Dust Bowl Ballads 29:130:00/29:13
Season 1 Episode 5 Transcription
Here are just a few things that happened to Woody Guthrie in 1940. Early in the year he wrote This Land Is Your Land. A month or so later, in March, he recorded 4 hours worth of songs for the Library Of Congress. On April 14 he went into the Victor Studios in Camden New Jersey and recorded the songs he started writing 5 years earlier—all about his experience with America’s dustbowl.
Two of the songs, Pretty Boy Floyd and Dust Bowl Blues were too long to fit into the 78 RPM format so when Dustbowl ballads was released in July of 1940, it was released as 2, 3 record sets with 1 song per side. The only exception was his re-telling of John Steinbeck’s Grapes Of Wrath, Tom Joad, which had to be split and placed on 2 separate sides. If you ever wondered why some people refer to modern recordings as albums, it dates back to this old 78 RPM format. In July, when the albums were released, Woody was 27 years old.
A case could be made that Dustbowl ballads was one of the very first concept albums. Around 1950, RCA decided to let the record go out of print. Woody let Folkways records copy the recordings and release a 10” LP they called, Talking Dust Bowl. The 10 inch only included 7 of the 11 original songs. They left out Do Re Mi, I Ain’t Got No Home, Dust Pneumonia Blues, and Vigilante Man. Interesting choices considering that 3 out of 4 of those songs became Woody Guthrie classics.
14 years later, in the thick of the commercial “folk Boom,” Folkways re-issued the collection again, this time including all of the 11 original songs in their original order. Although this was done with RCA’s knowledge and passive permission, it didn’t stop RCA from releasing their own re-issue in the same year. They included all of the songs recorded in 1940, and Then, for some reason, decided to jumble up the song order.
In the year 2000, 60 years after the original release, Buddha Records released Dust bowl Ballads on CD, included all 13 songs recorded in 1940 and threw in an alternate take of Talking Dust Bowl Blues for good measure. And, for some logic that escapes me, shuffled the order once again.
For the purposes of our time together, I will focus in on the 1964 re-issue by Folkways. This was probably the release that had the biggest impact on the most folk music fans.
Dust Bowl Ballads opens with a talkin’ blues— a folk song style Woody loved and used often throughout his life, first introduced on a recording from 1926 by Chris Bouchillion—the talking comedian of the south.
Here’s the late great Gamble Rogers explaining the style in one of his live performances
Examples of this free rambling style set to a strict rhythm can be found throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. From 1926, as we just heard, to Bob Dylan in the early 1960s
30 years later when Loudon Wainwright wished Dylan a happy 50th.
Artists like Phil Ochs and John McCutcheon used the style to explore controversial issues like the Cuban Missile Crisis
Or Preacher Jerry Falwell’s tele tubby accusations about Tinky Winky
from the end of the 20th century
until the not so distant past
Even one of the first anti-nuclear songs of the post-war era Old Man Atom written by blacklisted journalist Vern Partlow and ending like this:
Woody’s Talkin dustbowl Blues is a dark comedic rant about escaping the dustbowl while fighting with the old Ford on the trail heading west. But, Woody being Woody, ends with a little poke at the politicians
The third track on the 1964 Folkways re-issue of Dust Bowl Ballads is one Woody Guthrie’s most enduring songs. For Do Re Mi, Woody takes the persona of someone who got out of the dust bowl only to face a new grim reality. It is a song of warning that could have been lifted right out of Stienbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath. Folks left the dust bowl states in droves with their eyes on a better life in places like California. Mostly broke and full of hope, they packed their cars and their families up and drove straight into a new stark reality
Do Re Mi is over 80 years old now and is still being sung. It’s been recorded dozens of times by artists like Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Nanci Griffith, Ry Cooder, Bob Dylan and ani Difranco
The last song on side A of the Dust Bowl Ballads is Tom Joad, Woody’s retelling of the film, The Grapes Of Wrath based on John Steinbeck’s novel. The film was released in March of 1940 and, according to biographer Joe Klein, Woody was asked by the record company to write the ballad of a film that was sure to draw a lot of attention at the movies. With the aid of a jug of wine and a typewriter provided by a young Pete Seeger, Woody stayed up all night until the wine was gone and the ballad was complete. Woody’s friend, actor Will Gear says Woody read the book. Pete contends he just saw the movie. Either way What he accomplishes in 17 verses is astounding. If the tune sounds familiar, it’s because Woody took it directly from the traditional song, John Hardy, a song he may have heard Buell Kazee sing on an early 20th century recording .
Combined, the two tracks were six minutes and thirty four seconds long. According to Woody Guthries grand daughter, Steinbeck was amazed at Woody’s ability to get to the essence of his novel in 17 verses.
The opening song on side B of Dust Bowl Ballads is, The Great Dust Storm: a perfect example of how Woody can approach songwriting like a journalist.
A stark description of Black Sunday— a day where 300,000 tons of of topsoil was displaced causing the displacement of over 100,00 people. Woody was a master at describing how this not only affected our country, but the individuals who endured.
One of Woody’s most recorded and sung songs appears next on the record. The original title was Dusty Old Dust, but the world knows it better as, So Long, It’s Been Good To Know You. This time, Woody borrowed his melody from Carson Robinson’s 1930s song The Ballad Of Billy the Kid. I couldn’t find the original, so here is Vernon Dalhart’s version to give you a little taste of the borrowed melody.
The Weavers changed the words considerably and took it to number 4 on the pop charts in 1951
That is a slick production for a dustbowl ballad. Here’s what the original sounded like (sample)
and, again, leave it to Woody to get a little dig in on the church.
On Dust pneumonia Blues, Woody borrows heavily from the style of Jimmie Rodgers—only the very thing he’s singing about is what prevents him from yodeling
With I Ain’t Got No Home, Woody isn’t just borrowing the melody from the religious song I Can’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore—a song he most likely heard the Carter family sing in 1931, he is making it into a parody.
Like Joe Hill’s Preacher & the Slave, sung here by Utah Phillips
Woody warns against complacency—warns against the mindset that poor folks should accept what they get and rely on the reward of the after-life.
Dust Bowl Ballads closes with Vigilante Man. Another of Woody’s classics, still being sung and recorded 80 years after the original release. Ry Cooder, Bruce Springsteen, Even the rock group Nazarath has helped keep this tale of thugs, chasing out the migrant workers alive.
In order to dig a little deeper into this one-of-kind collection of songs, I reached out to the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa Oklahoma. The Woody Guthrie Center opened in 2013 and is dedicated to spreading Woody Guthrie’s message of diversity, equality, and justice. They do this through a variety of exhibits, special programs, musical events—too much to mention it all here—go visit woodyguthriecenter.org. Center director Deana McCloud put me in touch with one of their top researchers:
My name is Mark Fernandez. I am the Patricia Carlin O'Keefe distinguished professor of history at Loyola university New Orleans. About 10 years ago, I became very interested in Woody Guthrie. Part of it was that I am a musician—I am in the folk genre, sort of— a singer songwriter. I play a lot around New Orleans.
Mark’s interest in Woody accelerated after getting on stage with some musicians touring a Woody Guthrie show in New Orleans. They sang This Land Is Your Land as an encore and Mark was hooked. He began research on a book about Woody and 20th century America in 2011 and wondered if there was an archive out there that might be helpful. There was.
I had no idea that this was such a treasure trove of information. So I started digging and digging and I spent many, many summers in the archives, many long trips. It took me from 2000, the first trip in 2011 to 2016 to actually read all 10,000 manuscript pages. And then that doesn't include the paintings, the drawings, the, his record collection, which is amazing.
Wow. Woody Guthries record collection. I wouldn’t mind spending a little time with that. I mentioned earlier about all the songs Woody wrote leading up to the recording of the Dust Bowl Ballads in 1940, and again, at the age of 27…
I think there's a perception in contemporary American culture, and maybe beyond that musicians lead kind of an easy life. I don't think non-musicians. non songwriters, non-writers, non-artists, understand the commitment to art that it takes to perform at the kind of level that a Woody Guthrie, or even a much lesser known songwriter or artist, visual artists, sculptor. I don't think they understand that the amount of discipline and work that goes into their art. Woody Guthrie was a real writer, a real worker. I mean, think about that. After this, he went up to the Pacific Northwest and we wrote 26 songs in 26 days, right, for the Bonneville power administration. He's a prolific writer, not just writing songs—
and I'm talking about 3000 song lyrics that we know about.
You know, you were making the point earlier that this could be considered the first concept album. I think, as a writer, it's easy to get inspired when you have something to write about. And you know what it is. Dealing with that melody and trying to say, this is a song you never get there until you really know what the topic of the song is.
And I think this is an early expression of something that will recur several times doing Guthrie's life, where he gets a topic that he's fascinated by and he writes a cycle of songs. And that's really what the Dustbowl ballads are—they’re a song cycle, 12 songs on a similar topic, taking different snapshots of the life.
He does it again with the Bonneville power songs for the Bonneville power administration. And then he does it again with the peakskill blues song cycle, which is not nearly as well-known, the Ballou chatty blues song cycle, which very few people know about because there's never been, none of the songs have ever been recorded.
He seems to gravitate to those ideas, just like he does with other things. He becomes really intrigued toward the end of his life with the injustice of American racism. And so he writes whole notebooks about Southern racism, writing in these cycles. Sacco and Vanzetti songs—beautiful. You know, so I, I think part of his life as an artist was I'm going to write as much as possible. I'm going to write every day. I'm going to write about what I see.
This is one of the things that marks him as a truly great American artist. And I don't use the word great that much when I'm writing about historical figures. But I think when you see the range of his writing, the artistry—especially in some of the stuff that people have never even heard, because they've never been recorded is, is truly wonderful.
And I think it just speaks to an artist who's driven, possibly an artistic genius, uh, in terms of, particularly in terms of his ability with words. And so young songwriters, I think need to be true to themselves, true to their experience. But one of the things you can learn from Woody is beautiful. Work with imagery, setting a scene, ‘come with me in 1913’, that just sets the stage.
And then that's a rather long lyric. But if you look at it, none of those lyrics are wasted. They're all central to moving the story along. And even in the dust bowl, ballads, Tom Joad, which is what 17 versus something outrageous. Uh, but still a lot short, shorter than the Grapes Of Wrath, but tells the same story very well.