Woody Guthrie – Dust Bowl Ballads

Pre-War America Month Reviews

Woody Guthrie

Dust Bowl Ballads

Victor – 1940 / Folkways – 1964

Rating: 9.7

Everything that made Woody Guthrie an icon – his talent, his empathy, his humor, and his rage – is on full display throughout the scintillating 1940 collection, Dust Bowl Ballads. Over eight decades after its initial arrival, it remains among the most powerful pieces of American music ever recorded.

In the latter stages his life, Woody Guthrie became little more than a tortured shell of his former self. Wracked with pain by Huntington’s disease – the same ailment that his mother had died from when Woody was a teenager – Guthrie’s last decade was spent in a series of hospitals and psychiatric facilities. He lost control of his motor functions, becoming incapable of playing the guitar around his fortieth birthday, and over the course of the remaining fifteen years before his death in 1967, Guthrie would eventually lose the ability to write, draw, and speak.

It’s the loss of voice that was especially tragic, for in his prime, Guthrie’s drawl served as a remarkably adaptive instrument: a conduit for the downtrodden; a beacon of hope for a nation torn by the crises of the Great Depression and World War II; and a vehicle for children’s songs, written by a man once described as an “eternal teenager.” It’s beyond cliché to characterize a person as a “voice for the voiceless,” but in the realm of American music, Guthrie was the archetype for the role.

Speaking of archetypes, there was virtually no road map or blueprint for what would eventually become Guthrie’s defining artistic statement. On April 26, 1940, he entered Victor Records’ New York studio – blown in from somewhere out west – and recorded twelve songs in a matter of hours. He would return a week later to cut two more tracks. Each of these fourteen recordings were original compositions, and all had been inspired by both Guthrie’s own experiences, and those of the Okie migrants that he had lived and worked among in California. Victor would release twelve of these songs in July of that year, in a pair of three-disc volumes titled Dust Bowl Ballads.

Without even considering the quality of its content, this two-volume release was revolutionary. Nearly a decade before the arrival of the LP format, and at least fifteen years prior to what could be considered the dawn of the “album era,” Dust Bowl Ballads was nothing short of a concept album – hindered only by the standard format of its time. That the idea would essentially be brought to existence by a self-styled hayseed from Oklahoma may seem impossible, but it’s merely one of the thousands of fascinating details in Guthrie’s improbable life.

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma in July 1912, four months before his namesake was elected president of the United States. Though he would eventually become an icon of the working class, Guthrie’s life began in relative comfort. By his teenage years however, Woody’s mother, Nora, began displaying terrifying symptoms of the disease that would eventually kill her: most notably, violent episodes directed at her husband and children. By fifteen, Woody and his siblings were living on their own, as his mother had been sent to an asylum, and his father, Charles – an embittered man who Woody came to resent for, among other things, joining the Ku Klux Klan – had left Oklahoma for the Texas panhandle.

Guthrie eventually followed his father to Pampa, Texas, and married a local girl by the age of nineteen. However, as it had for Charles and Nora, domestic bliss would prove elusive for young Woody. Beset by a profound sense of restlessness, and further encouraged by the persistent droughts that made earning a living difficult for most people in the region, Guthrie began venturing further and further from his wife and growing family. Following the cataclysmic dust storm of April 1935, he would join the thousands of Okies, Arkies, and Texans headed west for California.

It was during this time that Guthrie began to discover his calling. Finding that he could earn just as much money by singing as he could from painting signs, he started performing whenever and wherever it was possible. In short time, the personal connections that he made would land him two regular gigs: a writing/comic column for the daily communist newspaper, People’s World; and a radio show with Maxine “Lefty Lou” Crissman on the Los Angeles-based station, KFVD. While Guthrie earned praise for both, the increasing complexity of contemporary politics – Germany had recently invaded Poland, kickstarting the Second World War – made simultaneously holding both jobs untenable. When the lucrative radio gig ended, Guthrie hit the road again, heading east to New York City.

It wasn’t long before Guthrie’s magnetism made an impression in New York. He fell in with the city’s leftist folk scene, befriending Pete Seeger, Will Geer, and Alan Lomax. He got into abstract art and the modern dance scene – where he would meet his second wife, Marjorie Mazia. He and Cisco Houston – who had accompanied Guthrie from Los Angeles – formed friendships and artistic collaborations with Sonny Terry and Lead Belly. From these many connections, Guthrie would be afforded the opportunity to step into a major label’s studio to record a set of songs that he had spent the previous five years writing and, more importantly, living.

Contrary to what one might assume, Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads are complex: alternately defeated and triumphant; at times hopeful, but laced with a palpable cynicism. Guthrie knew that music could be a balm for the suffering, and a way in which truth could be spoken to power, but he rarely missed an opportunity to insert his wry sense of humor into moments of extreme sobriety. After all, this is a man who, while serving in the Merchant Marine during World War II, argued with a superior in order to play his guitar to a racially mixed group of sailors – despite the U.S. military’s segregation policies – while their ship was being bombarded by German U-boats. Naturally, the song that he chose to play for them was “The Sinking of the Reuben James.”

This dark sense of humor permeates throughout Dust Bowl Ballads, first introduced on the opening track, “Talkin’ Dust Bowl Blues.” The “talking blues” format naturally lends itself to humor, but Guthrie spins a fantastical tale of loss – and broken down jalopies – that succinctly tells the story of thousands in a mere six verses. Of course, he can’t help but end with a pointed dig at the indifference of the powers that be:

We got out to the West Coast broke,
So dad-gum hungry I thought I’d croak,

An’ I bummed up a spud or two,
An’ my wife fixed up a tater stew —
We poured the kids full of it,
Mighty thin stew, though,
You could read a magazine right through it.
Always have figured
That if it’d been just a little bit thinner,
Some of these here politicians
Coulda seen through it.

Despite the attention that he would ultimately receive from the likes of the FBI, Guthrie consistently maintained that his work was apolitical; though he had many connections to the American Communist Party, his actual membership remains a source of debate. Nevertheless, speaking for those who fell through the cracks of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, Guthrie couldn’t help but take stances that went beyond simple advocacy, and shed light into his own political convictions. Surprisingly though, while Guthrie’s body of work features labor ballads, campaign songs, and biting social commentary, Dust Bowl Ballads contains little in the way of specifics. The most notable exception is the collection’s two-part centerpiece, “Tom Joad.”

Written on Pete Seeger’s typewriter in a fit of inspiration – after viewing John Ford’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s epochal The Grapes of Wrath – “Tom Joad” captured 464 pages of gritty storytelling, and condensed it into two sides of a 78rpm record. Granted, while Guthrie’s shorthand version of the Joad family’s travails misses the beauty of the novel’s interstitial chapters – and counters my own belief that either “Ma” or Rose of Sharon are the real hero of the story – even Steinbeck himself was left in awe by Guthrie’s sense of artistic economy.

As is the case with The Grapes of Wrath, the true villains of Dust Bowl Ballads are the bankers, California landowners, and crooked cops that preyed on the Okie migrants, turning what was already a traumatic set of circumstances into a living nightmare. The album’s most poignant tracks are those that focus on the human-based exacerbations of an ecological crisis: for instance, the descriptive verses and wonderfully circular chorus of “Do Re Me”:

Lots of folks back East, they say, is leavin’ home every day,
Beatin’ the hot old dusty way to the California line.

‘Cross the desert sands they roll, gettin’ out of that old dust bowl,
They think they’re goin’ to a sugar bowl, but here’s what they find
Now, the police at the port of entry say,
“You’re number fourteen thousand for today.”

Oh, if you ain’t got the do re mi, folks, you ain’t got the do re mi,
Why, you better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee.
California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see;
But believe it or not, you won’t find it so hot
If you ain’t got the do re mi.

These man-made threats become even more foreboding on “Vigilante Man,” which closed out the second volume of the 1940 Victor release – and the subsequent 1964 reissue by Folkways – on a particularly unsettling note:

Oh, why does a vigilante man,
Why does a vigilante man
Carry that sawed-off shot-gun in his hand?
Would he shoot his brother and sister down?

I rambled ’round from town to town,
I rambled ’round from town to town,
And they herded us around like a wild herd of cattle.
Was that the vigilante men?

Most affecting, however, is Guthrie’s greatest Dust Bowl Ballad: the song that stands alongside the unofficial Dust Bowl tracks, “Pastures of Plenty” and “This Land Is Your Land,” as his artistic peak. Written as a direct response to The Carter Family’s “Can’t Feel at Home” – whose message Guthrie found both cloying and defeatist – “I Ain’t Got No Home” is a masterful demonstration of the defiance and rage that stood at the heart of his most powerful work. In the absence of its eleven companion tracks, the song could stand as a single manifestation of Dust Bowl Ballads‘ mission. Witness its first two verses, in which Guthrie sets the scene, establishes solidarity with his brethren, and identifies the sources of his ire:

I ain’t got no home, I’m just a-roamin’ ’round,
Just a wandrin’ worker, I go from town to town.
And the police make it hard wherever I may go
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.

My brothers and my sisters are stranded on this road,
A hot and dusty road that a million feet have trod;
Rich man took my home and drove me from my door
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.

Next, Guthrie reminds his listeners of the real tragedies that had befallen those “million feet”:

Was a-farmin’ on the shares, and always I was poor;
My crops I lay into the banker’s store.
My wife took down and died upon the cabin floor,
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.

Finally, Guthrie does what only he could do. In the guise of the “simple country boy” – a persona that had endeared him to both the downtrodden migrants with whom he had once roamed, and the intelligentsia that he now found himself among in Los Angeles and New York – Guthrie leaves a musical pull quote, worthy of his many “Woody Sez” columns in People’s World:

Now as I look around, it’s mighty plain to see
This world is such a great and a funny place to be;
Oh, the gamblin’ man is rich an’ the workin’ man is poor,
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.

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