and other spirits was often couched in “medicinal” curatives and such, but throughout the country there were “healers,” especially during The Depression.  They would show up in the Dust Bowl in great numbers, or in Texas after floods in Galveston, or in mining towns, after a  mine would cave in.  Anywhere there was tragedy, miraculously, the “healers” would appear.  In the Dust Bowl, they called themselves “rainmakers” and  swindled poor people out of their money or other meager assets, by promising to make it rain and playing to their most dire fears of prolonged drought; much like politicians do now.

This is the hobo symbol for, “You can get medical attention here.”

Published in: on May 2, 2009 at 12:17 am  Leave a Comment  
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