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The Great Dust Storm - Woody Guthrie

We couldn't cover Woody Guthrie (see previous posts) without including a song by the great man himself.

The "Dust Bowl" was a phenomenon that occurred from 1934 to 1940, severely ravaging in the mid-west US states of Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska, Kansas, and New Mexico and others. It is now known that it was caused by a combination of drought and (then) modern farming techniques which had ploughed over the indigenous grasslands that naturally held the soil and moisture into the land. The new farming methods, accelerated by the introduction of the new widely available tractors, became popular during the 1920's when good weather meant that the mechanical ploughing of the fields was producing record yields. So this is an early example of of localised climate change due to man's science-powered over-exploitation of the land and natural resources.

The first great dust storm was on 14th April 1934, here documented in typically perfunctory fashion by Guthrie. Guthrie lived in Oklahoma at the time, and was forced, along with tens of thousands of other "Okies", to leave his family and go west to California to seek work. His songs, rooted in the country music and blues of ordinary people, are delivered so simply and honestly that they remain the most vivid testament of the dreadful hardships experienced by the men and women of Southern plains, along with the amazing photographs of Dorothea Lange and the fiction of John Steinbeck.

Dorothea Lange was a pioneering photographer who toured these areas and documented the plight of their communities and their subsequent exodus west, developing techniques of sympathetic interaction with her subject matter that informed her pictures with a raw honesty while retaining objectivity. Her work in the Dust Bowl is now recognised for its importance in the early development of photojournalism (see photo above)

Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck became friends as a result of their shared subject matter - the plight of the migrant workers displaced by the Dust Bowl. Steinbeck's great novel "The Grapes of Wrath" won him the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the US's top literary award. The novel tells of the hardships experienced by one particular family, the Joads, as they head west during the Dust Bowl, having had their Oklahoma farm repossessed by the bank due to their failure to keep up with their loan repayments. Steinbeck said that if Guthrie had released his song "Do Re Mi" earlier, then he wouldn't have had to write "The Grapes of Wrath". In his turn, Guthrie recorded a song in two parts - "Tom Joad" - which recounts the novel to the tune of the traditional ditty "John Hardy"..

In 1962, Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for literature, as did Bob Dylan, who has acknowledged Guthrie as his greatest influence, 64 years later.

Curiously, Steinbeck's great nephew, Johnny Irion, is now married to Guthrie's granddaughter, Sarah Lee Guthrie; the pair toured and recorded as a folk-rock duo for ten years, embarking on separate solo projects in 2018 but staying together as a couple.

Woody Guthrie's words are factual, descriptive and stark, imbued with the powerful authenticity of first-hand experience:

"On the 14th day of April of 1935

There struck the worst of dust storms that ever filled the sky

You could see that dust storm comin'

The cloud looked deathlike black

And through our mighty nation it left a dreadful track

From Oklahoma City to the Arizona line

Dakota and Nebraska to the lazy Rio Grande

It fell across our city like a curtain of black rolled down

We thought it was our judgement, we thought it was our doom.....

.....We saw outside our window, where wheat fields, they had grown Was now a rippling ocean of dust the wind had blown

It covered up our fences, it covered up our barns It covered up our tractors in this wild and dusty storm We loaded our jalopies and piled our families in We rattled down that highway to never come back again."


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