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Song Stories: Woody Guthrie’s “Dust Bowl Ballads”

Woody Guthrie (1912-1967), whose birthday we celebrate on July 14, recorded his legendary “Dust Bowl Ballads” in 1940. Using only guitar and vocals, the album follows the travels of Midwesterners headed for California, mirroring both Guthrie’s own life and John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. Guthrie is best known for his folk ballads, traditional and children’s songs, and improvised works, often incorporating political commentary. His songs from the 1930’s earned him the nickname “Dust Bowl Troubadour.”

Born in Okema, Oklahoma, Guthrie moved at age 18 to Pampa, Texas, a small town in one of the most deeply affected areas of the Dust Bowl. It was in Pampa that he experienced the fury of “Black Sunday” — a severe dust storm that swept across the Midwestern states on April 14, 1935—and inspired Guthrie to write the song, “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You.” After Black Sunday, Guthrie joined the ranks of migrating Midwesterners moving to California in search of work. Many of his works — “Do Re Mi,” “I Ain’t Got No Home,” “Talking Dust Bowl,” and others — showcase the difficult conditions faced by the working-class “Okies” in their new home.

Guthrie spent his most formative years in Pampa. He never finished high school but read voraciously in the public library, taking special interest in religion, philosophy, and psychology. He married his first wife, Mary, with whom he had three children. His sporadic work included painting signs, store windows, and murals, and he even dabbled in faith healing. When the Great Depression set in, Woody left to find work in California. While traveling, he wrote numerous songs about his experiences during the hard times of the Depression. When he got to California, Woody played songs on the radio where he earned money and eventually sent for his wife and children to join him.

Like many of Guthrie’s later recordings, the “Dust Bowl Ballads” contain an element of social activism, and would be an important influence on later musicians, including Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan (for whom Guthrie was a mentor), Bruce Springsteen, Phil Ochs and Joe Strummer. Eventually, Woody left for New York City and tried to have a career as a singer. This is where he wrote his most famous songs, like “This Land is Your Land,” as a satirical response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” which he considered to have little to do with his own experience of what it meant to be an American.

“Dust Bowl Ballads” was originally released as two three-disc sets by Victor Records, and was later re-issued by Folkways Records in 1950. The twelve sides in total had one song each except for the double-sided “Tom Joad” which was too long to be pressed on a single side of a 78. Two of the thirteen songs recorded on the sessions, “Pretty Boy Floyd” and “Dust Bowl Blues,” were left out due to length. All of the tracks were recorded at Victor studios in Camden, New Jersey, on April 26, 1940, except “Dust Can’t Kill Me” (also known as “Dust Cain’t Kill Me”) and “Dust Pneumonia Blues,” which were recorded on May 3. It was Guthrie’s first commercial recording and the most successful album of his career. The complete “Dust Bowl Ballads” remains available through Smithsonian Folkways.

The parallels with Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath are uncanny. Guthrie had a detailed knowledge of the Dust Bowl conditions that had led to an exodus of Okies west to California, and witnessed the economic hardships there where they became poor migrant workers in nearly unlivable conditions. Farmers of the Midwest lost their land through a combination of weather conditions and bank foreclosures. Steinbeck wrote of Guthrie, “Harsh voiced and nasal, his guitar hanging like a tire iron on a rusty rim, there is nothing sweet about Woody, and there is nothing sweet about the songs he sings. But there is something more important for those who will listen. There is the will of the people to endure and fight against oppression. I think we call this the American spirit.”

Guthrie died from complications of Huntington’s disease in 1967. Despite his decline, he had a major impact on American popular music in the second half of the 20th century and the rise of the folk movement, influencing such artists as Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, and the Byrds. Many of Guthrie’s recordings have been archived in the Library of Congress.

If you would like to learn more about Woody Guthrie and his “Dust Bowl Ballads,” then please sample some of these works from the NLS Collection. You can access many of our materials any time using Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) and BARD Access. To borrow music-related talking books on digital cartridge or hard copies of braille scores, please contact the Music Section either by phone at 1-800-424-8567, ext. 2, or e-mail us at [email protected].

Audio

Asch, Michael. Sounds to Grow on. Program #13: Sacco and Vanzetti. Nicola Sacco and Bartolmeo Vanzetti, Italian anarchists, were executed unjustly in 1927 for armed robbery and murder of two pay-clerks in Massachusetts. The case caused quite a stir at the time as for many the conviction was not for murder, but for being anarchists and immigrants. They were pardoned in 1977 by Governor Michael Dukakis. In 1947, twenty years after the execution, Moses Asch commissioned an album of original songs penned and sung by Woody Guthrie about the trial, an album Woody himself believed was his most important work. Pete Seeger is also featured on this program. (DBM04076)

Guthrie, Woody. Woody Guthrie Sings Folk Songs: with Leadbelly, Cisco Houston, Sonny Terry, and Bess Hawes. Woody Guthrie made these spirited 1940s recordings in New York for Folkways label of Moses Asch. This diverse collection includes many well-known originals of Guthrie and interpretations of traditional material. This classic reissue, carefully remastered, includes the original notes by Pete Seeger, complete song lyrics, and extensive information about the many Folkways recordings of Woody Guthrie. (DBM04056)

Henkin, Aaron. Tapestry of the Times. Episode 22. A sampler of music from Smithsonian Folkways Recordings: We celebrate the Big Easy with the late great New Orleans guitarist and singer Snooks Eaglin, we hear New Orleans jazz from The Crescent City Serenaders on “St. James Infirmary,” and we listen back to some vintage Cajun social music. Plus, traditional music of the Mardi Gras Indians, Cajun gospel blues from Michael Doucet, Dust Bowl ballads from Woody Guthrie, Malian music from Timbuktu, and an Appalachian ballad from Jean Ritchie. (DBM04035)

Smithsonian Folkways. Woody Guthrie. Rare outtakes and stories from Smithsonian Folkways archivist Jeff Place give new meaning to the life and music of American folk icon Woody Guthrie and his relationship with Folkways Records. (DBM04001)

Whorf, Mike. The Folk Singer. Detailed biography of Woody Guthrie, born in rural Oklahoma in 1912. He wrote one thousand songs which express the essence of grass roots America. (DBM00854)

____ Legend of a Balladeer: Woody Guthrie. Biography of Woody Guthrie who traveled the land and wrote songs about American life. “This Land Is Your Land” and “Roll on Columbia” are among the musical selections. (DBM00912)

Woody Guthrie Remembered. Interviews with friends of Woody Guthrie. Includes songs by Cisco Houston, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie himself, and some children’s songs. (DBM00044)

Braille

Lil’ Rev. Easy Songs for Ukulele: Play the Melodies of 20 Pop, Folk, Country, and Blues Songs. Includes “This Land is Your Land.” Open score with chord symbols and single line with tablature and chord symbols. Words and melody in line by line format. (BRM36830)

Popular Music Lead Sheets, no. 97. Includes “Oklahoma Hills,” with words and music by Jack Guthrie and Woody Guthrie. Includes melody, words, and chord symbols in lead sheet format. (BRM35016)

Here are some resources available from the Library of Congress and the American Folklife Center:

Woody Guthrie and the Archive of American Folk Song: Correspondence, 1940 to 1950, at the Library of Congress

Woody Guthrie Collections in the Archive of Folk Culture from the American Folklife Center

From our colleagues in the Music Division, you can read this blogpost about choreographer Sophie Maslow’s collaboration with Woody Guthrie in her work Folksay.

LOC Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera Discusses Alan Lomax & Woody Guthrie with Todd Harvey at the American Folklife Center.

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