Dust Bowl Ballads
With this series of vivid story-songs, Woody Guthrie made the dust storms that roiled the Southwest in the 1930s a part of the American experience. People in other parts of the country heard news about them, of course, but Guthrie's accounts brought the devastation to human scale, where the suddenness and terror, and the lingering aftereffects, could be fully felt. They gave the dust dimension.
Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, and like so many fleeing the dust in the 1930s, moved to California. These songs chronicle the hardships faced by the victims of the drought there, and the pain they felt having to abandon their homes. When he recorded this set in New York in 1940, his voice held traces of the dust, mixed, naturally, with indignation. "Tom Joad, Part 2" tells about the trials of dust-bowl refugees, among them a preacher who can't take it anymore. "Vigilante Man" explores the inevitability of violence—and the all-too-human men who inflict it—in forsaken places.
Guthrie, who later in 1940 wrote his most famous song "This Land Is Your Land," isn't much of a showman here—he emphasizes the hearts and souls of the people he's met—people who had no time to worry about the fine points of craft. He plays rudimentary guitar, and sings with little affectation save a parched dryness in his voice.
Dust Bowl Ballads remains Guthrie's most successful record, both in terms of sales and influence. Bob Dylan made these songs the backbone of his early repertoire, and wrote countless verses that follow Guthrie's outlines. Bruce Springsteen's The Ghost of Tom Joad looked at the descendants of the dust bowl, the victims of the same type of economic dislocation in a different time. These and other acolytes aspire to what came naturally to Guthrie here—narratives in which specific trials and tribulations offer insight into that elusive set of qualities sometimes called "the American character."
Released: 1940, RCA (Reissued 2000, Buddha)
Key Tracks: "Talking Dust Bowl Blues," "Pretty Boy Floyd," "I Ain't Got No Home," "Vigilante Man"
Catalog Choice: Library of Congress Recordings, Vol. 1
Next Stop: The Almanac Singers: Complete General Recordings
Book Pages: 331–332
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#1 from Adam Herbst, New Jersey - 12/01/2008 8:22
A document. This is of the moment stuff - banks throwing people out of their houses, no one quite knowing who to blame, a general feeling of encroaching chaos. Always reminds me of that WPA picture by Dorothea Lange of the dustbowl refugee woman holding her children looking into the distance - you can just read her mind wondering how she is going to feed her children. And Guthrie worked for the WPA, as well (listen to his song about the Bonneville Dam, I think).
As a follow up, rather than going to Springsteen or Dylan, I’d suggest Billy Bragg.