Steinbeck Festival Honors Voices of Change

“A Voice: What Can a Voice Change? Everything,” was the theme of the 32nd Annual Steinbeck Festival, held May 3-6 at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California. A celebration of the work of John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie, the festival presented a mix of literature, history, tours, exhibits, and music inspired by social activism.

One poignant example was Guthrie’s song “Deportee.” The song is a chilling reminder that many of the injustices farm workers faced in the 1930s are still with us today.  Guthrie’s granddaughter Sarah Lee Guthrie and Steinbeck’s grandnephew Johnny Irion, who are married to one another, were among the performers.

Woody Guthrie was employed by the New Deal, writing 26 songs after spending a month touring the Bonneville Power Administration’s dam-building projects on the Columbia River. Guthrie’s songs, drawings, and writing reflect the struggle of working people in the great agricultural valleys of California.

Several of John Steinbeck books were set in California’s fields during the Great Depression, including in Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939. His articles about the plight of migrant farm workers appeared the San Francisco News in the fall of 1936.

In Travels with Charley, which recounts a 1960 road trip, Steinbeck wrote that had there been room in his pickup truck he “would have packed the WPA Guides to the States, all forty-eight volumes of them… the most comprehensive account of the United States every got together, and nothing since has even approached it.” (He notes that these books were “detested by Mr. Roosevelt’s opposition”).

The festival was produced by the National Steinbeck Center in collaboration with the Woody Guthrie Centennial, a worldwide project of the GRAMMY Museum, in partnership with the Woody Guthrie Archives.

Harvey Smith is president of the National New Deal Preservation Association and advisor to the Living New Deal. [email protected]

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