Marcus Mumford on John Steinbeck’s Lessons in Justice and Power
The California-Born Singer Reflects on an Iconic American Writer
The John Steinbeck Award is presented annually by San José State University to writers, artists, thinkers, and activists whose work captures Steinbeck’s empathy, commitment to democratic values, and belief in the dignity of people who by circumstance are pushed to the fringes. Past recipients include Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez, Michael Moore, Ken Burns, and Ruby Bridges.
On September 18, 2019, the band Mumford & Sons (Ted Dwane, Ben Lovett, Winston Marshall, Marcus Mumford) became the first collective recipient of the Steinbeck Award, paying homage to the author with an evening of music and conversation at Bing Concert Hall, on the campus of Stanford University, to highlight the 100th anniversary of Steinbeck’s enrollment at Stanford. Inspired by the occasion, bandleader Marcus Mumford wrote an address in which he credits Steinbeck for inspiring the band’s commitment to empathy and community service. (Spelling has been Americanised [sic], much to the author’s chagrin.)
It is an absolute honor to be here this evening, and, as a band, to receive The John Steinbeck Award. To stand before you and join the illustrious list of former recipients, including many of our other heroes from Baez to The Boss, is, for me at least, the honor of my professional life so far.
And it’s my job to have a crack at telling you some of the story of our band and your bard.
But first, some very English confessions:
1. I am no scholar, nor was meant to be. I read what was put in front of me at high school, then spent quite a lot of time playing soccer.
2. I am no college graduate. Ted [Dwane] is actually the only one of us with a degree. Silent assassin. I am far less an expert than the vast majority in this room, including my band mates, honestly.
3. I am a thief, and have long adopted the policy that artists steal, and I’m cool with it.
4. And this is the big reveal: I am an American citizen. I was born in California, no less, and that becomes relevant.
But I’m here to explain what it is about John Steinbeck’s writing that has led us here, tonight, led us to adapt the way we think about the world, led us to adopt some of his values and examine his principles, and to recognize his influence over our artistic and social choices.
America has always been romantic to me. The place of my birth, the backdrop for my favorite stories, the place I left behind but come back to, again and again. The place I’m always an outsider, but am always at home. I’d skipped Steinbeck’s America by growing up in England and found myself immersed in it after school, and felt I’d stumbled on a secret—our favorite books always feel like they were written just for us, and are often read in secret and passionate fervor. To quote Nelson Mandela, I would say that “when I closed the Grapes of Wrath, I was a different man.”
Despite being born in the States, I grew up in a fairly harmless, comfortable though not affluent, part of South West London. After high school I’d spent some time living and working amongst a community of heroin addicts in Hong Kong. Ex-Triad gang members and sex workers: people so noble and inclusive but also so downtrodden and desperate, abused and taken advantage of by the powerful. Steinbeck’s depictions of downtrodden communities in other times and places resonated particularly loudly in my mind at that time.
Taking an unvarnished look at cruelty and injustice, I came to find, is central to Steinbeck’s vision and it is precisely this which Ben [Lovett] and I discussed at length as we sat around his piano shortly afterwards and wrote our first song inspired by Mr Steinbeck, called “Dust Bowl Dance.” The commodification of people, the autocracy of the market and the anonymity of the state. The degradation of community, the dismissal of the local and devaluation of the rural. The rage that burns underneath injustice. We metabolized all those ideas and wanted to tell a story of the perseverance of the human spirit amidst the tragic. At the center of it all, there was “that glittering instrument, the human soul.”
And that leads me to the first of two themes in Steinbeck’s work that I want to recognize for their importance to us, and then their effect on our life as a band.
Number one: loving our neighbor.
Like Mr. Steinbeck, I grew up in the church with a faith background, not a million miles from his Episcopalian upbringing.
Somewhere at the core of it, I knew there was this central greatest commandment from Jesus himself: a commandment to love God and to love your neighbor. A commandment I’d thought to have taken fairly seriously, as I know Mr. Steinbeck did. And you see it throughout his writing: an awe of nature, of love, of creation, of the numinous power which C. S. Lewis was talking about in Problem of Pain. But it was the practical, the focused, the human, the concrete which grabbed Steinbeck. And me as well.
From East of Eden to The Grapes of Wrath, Tortilla Flat to The Pearl, the notes change but the song remains the same: our welfare simply is wrapped up in the welfare of the other, and we do not have a choice about it. Isolation and loneliness in communities is the death of them. A truly common life is something worth nurturing, and it demands attention and effort.
That insight led me to a second: the importance of intentional listening. Granting others the space to speak from the place that they’re in; allowing others to narrate the world they inhabit without needing to put them in a box of your own making; resisting the noisiness of the world that flattens out our differences or explains them away—this is the work of patient observation, the practice of sustained attention. The quiet keenings of Kino in The Pearl, the muted musings of Lee in East of Eden.His natural disposition is not to impose his own opinion, but to listen—whether he likes what he hears or not—and that, to me, is such a powerful and humble skill to acquire.
And I think it’s particularly well exemplified in a passage in Travels with Charley when Steinbeck is in New Orleans, having witnessed a group of white women, known as The Cheerleaders, hurling rehearsed and obscene abuse against a six-year-old African American student [Ruby Bridges] on her way into a newly integrated school in 1960. Afterwards, in a state of shock I think, he is sitting with his dog Charley by a riverbank when he comes across a “neatly dressed [local, white] man well along in years, with a Greco face and fine wind-lifted white hair.” He asks him to join him for a coffee, and they sit to talk. As Steinbeck asks about the atrocity he’s just witnessed, he says this: “Can you see an end?”
The man replies: “Oh, certainly an end. It’s the means—it’s the means. But you’re from the North. This isn’t your problem.”
“I guess it’s everybody’s problem,” Steinbeck says, “It isn’t local. Would you have another cup of coffee and talk to me about it? I don’t have a position. I mean I want to hear.”
This is the magic. His natural disposition is not to impose his own opinion, but to listen—whether he likes what he hears or not—and that, to me, is such a powerful and humble skill to acquire. Acquire it we must, because I don’t think it comes naturally to many of us. It’s humanizing and dignifying, and important.
So much of Steinbeck’s work placed in central focus the daily life of what I’m sure politicians would refer to as “ordinary working people,” but had a particular passion for exhibiting the dignity and exploring the complex humanity of the poor and the destitute. People who didn’t match up with the glossy image of the mid-century American dream, with which he tussled so grandly, nor the romance of the gun-toting Wild Westerners which he dismissed so consistently—these were the farmers, the fishermen, the migrant workers, the indigenous pearl-divers, the flawed heroes and breast-feeding, life-giving mothers.
And so, with these two tenants of our Steinbeck faith in hand, neighborliness and listening, it’s also my job to try to explain the ways in which each has shaped our life as writers, and as a band. You can imagine that they cross over quite a bit.
By 2007 when we started the band, our physical neighborhood was more and more a transient concept—it was wherever we parked our bus at night. And so it has continued: for many of us, for much of the time, we often feel closest to people on the other side of the world.
But this being what it is, we’ve adopted a kind of “both/and” approach to neighborliness: You don’t get to not know your octogenarian-widow-next-door-neighbors’ name just because you retweeted about the death toll among children in Gaza. And this is why we’ve been supporters of the ongoing work at Grenfell Tower.
While we were recording in London, a high-rise tower block in the neighborhood in which we started the band, and in which I still lived, burned to the ground, killing 72 of our actual neighbors. I could see the tower burning from my apartment nearby and went down to volunteer like everyone in our community did.
This brings me to the effect on us of this second theme, this intentional listening. It’s a long and ongoing story, which I won’t do justice to here and now. But what became clear, in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, is that there was an endemic problem of voicelessness in this part of our community. Or, rather, the voices of the marginalized were left unheard. Right on the doorstep of the famously wealthy Notting Hill, Grenfell Tower was occupied by residents all too often failed by both market and state.
And what became remarkably clear, when the flames were out, was the importance of listening. Everyone was running around trying to act, but not enough of us were just listening, first. People started pouring forth their stories, and the more we listened, the more we simply had to stick around. The main thing I’ve learned is that listening isn’t a passive exercise—it obviously brings with it responsibility, but to resist the urge to act without intentionally listening first seems to me to be the challenge. We then, amongst others, responded to a direct request from a group of survivors and bereaved to set up an organization to help support the community affected by the tragedy in the long term, which is called the Grenfell Foundation and which is funded, in part, by the Gentlemen of the Road fund.
Meanwhile, back on the road, Travels with Charley provides us with a handbook for touring life. Not just in its recognition of the romance of a journey—but in its core principle of listening to local communities wherever you roam and then celebrating the good in what you’ve heard, being challenged by the points of difference.
This means we think of ourselves as visitors rather than tourists. A tourist comes to see the place, extracting whatever value they can as efficiently as possible. Not so with a visitor who arrives to meet and commune with the people of that place, often and ideally bearing gifts.
We also took this to heart when we started putting on our own festivals in small towns, less frequented by touring bands. We called them Stopovers, intentionally, rather than Takeovers. We’d heard stories of bands coming through small towns and taking cuts of the gas stations’ profits. We wanted to do the opposite. We wanted to leave the places we’d been having listened to the people in that community, and having left it in some way better than we’d found it. We are immensely proud of this effort, and take great joy in seeing a community find itself anew. A wonderful weekend can’t solve everything, of course, but demonstration of what’s possible can’t hurt. We put on an event, listen to the community, and establish the conditions under which that community can receive the benefits of such a gathering for a long time to come.
This has meant that we’ve done our very best to listen to local communities—to the dreams they have for themselves and the pains they experience—in every way that we can, when we travel. And this I credit in some large part to Steinbeck. With my role as an ambassador for War Child UK and Children in Conflict US, I have been privileged enough to visit communities on multiple trips to Gaza and Jerusalem, Iraq and Jordan, and to the Central African Republic. By listening to the people of those places, we have borne witness to the work being done to support children in conflict, which the Gentlemen of the Road Fund now supports wholeheartedly. On my first trip to Jerusalem I met a mother who had lost her son who told me: “Please, just listen. Don’t try to fix anything while you’re here, like everyone does. Because when you listen to my story you bring dignity to my humanity.”
Those words stay with me wherever I go, because words are vital. It is my honor this evening to recognize, amidst the power of words, the importance of John Steinbeck’s words that led me there, and now lead us here.
Text reprinted with Mumford’s permission. Proceeds from this event served as funding for the Steinbeck / Gentlemen of the Road Service Fellowship, a program to honor Steinbeck and Mumford & Sons, by sending select students from San José State and Stanford universities to mentor the children of farm workers in the Salinas-Monterey area, the heart of Steinbeck Country.