Roots Watch: There’s More “Dust Bowl Music” Than Woody’s
The power of music (and the secondary power of repeatedly talking and teaching a particular narrative about it), are such that for many, the Dust Bowl, some eighty years later, survives in memory mainly or solely as “the horrible experience Woody Guthrie sang about.” (For others, it’s what they saw or read in The Grapes of Wrath, and for too many, “The Dust Bowl” could just as well be a football game sponsored by lemon Pledge.)
If you’ve just seen the harrowing, revealing four-hour Ken Burns/Dayton Duncan film The Dust Bowl on PBS, you undoubtedly have a broader view, now, of the largely man-made ecological disaster, and, more pertinent to this column, of the lasting imprint it made on the lives and mentality of those who experienced it. In music, I’d maintain, most of that impact has evidenced itself in the West-Southwest side of country music, but not in a slew of songs along the lines of the Dust Bowl Ballads song cycle Woody Guthrie recorded on April 26, 1940. Disaster story songs had pretty much peaked as hillbilly hit material in the 1920s, and there haven’t actually been many other songs reflecting the Dust Bowl experience along the document-and-protest story song lines of Guthrie’s “Do Re Me,” “I Ain’t Got No Home” and “Dust Pneumonia Blues,” however much emphasis these here ur-bine inty-lect-shuls may put on the folkier end of things. (Guthrie’s album, recorded for RCA Victor, was itself intended to be commercial, incidentally, his first such recordings.)
No, the impact is best found in the attitudes and characteristics of country music makers who migrated to California after experiencing either the Dust Bowl disaster proper or, as so many more did, the poverty of the plains and South Central areas, including the forced displacement of penniless and cropless sharecropper/tenant farmers, of the same time and region.
I got to thinking about this when I was recruited by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s curriculum development arm to speak to a class of high school teachers on the topic “The Dust Bowl and Bakersfield Music,” as an educational extension of their ongoing Bakersfield exhibition, coincidentally, just before the public airing of the Burns film. That those most affected by the disaster and its consequences often didn’t want to talk about it, seeing that as a sort of acquiescence to the dust, and could be antagonized by the ways commentators from outside the area often characterized Dust Bowlers as downtrodden and defeated, was further underscored in one of the bonus sequences that comes with the just-released DVD/Blu-ray version of Burns The Dust Bowl, which, quoting the local Dalhart, Texas newspaper’s reaction at the time, is pointedly entitled “Grab a Root and Growl.”
So many key California country artists had the migration west and, the experiences behind them written into their very natures. They mainly came from the Texas-Oklahoma region where the music was decidedly social—dance music. (Even Guthrie himself, not yet particularly political and certainly not a solo artist, was in a dance band in Pampa, Texas when the storms rolled in.) The prime pertinent music of the area was the Western and hoedown-flavored swing Bob Wills took from Texas to Oklahoma to Los Angeles, followed by the tighter, louder (and cheaper to feature) honky tonk that Texans Hank Thompson and Lefty Frizzell (the latter frequently appearing there and later relocating) took out to the familiarly dim lights and thick smoke of the Coast.
This was music with the blunt matter-of-factness about sex and money and death of the blues and jazz built into the lyrics, and rougher rhythms to match. The determination to move and take matters more into their own hands was a legacy of those who left the Dust Bowl region, toughness which would be built into Bakersfield music—as was the “what else can you show me?” resiliency characteristic of both those who left and many who chose to stay put. You can’t listen to the artists I’ve mentioned, or another area refugee, Jean Shepard, or the raucous Maddox Brothers and Rose (displaced, musically influential sharecroppers, not precisely Dust Bowlers, though young friends of Guthrie), or Buck Owens, raised in poverty in Texas, without hearing the influence of this common background, these shared characteristics.
Hank Thompson had that regional frankness and rhythm in his music, and he and his crack band were models for many out West; and you can hear how he played with the migration theme, updated, but unusually explicitly (with the immigrant’s tinge of nostalgia) in his “California Women”:
Buck Owens exhibited one common reaction to his sort of background, besides scratching and clawing his way to the top and pinching pennies—talking about it all as little as possible. Yet his choice of a dollar-deprived metaphor for describing feeling powerless under a woman’s spell (again) in this hit of the 1960s gives away some of his real background in any case:
And then there was Merle Haggard, who, as against the general grain as always, though of the generation born in Bakersfield, not Muskogee or elsewhere in Oklahoma, would forever remind us that he was a product of the Depression, and of his parents’ westward trek. He would salute Lefty and Bob Wills and Tommy Duncan and Jimmie Rodgers (who’d been a Dust Bowl hero for his early Red Cross-sponsored raising of money and food seed for victims there). He would become known as “the poet of the working man,” a title Woody would have been glad to accept, and he’d write songs in which there was so often the looming danger of things suddenly going bad, or disappearing for good. He would be aware enough of his own obsessions to mock the very contents of this song in the song itself, which manages to be nostalgic about the loss of harsh Dust Bowl after-effects, a sort of “Are the Bad Times Really Over for Good?”:
They could choose to sing of the Dust Bowl migrant experience, or try to ignore it, or joke about it, but they couldn’t help but reflect it.
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