MIgrant Mother by Dorothea Lange.jpg

The Lonesome Death of Florence Thompson By Dave Marsh (Record, 1983)

Florence Thompson was 32 years old in 1936, a widowed mother of six children, living in a migrant farmworkers’ camp in San Luis Obispo County, California. The Thompsons lived in a shabby lean-to, not even a tent, from which they ventured to pick peas for wages that added up to less than starvation. They were so poor that they’d sold the tires off their car for food. When the photographer Dorothea Lange, on assignment for the Farm Security Administration, came into the camp, Florence Thompson was feeding her children vegatables that had frozen in the fields and a few birds that the kids had killed themselves.

“I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her,” Lange later wrote, “but I do remember she asked me no questions…There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.”

The photo that Lange made of Florence Thompson’s haunted face, wearing a cloak of wearniness and worry that offered no more protection from the camera lens than from the elements, staring with dignity while cuddling children who averted their faces, was entitled “Migrant Mother.” Sometimes referred to as “The Madonna of the Depression,” it became one of the most powerful and painful images of its era.

As the epitome of Dorothea Lange’s penetrating, humane style, “Migrant Mother” was by far her most famous photo. Yet it tells us nothing like the “truth” of Florence Thompson’s life. In the other shots from the series Lange took that night, we see the environment in which it was taken: the pure squalor and filth of the camp, the full shabbiness of the lean-to tent, the utter lack of anything as tidy and green as the camp depicted in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath. (The pictures are reproduced in Photographs of a Lifetime [Aperture, 1982], with a loving essay on Lange and her work by Robert Coles.)

That doesn’t mean that Lange’s camera lied. She saw (or used) what was needed to make plain the dignity of the ravaged, not the fact of their misery. It’s only today, when the reroutings of American streets and highways have made the poor and their pain invisible to us that the mere facts of the matter have become crucial. The real point is that we know almost nothing about how Florence Thompson felt that evening, or in the months and years afterwards when her face became famous.

We don’t really expect to know, which is shameful. I’ve always felt that one of the secret strengths of rock and roll was that it provided a voice and a face for the forgotten and disenfrachised. In a way, Florence Thompson’s serves for all the others. At least in its beginnings, rock was one of the few ways that poor people, country people, black people and Southerners had of making themselves visible in a country whose media increasingly depict it as solely urban, affluent, white and northern. Rock’s threat to spill the beans about such fictions is one reason why it remains so dangerous today in the mind of James Watt, Albert Goldman and their ilk.

Yet you can stare for long into the face of Florence Thompson without encountering a suggestion of the abandon and recklessness that rock expresses. And that doesn’t mean that there is no music that tells her story. Although it often seems to think itself British, rock grew from a tradition of American music which had something special to say for “Migrant Mothers” and their kin: bluegrass, gospel music, all sorts of blues. And in these days of renewed Depression, I have found–often to my surprise–that these forms speak as eloquently as rock. As history unravels, this becomes more the case.

So when the news of Florence Thompson’s death in September, 1983 came to me, I immediately turned to the music of the Stanley Brothers, to my mind the finest bluegrass singers, and to their greatest song, “Rank Strangers,” which seemed to say everything necessary about a life such as Thompson’s –about its consequences and the consequences the rest of us pay for not paying attention. “Rank Strangers” is about the scariest song I know, more chilling than the blues of “Voodoo Chile” or the cold-blooded “Nebraska” or even Dylan’s “Percy Song.” It shares with those stark numbers a sense of doom that is not so much immediate as eternal–constant not as a possibility but as a promise.

The Stanleys’ songs are filled with death and imprisonment, like the Scotch-Irish ballads from which they derive. But “Rank Strangers” takes what’s scary about such tunes into a new dimension, closer to Invasion of the Body Snatchers than “Matty Groves.” Carter Stanley sings in accents so stately that it’s hard to believe the song and performance were created after World War II. But the concept –desolation more complete than that surrounding the Thompsons’ labor camp–is as contemporary as Belsen, Nagasaki or refugee camps.

I wandered again to my home in the mountains

Where in youth’s early dawn I was happy and free

I looked for my friends but I never could find ‘em

I found they were all rank strangers to me

Florence Thompson may not have known those lines, but she surely would have understood each syllable of that song. Until just before her death, she lived not in luxury but in a trailer park. So does America honor genius and beauty.

*****

Florence Thompson camp.jpg