Editor’s Pick
JANUARY 11, 2009 11:57PM

Art That Builds Communities

Rate: 52 Flag

Illinois Guide  

“And you are? . . . . .” asked the first of what looked like many receptionists standing guard on the outer reaches of the Oval Office of President Barack Obama.

It was raining hard in Washington DC. I didn’t have a power broker raincoat, so my only good suit was soaked in all the worst possible places.

And I needed a drink of water really badly.

“I’m ah, um. . . Chicago Guy.”

“So is pretty much every one else around here now,” said the receptionist over the top of her glasses. “Unless of course they are “Chicago Gal. What we need to do is for you to tell me your name, young man.”

“Chicago Guy really is my blogging name” I answered—too scared to speak in anything but my very most earnest tones. Much less give a straight answer.

“Ah. I see. Well, perhaps we should call Mr. Emanuel. The President is extremely busy today. If you’ll have a seat I’ll. . . . oh here he is now. Mr. Emanuel sir, this gentleman says he’s here for the one hour lobbying session with the President.”

Rahm Emanuel stopped, swiveled and stared.” Do I know you?”

“Well, no sir. Not really. I mean, I do live down the street from you back in Chicago. But no, you don’t really. . .”

“Wait a minute. I remember talking to you and your wife when you walked pat my house She’s a ballet dancer right? “

“Yes sir, and..”

“Also took from Joel Hall Dance Studios, same place I did?”

“Well, she teaches there now.. “

“Yeah. Ok. So the reason for this little visit?’

“I was sent by . . . . ..

“Ah huh. Yeah well, we don’t want nobody, nobody sent.”

“Well sir, this won’t take long. See I won this contest kind of thing. “If you had one hour to lobby the President on anything, what would it be?”

“Well, I can tell you one thing, the President doesn’t have an hour to listen to anybody on anything.”

“Ok, I can do it in half an hour.”

“Hey, you are from Chicago! Ok. What’s your topic?”


Writers? You mean like education? Or NEA grants or something?”

“No, writers. I’m here to lobby for writers.”

“Ok. I’ll give you 15 minutes. Let’s go.”

And before I could draw another breath I was in front of the President. Who actually smiled at me like he knew me!”

“Cubs or Sox fan?” he asked me.

“Baseball fan sir.”

“Hah!” said the president. “Nice answer! Wrong answer, but nice one.” Now, what we got?”

“Mr. President I’m here to ask you to consider reviving the Federal Writers’ Project.—a key piece of Roosevelt’s WPA—and an ideal piece of strategy for supporting your plan to stimulate the economy.”

“Well, laughed the President. Believe me, I know most writers have it pretty tough these days. But we do have grants. But help me with the connection to economic stimulus here?”

“Well, I guess I’d start with this picture,” I began.

“Ah, the Grand Coulee Dam.”

“Yes sir. A direct historical precedent to your plan to rebuild our infrastructure. Building it put 2,000 men to work. Putting people to work just like you plan to do.”

“Impressive project,” said the President.

“Yes sir. As you know, it was one of the first times that employee health care became a factor in a job.”

And who got these jobs? Asked the President

They were mostly white males sir. But they weren’t all white males. American Indians from the Colville Reservation were also hired, as were African Americans.

Well, if you’re here to convince that it was a good idea—I already know that.”

No sir, I’m here because of the connection just ONE of those 2,000 men had with the project. Just one man.

Looking at what he did shows us a way to connect writers (and eventually all artists) with the infrastructure and economic recovery you’ve trying to build.

I continued. He was a sign painter, songwriter from Okemah, Oklahoma. The Bonneville Power Administration hired this writer to do a month’s worth of work. They paid him $270.00. He wrote 26 songs.

If I may include 2 examples of his lyrics?

“I’m listening,” said the President.

Green Douglas firs where the waters cut through
Down her wild mountains and canyons she flew
Canadian Northwest to the oceans so blue
Roll on Columbia, roll on

Other great rivers add power to you
Yakima, Snake, and the Klickitat, too
Sandy Willamette and Hood River too
So roll on, Columbia, roll on

Tom Jefferson’s vision would not let him rest
An empire he saw in the Pacific Northwest
Sent Lewis and Clark and they did the rest
So roll on, Columbia, roll on

At Bonneville now there are ships in the locks
The waters have risen and cleared all the rocks
Shiploads of plenty will steam past the docks
So roll on, Columbia, roll on
And on up the river is Grand Coulee Dam
The mightiest thing ever built by a man
To run the great factories and water the land
So roll on, Columbia, roll on.

“Woody Guthrie.” said the President. “Let me hear one more.”

Now the world holds seven wonders,
That the travelers always tell

Some gardens and some towers, I guess you know them well.

But now the greatest wonder is in Uncle Sam’s fair land

It’s the big Columbia River and the biog Grand Coulee dam.
She heads up the Canadian Rockies where the rippling waters glide

Comes roaring down the canyon to meet that salty tide;
From the big Pacific Ocean where the sun sets in the west
It’s the big Grand Coulee country, in the land that I love best.

In the misty crystal glitter of the wild and windward spray
I fought the pounding waters and met a watery grave,
When she tore their boats to splinters and she gave men dreams to dream
On the day the Coulee dam was crossed by the wild and wasted stream.

Uncle Sam took up the challenge in the year of thirty three
For the farmer and the factory and all of you and me
He said, “Roll along Columbia, you can roll down to the sea
But river, while you’re rambling, you can do some work for me.

So sir, I finished,” Imagine we rebuild the infrastructure of the country

Who will tell the story? Do you really want it written down and recorded with power point?”

“I hear,” the President smiled. “That power point makes you stupid. And I understand that Woody Guthrie did really did connect the infrastructure to art. But he was just one man. That all you got for me?”

“Well sir, there were 48 guidebooks written.

One for every state. Books that were both practical–telling how to get from one town to the next. But they also spoke to the history, the stories of the state.

Here’s one that was done for California .

The detail is so rich it practically jumps up off the page.

Speaking directly to the President I said,

Imagine he story of your stewardship of our great country being told not in “spin” driven bullet points; but with the richness of true story tellers. True writers who can bring the music to the words just like Guthrie did.”

“Who wrote these books? Who were the writers of the Federal Writers Project?” asked the President.

“People like Zora Neale Huston.”

There was a lot more than state guides produced. She wrote this:

“Who else?”

Well, Saul Bellow. He wrote for the FWP. Nelson Algren, Richard Wright, Malcolm Cowley.

Ralph Ellison began writing “Invisible Man” while he was working on the project.

Studs Terkel, Rexroth, Patchen. Jim Thompson in Oklahoma.

Remember: these were NOT big name writers at the time. They were writers of immense talent who—like everyone else–needed jobs.

It was here. In the Federal Writer’s project, that Studs Terkel began what would eventually become his life long work of telling the story of our history in the voices of everyday, working Americans.

Which brings us to right now. Today. With no one writing the history of our times in the voices of ordinary Americans. No one connecting our challenges and pride through the common social themes that unite us all. No one to tell THEIR stories of what unemployment, education, hunger, health, arts, culture, innovation and growth mean in real peoples lives. No writers.

So what would something like this cost?

We could do it for very little sir. Easy.”


“Yes sir. As fate would have it—I actually have experience at running a national organization in the private sector. Managed a P/L; employed hundreds of folks.”

“What did you do?” asked the President.

Training and Customer Service.

“I like that,” said the President. “Training and Customer Service.

Kind of sums up what we do here.”

“I found it all came down to stewardship sir. Taking care of something bigger than we are. What about people? Asked the president. Who will the writers be?

That’s the easy part sir. There are a lot of writers. The creativity would amaze you.”

“I am expecting you to amaze me.” Said the President. Now how much would something like this cost?”

“”Well, that depends on how good we wanted it to be.”

And for the first time, Rahm Emanuel spoke up. “Cut the crap Chicago Guy. Will this primarily be financed by partnerships with organizations? I mean, if you publish a book for a corporation on their corporate social responsibility, shouldn’t they pay for it? And if a Food Pantry or a Youth Services Project wants a book they can use for fund raising, one that will give them a return on their investment—shouldn’t they pay for it? Hmmm???

Well yes but start up costs. . . I stammered.

He looked at the President. Two million. That’s enough. And you put it back in donations to the NEA in 5 years when you’ve got at least 3 best selling books. And we’ll let you work out of some old offices we have in Chicago.”

If we had 3 million. . .I began

If you had nothing, Emanuel smiled. But we do have an office you could use in Chicago. And you could start tomorrow.

“No, said the President.

Start now.”



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CG. don't forget to play some Muddy Waters while you're writing. It'll, uhh - increase the flow.

And play it loud.
So cool. So Chicago.
Roll on, Columbia, Roll on...
It was the steadiest, best-paying job that Woody Guthrie ever had.
Thanks for reminding us that artists were not forgotten.
Right on! Hire me?
Uh, I'm ready, I'm already a songwriter, and I already have a guitar that says "This machine kills fascists" and it's got a picture of w on it with a treble clef run through his head.
Oh, and need I say, great post!!
Roger, it would be an honor to work for you...with you.

(And for/with Joan, Kerry and Thomas.)
Beautifully put, Roger. =o) I think you just did "start now." Thumbed, and wish I could rate this twice.
Sounds fun. Oh, and nicely written.

Also, endowing some major newspapers across the country wouldn't be bad either just about now.
I always hear Woody quotes and think of him writing this land is your land. A banned song and now sung by boy scouts.
I can see you walking in and doing this.
great post, Chicago Guy.
Now you got me. I just gotta do a blog featuring some of the great poster art which came from the WPA.

Sheeesh! Like I wasn't doing a shipload of things already!
I always knew you were influential, Roger. Thanks for remembering the Greats and trying to help your fellow starving writers.
that was some package ... beautifully tied up with a red, white, & blue ribbon!!!

you always impress!!!
I'm not much of a writer, per se but....I could staple things or ....copy things...Aw...come on! I just wanna be part of it, ok? Puuuuulllllleeeeeeseee?
Lisa--the influential part is make believe. But remembering fellow starving writers and the Greats is very real.

Wayne--that poster art is a MUST. I added a sentence to this to remind you to do a full post---a companion piece to this?

Barry-- they also did photography. . .I'm just saying. . . . lotsa room here.

Dirigi0--Muddy is never far!

O'Steph-- Very true--his best paying steadiest job and what he produced in those 30 days!

Juli--you're in!

Tom--that guitar of yours is says it all. Keep writing and singing!

Melissa-- No time like the present!

Suzy-- My favorite verse of that song? "Was a big high wall there, that tried to stop me, I big sign painted said private property, but on the back side, it didn't say nothing---cept this land was made for you and me.

Kent--that's a GREAT idea on the newspapers. We sure need it in this town.

Just, GREAT!!!

Roger, you have outdone yourself! This was both insightful and entertaining. Along the same lines as the WPA and its lasting contributions, of course, is the CCC. I have stayed in facilities built by the CCC in state parks throughout the country, and have often thought about the fact that nothing of that sort could ever be built today. It would be called a waste of money, or not the role of the government. But, income from those facilities have far exceeded the small investment made to build them, and they provided much needed employment and skills to thousands and thousands of desperate men who otherwise had no way to feed their families or learn a trade.

I think we may be in need of something similar. All we have to do is eliminate a couple of F-22 planes from the defense budget, and we'll have the requisite money to get started. New infrastructure, new parks, and yes, a revitalized National Endowment for the Arts.
Beautiful, simply beautiful...and that bailout of newspapers sounds like a pretty good idea to me as well.
Go CG! Go CG! uh-huh! uh-huh!

I would so clean the trails in Glacier by day, write at night, for the new WPA. Sign me up!
Greg C---See you on the trails!

Steve--We will need a resident historian---one who could also sell. Maybe you know where we could find one?

IM---Are you sure you're not MY Mom?

Gracie--your kind heart gets you the job.

Aaron---you and Kent are now heading up the newspaper division.

Stephanie--If you've seen the transcripts of Rahm---you'll know I cleaned them up, purely for purposes of sucking up to him.

Greg T---We'll need your whole operation, for producing when everyone else is asleep.
Perfect. Bloody perfect.
Andy and I can sing it! I can also consult on PR and Marketing while I'm at it...AWESOME post, Roger. Keep the love alive.
Yes! Yes! Yes! I've been thinking the exact same thing (but couldn't have communicated it nearly as eloquently as you do)! Whenever I see the WPA murals in our schools and our post offices, and other buildings scattered around Chicago, I think of the wonderful art (and writing, and music) we would miss if there hadn't been a WPA. There was a fellow in the River North area who devoted a lot of his career to conserving the old WPA murals -- I think he's retired now -- but, oh boy, he took me behind the scenes of his workshop one day, and what a treat for the eyes. Great post!
What a smashing idea!! And the heck of it is that Barack would really go for it if you could get in to see him.

Elena---You and Andy are right at the center of it.

Ann--those post office murals are mind blowing

Helen. . .if only SOMEONE knew how to get it to a FOB or FOR. . .
Roger, a perfect gem. Start to finish. And between the lines. As a former political operative and speech writer, I got your back. You already took care of the front end. With perfection. If only...
Late but nevertheless great post.
"Start now."

Awesome idea! I'd love to work for you, too.

Annie---your last post was your job interview and you passed. With flying colors. You are so in! Ohio has an awful lot of stories!

Moana---there is no such thing as being late to a post! You are right on time.

Sally-- "If only. . ." is right. Am still searching for that F.O.R. . . . .
the one who will put this in front of him to prompt the thought YES!
I love this...I was right there with you, in that office. Now, make it come true will you? Please?
Roger, this was inspired, on so many levels. For me, this sums it all up:

"I found it all came down to stewardship sir. Taking care of something bigger than we are. And what’s bigger than the connection between what we all want to do to rebuild this country---and the songs and stories we’ll write to tell those who come after us---just want happened?"

Where do I sign up? I'll work on a pay for performance basis so you can save the salaried jobs for others.
Sandra---consider yourself signed up.

Mary--Making it happen is the key--so forward this to anyone you know who might be interested in generating interest. There is room for all!

Have gotten good feedback to change the title and take one of the original words out---but I can change it again.

Am working to put this picture in front of the right people. . .
Please make sure Rahm never comes to visit.

I am askeered of Rahm.

But I love YOU!

Rated to the nth degree.
Jimmy--Doncha be worryin 'bout no money. S'all covered. I believe you'll be in charge a that. With some assistance from some ah associates of course.

Verbal--you ain't skeered a nobody. S' one reason why I'm so starry eyed stuck on you.
Must correct your grammar:...In charge of 'dat.' not 'that.'
Jimmy--I stand corrected. . .
Back for seconds.
Incredible idea, Chicago. The WPA gave us Timberline Lodge (the outside pictures in The Shining) which was built over a year (including the road up the mountain) and included artists of all genres--iron work, textile makers, painters, muralists and many more.
Every one needs to work and everyone needs art.
I did indeed do the companion piece on WPA Poster Art.

See it

I have added two more since.

Thanx, ChiGuy, you inspired me.
JL---Your "We become writerr because" automatically put you on the train---a great piece!

O'Steph---We got writing and art . . .and now the Timberline Lodge.
It keeps coming!

Wayne--- The art leaves me speechless. And that ain't easy!
Yee Haw this was great! I was listening to NPR this summer when they had a program on the 50 states guides. I had never known they existed. They have been collected and republished now.

To add to the great stuff already listed as accomplishments by the WPA...Red Rocks Amphitheatre at Morrison Colorado. Quite possibly the most stunning setting for live music ever. And 10 minutes away from my house, lucky me!
yekdeli---Red Rocks is a stunning place---and I had no idea it was buit by the WPA--maybe there is a post in your future on it---I'd read it!
Um, CG, if you'll notice your work is on THE FRONT PAGE!!! Who was just talking about that, huh, huh? And it deserves to be! The dialogue was perfect (and funny), and the points you make are irrefutable. Listen, though when you start administrating this program, I want Louisiana, 'kay? My Momma's a Cajun, my cousins are Cajun and they can talk the talk!

Congrats on a spectacular piece!
Coming back for thirds!
I so wish you had put this into Obama's Briefing Book--I did not see this idea at all and I love it so!
Roger, You have won the dearest part of my Chicago Longing Heart ....again.
This is your master piece.........A lovely, wonderful, hopeful piece.
Thanks man!
Where does this Chicago's-North-Shore Gal & Writer sign up? And, hey, do you really want all us writers descending on Chicago? Or can we write in our own offices? Let's get going!
I've got my pen and paper ready to go!
Damn! I wrote "Botoxed Heifers" for free. Should have waited. Maybe I'd get paid.
Notes--you got Louisiana. I knew there was something I liked about you. Accadian Driftwood. . . . .

O'Steph--the briefing book is wonderful---but I'm also working right now to give us a more direct route. Nothing in stone, so nothing to announce---but the direction is to get both celebrity and political muscle involved.

Hawley---it's a virtual world.

Marcel-- keep that pen close.

Zuma-- Never wait to write! I understand getting paid (or in my case NOT---as I am unemployed) but I also understand that figuring out how to do that ain't easy! And then you toss in the fact that so many of us are also writing for well. . .love. So, my admiration for the folks who run OS increases daily---because what they are trying to do really is pretty tough.

So I guess what it comes down to is:

1. Making sure we remember where we came from. And this project
came from OS. (We Irish are a loyal lot. Right Jimmy Mac?)

2. Keeping everybody informed as stuff happens, and I've promised
Kerry that.

3. Doing what's fair. And money is part of fair.

4. Stewardship. The purpose of this whole deal is to tell the stories of real people, with real voices, from acrross the country---and how their lives will be changing these next 8 years. No power point. No spin. Just stories on making sure the circle stays unbroken. Stories of working, of Division Street America, of music. . . .

So--Stay tuned and please write if you have thoughts on how to make this work!

Love it! After the election, I received an email from the Obama team asking for input on what I considered important. I know there are lots of important things, but I recommended that there be some help for the arts. Look at what happened when Kennedy was in the White House and had important artists come to the White House. I remember falling in love with art when I was in high school. I believe that's a result of the Kennedy family's appreciation of the arts. We need bread - but we need roses too!
You rock, man!
I posted here at Open Salon,early this afternoon, about how the Arts could help us achieve Peace. Looks like there's a practical/economic application of all this talent, too. Thanks for the marvelous post!
Lisa Allender
Fabulous story Chicago! And just in the nick of time - I totally need a job!
this is great! i didn't know all those folks were in the program. yeah. open salon writers hired by barack obama.! we could write about our states of mind.

Paula---you bet
Julie T--Me too
Lisa--see the next post where we really start getting concrete about what this can do
Phillyart---Here's to the Roses! and if you are in Pjilly---you have GOT to know sally!
Please, please, please,

Can I have the practical engineering and science department?
I know this stuff. It's in my blood.

Me! Me! I want to help!
Lulu and Odette---You bet!

Dean--Sure! Passion and practical science is a pretty valuable combination. I know I wouldn't be the only one interested in your vision of how that combination would work to bring the content alive. I look forward to hearing what you have to say.

Procopius wrote: All we have to do is eliminate a couple of F-22 planes from the defense budget, and we'll have the requisite money to get started. That, or find all that money that Halliburton "lost" in Iraq. I assume they didn't burn it, so it must be somewhere.

Murals, that's another thing that would put artists to work, and beautify cities that sorely need it. A good first subject would be the sight of the Capital all hung with flags and the Washington Mall covered with people.
Shiral writes:A good first subject would be the sight of the Capital all hung with flags and the Washington Mall covered with people.

Anybody want to write what that was like? (I know many already did---put most of them have press credentials)

But if you want to send your scene---I'll put it in the pitch that I'm now shopping around.

What[;s the perspective you could add that no one else could?

David Foster Wallace wrote about watching 9/11 on an elderly neighbors TV in Bloomington Illinois.

And it was brilliant. . . . what's your story ?
Where was I when this came out? Oh yeah, at the cranioproctologists because my head was up my ass. This is brilliant!!!! Yes, yes, yes!!
WOW! It's in the Zeitgeist! I was telling someone recently this is exactly what we need. How supremely cool. Are you really trying to launch this thing? I'm in! What can I do to help?
Hillary---I've tossed this little fishing line into several ponds---but so far nothing's tugged back. It's the kind of idea that is instinctually appealing to any of us who write---but when it comes down to actually making it happen. . .well, you know.

But I have not given up. All ideas and contacts welcome and reading your blog----this is tailor made for you. No surprise to me you're a Chicagoan! Roger
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