What was the music of the Dust Bowl?

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The Dust Bowl in Exile: Timeless Songs of Immigration

Placing the Dust Bowl within a particular geography has never been easy. Various historians give the region various sizes and dimensions with outstretched boundaries that encompass different areas. Not only is the geography of the Dust Bowl ambiguous, the social effects of “place” also take on characteristics of an “event.”

Different patterns of change and upheaval, such as rural flight, farm foreclosures—even armed revolt, characterize the Dust Bowl. Even the arrival of the near-mythical “black blizzards” during the 1930s play a role, their arrival commencing the date when the Dust Bowl began. At the same time, each of these events have been worked into a historicist perspective that puts the Dust Bowl into a particular time period; they use various theories, albeit economic or cultural, to show how the Dust Bowl was a result of different social processes in American society.

In any case, efforts to place the Dust Bowl into time and space have one unifying characteristic, the role of the place and event in American history. This point of definition reveals the aim of this paper. Using the American Life Histories web-archive “Voices from the Dust Bowl,” a collection of “Okie” folksongs made by Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin in 1940-41, one sees the larger transformative processes in American society that, in a larger sense, are a continuation of American immigration.

A touch of precaution is required before the songs are examined. In all fairness, there is no correct way of interpreting the lyrics of songs in order to evaluate what the migrants felt or thought. Using the songs to describe specific historical conditions is blocked, as the historian Paul Cohen once said, by the “impenetratability of the sources.” Yet the songs can help provide guidance for understanding the larger societal contexts that the singers inhabited.

Helping to guide the interpretation of the songs is John Michael Morris’ 2005 M.A. thesis “Dust Bowl Ballads and Okie Culture.” He viewed the Todd-Sonkin collection “Voices from the Dust Bowl” as an archive of songs that possessed “British-Irish forms…and specific material…directly traceable to the British Isles.” Through the generations the settlers became more distinctly American, and in the process, their songs changed. As each new family moved further west, their songs continued to use traditional themes of immigration, part and parcel with America’s westerning experiences.

Morris explained that “to the degree that Okie music derived from the British-Irish antecedents, it was an extension westward of these cultural processes.” Herein, Morris recognized a process of innovation, one compatible with Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1890 frontier thesis, mainly, Turner’s idea about the reinvention of American society on the western frontier. “Okie” music, therefore, functioned like a cultural manifesto, though it was neither pretentious or deliberate. By the time of the 1930s, American folk music—at his point Southern in nature—expressed the themes of a people in the throes of modern times, which Morris typified as “Americans straddling the border between urban, mass culture and rural, traditional culture.”

Donald Worster’s 1979 work The Dust Bowl helped contextualize the various themes within “Voices of the Dust Bowl.” Worster’s “Dust Bowl” was a symbol of ecological disaster and a profound wake-up call for the relationship between ‘Man’ and ‘Nature.” Paying close attention to the timing of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, Worster refused to see a coincidence; instead, he decried a “fundamental weakness in the traditional culture of America.” Social factors played a role in both national disasters.

As a Marxist historian, Worster indicted the culture of capitalism as the root cause. Anywhere else in the continental United States unmitigated farming might have succeeded. Not on the Plains he claimed, saying, “this is why and how the Dust Bowl came about.” Scientific arrogance, supported by an unfailing faith in technology, contributed to the disaster. Only after the creation of the Dust Bowl did “Man” understand. As Worster said, “those wounds are more numerous and more malignant than ever.”

His book never looked away from the geographical “Dust Bowl,” partly because he was interested in showing how, in the face of disaster, the land’s inhabitants bravely endured the hardships. Their culture, in effect, served as a matrix for optimism and helped them survive. This accounted for the trend of the Plainsmen to stay on the land, despite the ecological breakdown that, he said, severed “the ground from under the people’s feet.” Part of this endurance involved an incredible amount of denial that the Dust Bowl even existed. To admit the ‘end-days’ of productive land was too much to bear. The residents stayed in the Dust Bowl and toughed it out, proponents of a culture that believed “[T]o ask for aid implied personal and providential failure.”

Worster also pointed out that some people did leave the Dust Bowl, a point that needs to be qualified, for it involved a profusion of long-established social forces. Government statistics of the 1930s recorded these developments, which he interpreted as “a tremendous outward flow of bankrupt, deracinated, demoralized folk” emanating both from within, and outside, of the Dust Bowl. These demographics, more specifically, indicated the presence of traditional rural-to-urban migrations. As Worster explained, people from the Great Plains went to towns and cities within their states, while some crossed into other states. Some traveled all alone, some traveled as new families and old extended ones. Overall, they went in search of work, and for the support of additional social structures, a search that eventually led them to “go west.”

Worster’s description of this pattern of rural-to-urban migration is important. The music that Charles Todd and Robert Sonkin recorded in the FSA camps revealed some of the came intracultural processes that existed on the boundaries of rural and urban life in the 1930s. These processes typified the “Okies” as part of a larger American culture where social stresses have traditionally characterized the westward experience. Migration intensified the permeable barrier that rural community members passed through, and in the process underwent disharmonious experiences, many of which found an expression in folk songs.

“Deep Ellum Blues,” sung by Merle Lovell in Shafter, contains an unmistakable anxiety about social situations that typify urban life, not in any modern sense, but in a way that has historical continuity.

When you go down in Deep Ellum gon’ to have a little fun

You must have your fifteen dollars when the policeman comes.

Oh, sweet mama, daddy’s got them Deep Ellum Blues…

Once I knew a preacher, preached the bible through and through

But he went down in Deep Ellum, now his preaching days are through.

Oh, sweet mama, daddy’s got them Deep Ellum Blues…

One I had a sweet girl, meant the world and all to me

But she went down in Deep Ellum, now she aint’ what she used to be.

Oh, sweet mama, daddy’s got them Deep Ellum Blues…

When you go down in Deep Ellum, put your money in your shoes

‘Cause the women in Deep Ellum got them Deep Ellum Blues.

Oh, sweet mama, daddy’s got them Deep Ellum Blues

Oh, sweet mama, daddy’s got them Deep Ellum Blues…

The images in the song specifically supported traditional ideas that people from the countryside had about cities. Warnings about policemen and women who take your money, telling the listener to beware of an environment that ends a preacher’s piety and a young girl’s chastity: who would sing this kind of song but a people who are steeped in a culture that is weary of the evils of urban life? Yet these feelings of anxiety are nothing new. Since the early nineteenth-century, people in the United States had expressed definitive emotions about American cities, portraying them as places of moral corruption.

Another song, “Stevensville Blues,” has to do with the anxiety of traveling and finding work, but ultimately, discovering a worse predicament at the end of the journey. This stanza elucidated these feelings:

My name is Old Bill Stryker. I was not raised in town.

For nineteen years and over, I rambles this world ‘round.

Ate corn-bread and molasses, slept on a naked hill.

Didn’t know that sufferin’ was, till I came to Stevensville.

The song spoke for the handed-down traditions of itinerant men that experienced changes in their lifetimes. Having grown accustomed to mobility, they were equally resigned to the uncertainty that lay at the end of the road. The song also paralleled anxieties that “Okies” found in California; as migrant workers in the San Joaquin Valley, they were vulnerable to deficient employment and besieged by “strong-arm” farm owners. The next stanza dealt with the social inequalities that transient labor has traditionally endured.

They fill my heart with pity, as I roam up and down the brook.

To see them Old Stevensville boys, with turtles on their hook

Them being scarcely able to drag’em up the hill.

To help support the tables, in the homes of Stevensville.

Worster does turn away from his “Dust Bowl,” towards California, more specifically, the irrigated fields in the San Joaquin Valley. He does this to describe how one trend of migration dominated all others during the 1930s: the trip to California. It was not only affordable, if one had a car and $10 for gas, it was also culturally attractive. As Worster asserted, “it had long been the American ideal of Paradise.” “Voices of the Dust Bowl” archived this trend as well. Within the song “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad,” made popular by Woody Guthrie, lies a paradisiacal sentiment for the Golden State, where even economic conditions, in this case the lack of warm clothes, was offset by the promise of a new destination.

I’m goin’ where the climate suits my clothes, Lord, Lord,

And I aint’ a-gonna’ be treated this-a-way.

This song stood in context to the economic conditions that faced migrants the migrants faced in the 1930s. Worster described how most migrants to California did not cite farm failure as a reason for relocation. While travelers possibly traveled to California because the “climate” did indeed suit the “clothes,” the downright impoverished were a small percentage. Yet these facts had little bearing on the mindset of 1930s America, or for that matter, no influence on the interpretations of later-historians. As Worster indicated, “once across the Colorado River you became an ‘Okie.’” Thus—these “Okies”—gave the migration an image in American memory. Upon closer investigation of the songs, the diversity of the people who came to California reveals a far more complex migration than anyone’s “Dust Bowl” can handle.

“Why We Came to Californy,” sung by Flora Robertson and recorded in 1940, should have been the theme of the Dust Bowl; for its title seemed to describe what the rest of the nation had come to believe: the migrant explosion in California had been caused by the Dust Bowl. The song “Why We Came to Californy,” however, could potentially typify the Great Plains’ experience as a whole, especially the historical conditions of the natural environment.

Here comes the dust storm, watch the sky turn blue.

You better git out quick. Or it will smother you.

Here comes the grasshopper, he comes a-jumpin’ high.

He jumps across the state, an’ never bats an eye.

Here comes the river, it sure knows its stuff.

Takes our home and cattle, an’ leaves us feelin’ tough.

In no way were “dust storms,” “grasshoppers,” and “the river” unique products of the Dust Bowl; each one of these calamites were events that settlers on the Great Plains had endured even before the Homestead Act of 1862. What the “Okies” ran away from existed long before the Dust Bowl. Natural conditions had increased in severity during the 1930s. “Dust,” however, had a longer history on the plains, a role that had predominated the lives of farmers and townspeople. These natural conditions eventually compelled them to move to, among other places, California. Nature, however, was only one of the tribulations that migrants faced. Other trials were man-made.

Worster’s curiosity with the Dust Bowl, much like the intellectual crowd of John Steinbeck and Carey McWilliams, pertained to another idea, one that he not only saw in the Dust Bowl, but within California’s agri-businesses. He describes how “[t]he Dust Bowl…became the dominant national symbol of this bankruptcy and ecological decay, fusing itself into all the environmental complexities of the time.” Believing that the physical environment was not shoving people off the land, Worster, and many like him, blamed the hierarchical relationship landowners and farmers, since made worse by the New Deal and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, where subsidies for farm owners meant evictions for tenants and sharecroppers.

Way down in old St. Francis Bottom. Where they call the Devils Den.?Many a poor tenant has lost his home. And me, oh God, I’m one.

About the twentieth of January, when God sent a big flood.

It run the planters from their beautiful homes. And now they live in tents.

The planter said to the planter one day, “oh boy, how do ya like this?”

“Boss it aint hurtin’ me,” the tenant answered him.

If you would in some refugee camp. Or in some tenant’s shack.

You’d learn not to be afraid of cold. Or fear the shinin’ sun.

Oh boss, don’t ya see where ya done me wrong.

When you run me out my shack?

I hadda build me a new home. Out of my ole pick sack.

Authored by a woman named Agnes Cunningham, its lyrics described farm conditions similar to the American southwest that forced many tenants to move to California. These conditions, however, were not necessarily distinctive to the Dust Bowl. They may have more to do with the conditions that other migrants faced, especially the ones who came to California from the cotton growing regions of the Mississippi River. The fragility of land, however, due to environmental problems, in this case under the heading of “floods,” is one problem that migrants endured. The song, therefore, supported Worster’s “Dust Bowl,” where environmental conditions were linked to exploitative labor.

More importantly, Worster claimed that displacement caused by industry was the real culprit; and he asserted that the Dust Bowl and the “Okies” in California were fatally linked. Worster said, “it was often the owner of a tractor who was putting “Okies” off the land, just as in the San Joaquin Valley is was the machine-like economic system that was ensnaring them in a new bondage.” “Drouth,” as they called it on the Plains, was bearable, and even, surmountable. The migrants in California, Worster believed, were twice bitten by “an exploitative agricultural system.”

With this said, it is necessary to closer observe California in order to determine the state’s context within the “Okie” songs from “Voices from the Dust Bowl.” James Gregory, author of American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and the Okie Subculture in California, belonged in the same camp as Worster, especially when discussing the historical push-and-pull forces that compelled migrants to move to California. He went deeper, however, into the origins of the “Okies” in California, in order to write about migration and its consequences.

Gregory believed that the Dust Bowl resonated in America because “the struggle of the Dust Bowl migrants seemed to suggest a pathetic failure of the American Dream [and]… confirmed Americans’ worst fears about the meaning of their Depression-era existence.” Yet, as he showed, the “Okies” have done well for themselves. This had to do with the vitality of interregional connections in the United States, linkages that have historically created new regional communities throughout the nation. This, Gregory said, “is the real legacy of the Dust Bowl.”

He based much of his study on the interregionality of self-identity that united migrants from Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas, primarily the similarities of rural backgrounds within the states. He agreed with other studies that attributed the migration of people from this region due to the economic stresses of modernized agriculture. In effect, he summed up the rural migration of the 1930s as part of economic factors that existed during the Great Depression. In summary he says, “[T]he twentieth century drained rural Americans from the land as surely as it improved the technology and efficiency of farming…nowhere was the process more abrupt than the Western South.”

Why then did so many “South Westerners and Western Southerners” move to California? The answer lied in a number of factors, some of which were traditional, some of which were painfully modern. First, there is the “myth of the West,” the cultural capital of new beginnings. What Gregory called an “attachment to Western heritage” existed in songs that sustained the “pioneer mythology of the second chance and the quick strike.” Many of the songs from “Voices of the Dust Bowl” contained this motif. A tune called “Don’ You Grieve About Me,” sung by Troy Cambron in the FSA Arvin camp, typifies some of these unbounded feelings of optimism.

I went down town a-feelin’ might funny.

Picked up a pocket book stuffed full of money.

Man on the street said “Where ya goin’ sonny?”

An’ I tol’ him not to grieve about me…

While I’m gone, it’s don’ you grieve

O’ don’ you grieve about me…

Went to a hotel to stay all night.

Gave six bits and they said alright.

Went upstairs and went to bed.

An’ I told ‘era not to grieve about me…

While I’m gone, it’s don’ you grieve

O’ don’ you grieve about me…

At the same time, California, partly due to the role of advertising in the early twentieth century, fulfilled this historical expectation; and as mentioned before, the phenomena happened long before the Dust Bowl. As Gregory goes on to state, “[h]istorically, people usually moved west not out of desperation but in response to the perceived attractions of opportunity-filled new settings.” The migration of people out of Gregory’s “Dust Bowl” belonged in the same context as other western migrations in American history. Not all of them were dirt-poor, he claimed.

Many successfully partook in the same dreams that other Americans possessed. Similar to Worster, Gregory argued that “despite the popular perceptions, less than 16,000 people from the Dust Bowl proper ended up in California.” The popular idea of the Dust Bowl apparently resonated more strongly in American society; it supported the nominalism of an “Okie” exodus.

Who then did Charles F. Todd and Robert Sonkin record in the years 1940 to 1941? Gregory, in using the songs of the “Okies,” gave some clues, describing how “many of these compositions told of great initial hopes for economic deliverance.” More than that, as he goes on to say, these songs contain themes of missing home. Yet the theme of a new life was a powerful motivator. Finances played a large role in this belief; for California’s economy gave the impression of supporting a large workforce.

You’ve all heard the story. Of old Sunny Cal.

The place where it never rains. They say it don’t know how.

They say, “Come on all you Okies, work is easy found.

Bring along your cotton pack. You can pick the whole year round.”

Get your money’ever night. Spread you blanket on the ground.

It’s always bright and warm. You can sleep on the ground….

“Sunny Cal” by Jack Bryant Firebaugh addressed the promise of California from two standpoints. One, the promise of beautiful weather explains the image that advertising firms sold Americans, an image that encouraged a real estate boom in southern California in the 1920s. One of the promises of a better life was employment. California in many ways fulfilled their needs, functioning as a safety valve for Americans who could make the move.

Only later, did California actively seek out these people, in large part to work on the large cotton farms of the San Joaquin Valley. The song, thus, addressed this topic, and more specifically confronted another facet that angered migrants, specifically farm owners who encouraged migrant labor, only to fail to meet those employment obligations. This phenomenon of 1930s California dashed many of hopes and smashed the dreams of countless more. They learned that California was not-so “sunny.”

“Sunny Cal” ended on this note:

But listen to me Okies. I came out here one day.

Spent all my money getting here. Now I can’t get away.

Whoever made that exodus down Route 66 to California and chose the migrant stream to the San Joaquin Valley found their first challenges in a vastly different world than their own. Some of the jobs might have been the same, but modernized farming enjoyed a labor force that was seasonal at best. This, plus the additional fears of native Californians and large farm growers who worried about radical labor unrest, combined in a stark reality, as Gregory said, “leaving many seriously disappointed… California was not what they had expected.”

Landed in Californy. In the year of thirty-six.

Didn’t have no money. And in an awful fix.

Didn’t have no money. My victuals for to buy.

Wasn’t no use in runnin,’ boys, its root hog or die.

The theme of “Root Hog or Die” was self-explanatory, less-than-audacious beginnings in a new land. This is the state that Robert Sonkin and Charles Todd found the new migrants, settled in labor camps by the federal government’s Farm Security Administration, besieged by cultural forces beyond their comprehension. Sonkin and Todd came from the East coast in search of the “Dust Bowl,” maybe thinking that they had found it in the songs of the “Okies.” These songs, however, do not indicate physical geography. Yet the songs do place the “Okies” within the early twentieth century, and in a larger sense, within larger social trends in American history.

Gregory pointed out that “the experiences and impact of the Dust Bowl migrants in California have been governed by specific historical conditions.” Nevertheless, as Gregory later said, “[t]he Okie identity has been constructed out of symbols appropriated from the heritage of an entire nation.” The songs’ contents possess another interpretation. The themes in the songs conformed to historical perceptions of migrants, which the “Okies” represented to most Americans. America unconsciously confirmed that the “Okies”—or whoever these people were—were direct descendents of an American past, a past that relied upon, and even celebrated, traditional mobility.

In his study of 1930s folk music in California, Morris made an important point about the cultural importance of Okie ballads for American history, saying “[i]f the Bakersfield sound was the sound of the Okie subculture in California, hillbilly music was the soundtrack to the Okie migration from the Upper South and the Southwest into the West.” Herein, lied the importance of these songs to the events of the Great Depression. The “Okies” were a continuation of American events that contributed to a national history in constant flux.

Morris explained that “musicologists have been unable to identify and agree upon the relationship between these native American tunes and Old World musical traditions.” This paper argues that the relationship between the two forms is explained by the nature of American society, with a special emphasis added on the westward migration of the 1930s, where California obliged traditional notions of new beginnings.

The “Okies,” thus, served as an example of desperate times, not just the Depression but also for the experience of moving west. Their music contained elements that epitomized the dynamics of a migrant tradition that have been at work long before America. Even today this experience continues to shape America.

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