If like me, you’ve read any of the Depression era novels by John Steinbeck, you can’t but remember the poverty, the difficulty of obtaining employment, and the world which his characters inhabit. This was the time of the ‘dust bowl’ environmental disaster which affected the marginal Southern Plains area of the United States (parts of Kansas, Oklahoma, and the Texas Panhandle), and also the resulting mass migration of people to California in search of jobs.
What I’m going to be looking at this time, is a collection of songs from the era, collected by Alan Lomax and others.
Hard-hitting Songs for Hard-hit People ed. by Alan Lomax, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger (publ. 1967)
It’s a substantial book, containing numerous songs, their context, and a selection of sobering photos. The bulk of its content was ready for publication in the 1940s, but it took twenty years for it to be published. In fact, John Steinbeck provided the foreword for this collection. Here’s a sample:
The greatest and most enduring folk songs are wrung from unhappy people … Songs are a statement of a people. You can learn more about people by listening to their songs than in any other way, for into the songs go all the hopes and hurts, the angers, fears, the wants and aspirations.
Or as Woody Guthrie puts it in his introduction:
Howdy Friend: here’s a book of songs that’s going to last a mighty long time, because these are the kind of songs that folks make up when they’re a-singing about their hard luck, and hard luck is one thing that you sing louder about than you do about boots and saddles, or moons on the river, or cigarettes a shining in the dark.
I’m only going to look at a couple of sections this time.
Farming and the Dust Bowl era
One facet of the American Great Depression was the collapse in wheat prices. Earlier in the century, the price had increased, encouraging farmers to move west and put more land under the plough. That land was often unsuitable for intensive agriculture. The Plains were marginal grasslands and once the grass was removed, the topsoil had nothing to anchor it. The steep fall in grain prices was followed by drought conditions in the early 1930s. This led to farmers abandoning the land. Wholesale loss of topsoil was the result. The photograph below is a frightening image of an environmental catastrophe in action.
The songs in this section are mostly by Woody Guthrie. I’ll admit to being a little puzzled by that as I associate this singer with the 1960s. However, delving deeper, it turns out that Woody Guthrie was a young man with a wife and three children, living in Texas at exactly this time.
Here’s how he introduces Talking Dust Bowl:
Me and my wife has got 3 kids, and this song. This song has brung us more groceries than a dried up farm in Okla would, especially when you can’t make enough out of your work to gas or oil – let alone somethin’ to go in the kids stomachs, or stuff to wear.
The song’s words are spoken over a simple chord sequence. Here’s the first two verses:
Back in nineteen twenty seven, had a little farm and I called that heaven, Prices up, the rain come down, Hauled my crops, all in to town, Got th’ money … bought clothes and groceries, Fed the kids … raised a big family.
But the rain quit and th’ wind got high, Black old dust storm filled th’ sky, I traded my farm for a Ford machine, Poured it full of this gass-i-lene And started … rockin’ and a rollin’ Out to the old California … fruit bowl.
Just these two verses sum up the history. As the drought conditions took hold, the people essentially had two choices: move or starve. Such relief measures as there were didn’t function as they should. This was one of the elements which led to Hoover not being re-elected as President. And as Steinbeck shows in his novels, the move west to California was an epic trek in search of work – fruit picking or anything else an itinerant worker might be able to get. The competition was fierce.
‘Okies’ was the name given to Californian immigrants from Oklahoma in the first instance, and then any immigrant whatever their origin. They were drawn by the lure of supposedly abundant jobs in California. In 1936, the state, overwhelmed by the number of incomers, started turning them back at the state border. That certainly has recent parallels.
Again, Woody Guthrie was part of that experience. Here’s part of his introduction to When You’re Down and Out:
I walked the highways of California. I been in every town mentioned in “Grapes of Wrath” — every single town the Joads came through. From Salisaw, Oklahoma, and on to California. I been herded around out there like a Hereford steer at cutting time, and been told in many a town that they didn’t want me there.
The first few verses of When You’re Down and Out paint a grim picture:
To old California where I did go, My jalopy broke down and I spent all my dough. I rambled around in the cotton fields, I worked like the devil but couldn’t make meals, I dam near to starved in an 80 cent field, If you was me, how would you feel?
I’ll be back to this fascinating collection of songs.