Dust Bowl Ballads – Woody Guthrie (1940)

“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.” John Steinbeck

Woody stood down on Camden Waterfront, just off Pearl Street., gazing over the mighty Delaware into the City of Brotherly Love, the cars like ants on Ben Franklin Bridge. Winter was just gone, long and hard, but at last no more. Spring smelt sweet and full of promise. The boxcars were in his head, them all bouncing around inside, standing up, lying down, using one another for pillows, mouths full of dust, hot in the September heat, tired, mean and mad, cursing and sweating, raving and preaching. He heard them singing in his head,

This train don’t carry no gamblers,

Liars, thieves and big shot ramblers;

This train is bound for glory,

This train!

Almost five years had passed since The Great Dust Storm and the clouds that looked deathlike black, from Oklahoma City to the Arizona line, Dakota and Nebraska to the lazy Rio Grande. The sounds of their million feet, scattered wives and children; Preacher Casey, Pretty Boy Floyd, Tom Joad, Little Muley were all in his head. Once beautiful Texas, Kansas, Georgia and Tennessee were in his head. It seemed like ages ago since he’d lay in green grass and smelled true summer.

He made his way down Cooper Street towards The Nipper building. Woody had heard tell that the Neapolitan, the great Caruso, had sung operatic arias on over two hundred disc phonographs right through those doors. And the Russian, the once boy-genius, Rachmaninoff, rapidly moved his large fingers across the piano that now sat waiting patiently in a room through those doors.

A lot was changing in America.

A lot was changing in Europe too. Hitler had biltzkrieged through Holland and Belgium, smashed through what those French folks had thought impenetrable, the Maginot Line at Sedan. They would be hauling the British Expeditionary Force off the beaches of Dunkirk within a month. America was staying out for now, but Woody knew it wouldn’t be long before young Yankee boys would be crossing the Atlantic to God knows what.

He pushed through the door clutching his guitar, his machine to kill fascists and went in to record Dust Bowl Ballads. All songs on the record would deal with the devastating effects of the severe dust storms that destroyed the agriculture of the American prairies during the 1930s. The soil had turned to dust, blown away by wind, forming black, deathly, monstrous clouds. It forced tens of thousands of families to abandon their farms, they became referred to as Okies, because so many came from Oklahoma. They migrated west to California which was still reeling from the Great Depression and was no Garden of Eden. Desperate, terrible times. Dust Bowl Ballads was Woody Guthrie’s first commercial recording and the most successful album he produced. It’s reckoned to be one of the first concept albums.

Dust Bowl Ballads was originally released as eleven songs on two simultaneously released three-disc set albums of 78 rpm records entitled Dust Bowl Ballads, Vol. 1 and Dust Bowl Ballads, Vol. 2. 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. However, 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” and “Dust Pneumonia Blues” which were recorded on May 3. In 1964, during the American folk music revival, a reissue was released in LP format by Folkways Records after RCA refused Guthrie’s request to re-issue the album.[In 2000, it was reissued by Buddha Records including the two previously unreleased tracks. The complete Dust Bowl Ballads remains available on compact disc through Smithsonian Folkways.

He’d lived it, had Woody. He had been forced to leave his wife and three children and tread the way west with thousands of other Okies seeking employment. He began writing some of the songs that would appear on Dust Bowl Ballads in Los Angeles. He had achieved a modicum of success, performing commercial hillbilly and traditional folk songs on radio station KFVD. Ed Robbin worked as a newscaster at KFVD, impressed by a song that Woody wrote about the political activist Thomas Mooney, he introduced Woody to socialists and communists in Southern California, including Will Geer (Granpa Zebulon Tyler Walton in The Waltons to you and me) who in turn introduced him to John Steinbeck. In 1940, he took up Geer’s invitation to New York City, crashing on his couch.

The social activism of Dust Bowl Ballads would go on to influence people Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Joe Strummer. But that was all way down the line, in April 1940, Woody was a young man with harrowing tales of what had occurred out west which he wanted people to know about. The night before, himself and Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter had busked for hours in Harlem, he’d got back to the loft he shared with Pete Seeger in the wee small hours. He was twenty-seven, who knew what was ahead of him or indeed America.

It wouldn’t end well for Woody, but I don’t want to go into all that now. Check out Dust Bowl Ballads, they are touching on to be almost eighty years old and they still sound fresh but unfortunately many of the devilish themes that they tell about are still all around us today.

Some of the songs off that record, may be the last songs that Woody ever heard. They were played to him at his hospital bed by young fan, Bob Dylan. Bob writes about it in Chronicles, Volume One –

“I had tried to visit Woody regularly, but now it was getting harder to do. Woody had been confined to Greystone Hospital in Morristown, New Jersey, and I would usually take the bus from the Port Authority terminal, make the hour-and-a-half ride and then walk the rest of the half mile up the hill to the hospital, a gloomy and threatening granite building – looked like a medieval fortress. Woody always asked me bring him cigarettes, Raleigh cigarettes. Usually I’d play him his songs during the afternoon. Sometimes he’d ask for specific ones – Rangers Command, Do Re Me, Dust Bowl Blues, Pretty Boy Floyd, Tom Joad.”

Four of those five are off Dust Bowl Ballads.