A while back I caught the John Ford movie, The Grapes Of Wrath, on TV. For those who might not know, it’s based on the Steinbeck novel about the trials and tribulations of dust bowl farmers during the Depression. Although the film’s message has been debated for years, and even taking into account the upbeat ending grafted on by Hollywood, it’s still a fascinating story and portrays the people and the times pretty accurately.
Although the it’s actually taking place a little before my time, whenever I watch the film I see characters that could have come right out of my own childhood. And of course it makes me reminisce about my own family, especially my maternal grandfather. I wrote recently about his years as a young man, providing for his family by working as a tenant farmer, and it’s entirely possible that only an accident of geography kept his family from the same fate as the Okies.
He was in a region that was east of the dust bowl area and although I’m sure his family was touched by some of the same problems, from what I’ve been told they usually managed to get in a good crop and make it through the tough times. That’s reflected in a picture of my uncle as a boy. He looks happy and well-fed (as does his dog) and apparently they could afford an automobile. You can also see some healthy, vibrant vegetation. No drought here.
The folks in the dust bowl area had worse luck, and as their farms dried up and blew away many of them chose to migrate West, where they tried to make new lives. It was tough at first – as the movie illustrates – but most families ended up sticking it out and subsequent generations have prospered, so maybe Hollywood wasn’t that far off with its optimistic ending to the movie.
But if you’ll excuse the expression, it wasn’t always depressing in the Depression years. Rural Americans – including Okies – enjoyed music just as much as the sophisticates in the big cities, but their choices were a little different. They liked gospel, bluegrass, and folk music, all loosely fitting under the heading of country music. People enjoyed playing, singing and dancing at all kinds of gatherings, and music was definitely a part of their lives. One thing there’s little doubt about — the musician who was eventually most identified with the dust bowl saga not only wrote and performed songs about it, he also lived it. Although he didn’t actually gain much fame until the 1940’s and later, Woody Guthrie was the best-known musical storyteller of the Depression years.
He grew up in Oklahoma, and for years traveled America on the hobo trail, listening to the people and their music. A lifelong socialist who often drew controversy, he felt that he was the voice of the underprivileged, and his legacy influenced many later musicians. These include his son Arlo and Bob Dylan, who acknowledged his inspiration by writing and performing songs about Guthrie.
Woody’s biggest hit, “This Land Is Your Land”, is probably the one most remembered now, but he wrote and performed a number of songs about the dust bowl struggles. (He even wrote a song called “Tom Joad”, the main character in The Grapes Of Wrath, played by Henry Fonda in the film.)
One of the best, from his album Dust Bowl Ballads, is “Dust Bowl Refugee”.
And a little something extra: