Dust bowl ballads or How to get from Oklahoma to California


In 1973, Santa Monica born singer and guitarist Ry Cooder was in the Netherlands for the first time. He gave a concert in Hilversum for VPRO Radio, during which he performed a "depression song" of his own making: "Death Valley." The song tells the story of a farmer who tried to make a living in the Midwest, but went broke after a streak of bad luck.

Flash floods changed my land around, 1916 went dry
My wife and kids died in that year, and dust was what I had.

Read your morning paper, and on your radio
There is another sunshine dream gone down.

The protagonist decides to leave for prosperous California, because "a grapefruit ranch was promised where the ocean breezes blow." The most interesting part of this performance is the long introduction Cooder gives to the song, probably anticipating the ignorance of his Dutch audience. He elaborates upon the historical context of his story; the agricultural crisis in the nineteen twenties and thirties which caused a massive move westward by many farmers, who considered this the only solution. Land brokers from California profited from this crisis, selling farmlands of dubious quality in the promising west.

Cooder knew the story from a musical perspective. His first two albums consist mainly of depression and blues songs from the nineteen thirties and forties. His self-titled debut album from 1971 contained songs like "One Meat Ball," "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live," "Dark Was the Night (And Cold Was the Ground)," and "Police Dog Blues." There was also a version of Woody Guthrie's dust bowl ballad "Do Re Mi" on the album. Cooder's second album was called Into the Purple Valley (1972); the title taken from a postcard advertising land in Death Valley. The songs had similar themes: "The Taxes on The Farmer Feed us All" (a reworking of the traditional "The Farmer Is the Man Who Feeds Them All)," "Money Honey," "How Can You Keep on Moving," and (another Woody Guthrie song): "Vigilante Man." These songs tell a story of crisis and depression from the perspective of the suffering people.

In the following, I want to present the songwriter's account of the dust bowl. The songs present an alternate version of history: not just the plain facts, but the ordeals of individual farmers. The dust bowl ballads tell the tale of a constant quest for a better place, and create an almost mythical image of the destination, the West. These songs had a quality which makes them more than contemporary social documents; they keep history alive; through the work of Ry Cooder and others, most notably Bruce Springsteen, these stories are still told an retold.

1. The dust bowl

In the nineteen twenties and thirties, large parts of agricultural land in the Great Plains of the American Midwest were in a bad condition. The circumstances for farming in this area are bad to begin with: a large part of the land in the Great Plains requires curative or preventive treatment to keep it fit for intensive farming. [1] This is mainly true, of course, for the cheapest lands: the property of the poorest farmers, who could not afford any special treatment their land might need. They bought a small piece of land and used it intensively. They were not, and could not afford to be, soil conscious. "Southern dark brown soils are not well suited for wheat production, but prior to the 1930s, dust bowl farmers used them extensively for that purpose." [2] The farmers overburdened the land, and a long drought wore out the land even further. This finally amounted to the "dust bowl": a series of big dust storms that destroyed farmland and drove the farmers away.

In hindsight can be suggested that something could have been done to prevent the dust storms, but this is only theoretically true. The cycle in which the farmers were caught was inescapable, and even if they could have known what the consequences of their farming would be, they could not have done anything about it. The solution would have involved either not planting, or planting something different every couple of years, both of which were practical impossibilities.

The dust bowl was predominantly a manmade disaster. There was an explanation for it, and there were possible agricultural solutions. Not surprisingly, this hardly becomes apparent from the songs. In "The Great Dust Storm", a song starting out as a more or less factual account, Woody Guthrie goes on to describe how the storms were experienced as something as inevitable as the last judgment. And in a sense of course, they were: if the people wanted to eat, they had to make money. To make money, they had to grow crops. And while growing crops, they destroyed the land. The farmers did not know they were caught in the cycle and that is probably why the disasters were experienced as inevitably doomed to happen.

On the fourteenth day of April in 1935
There struck the worst of dust storms that ever filled the sky
[ . . . ]
From Oklahoma City to the Arizona Line
Dakota and Nebraska to the lazy Rio Grande
It fell across our city like a curtain of black rolled down,
We thought it was our judgment, we thought it was our doom [3]

"The Great Dust Storm" is not a protest song. The storms are experienced as inexplicable, tragic events, the "doom" of the farmers. The possibility that something could have been done by the authorities to prevent the disaster from happening, or the idea that bad government might have had anything to do with it, does not come up. "The Great Dust Storm" is not directed against anyone or anything, the "worst of dust storms" is seen as an Act of God, and a reason for resignation - not protest.

The fact that the storms were so dramatic contributed to this view as well. They caused total darkness in the middle of the day. The big black clouds hovering over small farms even scared the animals away: it almost begged for a metaphysical explanation. Some victims likened it to "the end of the world," [4] an explanation to which farmers were more susceptible than to the factual rationality of the officials. "Agronomists, and state and federal officialdom, recognized even in the dust storms a manmade catastrophe, the result of years of improper land use. The American people, including the migrants, found beneath these more rational explanations a kind of unconscious comfort in viewing the storms as a judgment from the Almighty." [5]

Although most of the afflicted farmers stayed and lived through the dust bowl, many believed the situation was hopeless, and left, "thinking that they could not be worse off anywhere else." [6] They traveled with their families, usually by car and almost always to the west. They left everything they owned and headed for an uncertain future in the west, hoping to replace the dust bowl with the "fruit bowl", as in Woody Guthrie's "Talkin' Dust Bowl".

[ . . . ] the rain quit and the wind got high
Black old dust storm filled the sky
I traded my farm for a Ford machine,
Poured it full of this gasoline
And started . . . rockin' and a rollin'
Out to the old California . . . fruit bowl [7]

Two important themes are contained in this song. In the first place: moving is seen as the best solution. The farm is given up and sold for a car: Traveling provides a more hopeful future. The second important theme is the attraction of the West. California is portrayed as a "fruit bowl", an ideal place for farming. These are the "dust bowl versions" of two themes which are essential to blues, as well as folk-music: "Traveling" as the way to improve one's situation, and "the mythical attraction of the unexcavated west".

2. Traveling . . .

For the farmers, there was no romance in traveling: their motivation was largely pragmatic. Often, the big city is the locus of hope. In industrial cities like Pittsburgh, Chicago or Detroit there simply was a better chance of getting a job. Blues singer Bob Campbell was confronted with the problems of farming, and attracted by the reputation of Detroit as a place where you could easily get a job.

I'm goin' to Detroit, I'm gonna get myself a job,
I'm tired of layin' around here workin' on the starvation farm [8]

Los Angeles, being a big city, had the same reputation as the industrial cities in the north: it was easy to find work there. Especially since the beginning of the second world war, there was much work in defense factories and labor migration grew enormously. An Oklahoman farmer remarks: "They're goin' to California like they used to go to Michigan." [9]

Where the blues musicians sang about Highways 51 and 61, it was Highway 66 which "has become identified ... as the highway of the migrants."[10] It runs through Missouri, Oklahoma and northern Texas on its way to California. Some farmers went from cotton field to cotton field, and "for these, the highway pointed the route."[11] Highway 66 passes plantation after plantation, and the trip to California could take months or even years for the cotton farmers who settled down and moved on, along with the seasons. An Arkansas farmer's account: "We're bound for Kingisher, Oklahoma, to work in the wheat, and Lubbock, Texas, to work in the cotton. We're trying not to, but we'll be in California yet." [12] Woody Guthrie describes 66 as the highway of choice for the troubled migrants in his "66 Highway Blues."

There is a Highway from coast to the coast,
New York to Los Angeles,
I'm a goin' down that Road with Troubles on my mind,
I got them 66 Highway Blues [13]

Highway 66 is the most legendary, but not the only "migrant-highway". By means of an epigram, the 1969 edition of the photo-documentary on the dust bowl migration An American Exodus, opens with a picture of Highway 54, with an anonymous comment that echoes Robert Johnson's "Rambling on my mind": "I've got the road in my head."[14] The road is more than a means of transportation. Like in blues music, it is not only the place toward hope, it becomes a mythical place of hope and escape itself.

The best example of how the possibilities of the west got combined (or rather, confused) with those of the north is a song by Robert Johnson, the most famous Delta Blues singer. Born in small-time Hazlehurst, Mississippi, he left for Chicago and New York. He only stayed there briefly, and did not let reality get in the way of the myths. After his return to the south, he sang about "Going to California, Sweet Home Chicago."[15] Johnson's mistake, of locating the windy city in California, is an indirect indication of the growing reputation California had in the South.

3. . . . to the West

The dust bowl was quantitatively not all that important for the migration. The history of Southern California is the story of one big sequence of booms, and dust bowl migration makes up just another phase. What distinguishes the dust bowl migrants from the earlier generations, is the fact that the farmers from Oklahoma were poor people, who were escaping, rather than pioneering. Their first consideration was not building a new life, but escaping from the old one: "Unlike most westward movements of earlier era's, this one seemed to be comprised mostly of poor people and dominated not by the pull of California attractions but by the push of desperate conditions back home."[16] But the notion that the migration to California is caused by the conditions at home can only be part of the truth. It is plausible enough that the reason for the massive migration was in the first place formed by the bad conditions at home. Although that might be an important factor in the migration, it does not explain the popularity of the West as the main destination. Obiously, an image of California as the place of hope had come into existence. So how was this image created?

In the first place, there is the familiar notion of the west as the place of new possibilities. Pioneers traditionally went west, no matter if they were gold-seekers, luck-seekers or farmers, and California simply was the last frontier.[17]

Tourism was another source of mythology. In order to encourage tourism, mythical qualities were attributed to California. The reputation of California as a "fruit bowl", the place where you could not fail as a farmer, partly had its origin in the stories of the boosters trying to attract rich people for a vacation. Some of those rich people stayed: the first generation of settlers started fruit farms and profited from ever growing tourism. This created the myth of eternal good weather, incredible harvests, and a comforable absence of disasters.

This image was at least partly created by organizations like the All-Year Club, a promotional enterprise that was trying to attract tourists through the whole year. In the first place these Clubs aimed at rich people - and not without success. But the rich tourist was not the only one to hear about sunny southern California. "Like most promotions of the sort, the All-Year Club has been too successful. Its seductive advertisements were partially responsible for the great influx of impoverished Okies and Arkies in the 'thirties".[18] It is not likely that the advertisements from the All-Year Club reached the small farms in rural Oklahoma, but even if the publicity was not the direct cause, it did contribute to the image of California as a paradise. As Ry Cooder told his Dutch audience, postcards of Death Valley circulated in the West, calling it the `purple valley'.

The traces of the booster-stories can easily be found in the songs of hope about California. In many of those songs, there are references to the climate and the wonders it can do for farming. When Woody Guthrie goes to California, he is going to "where them grapes and peaches grow"; going "From that dust bowl to the peach bowl."[19] And although the hope and expectations were mainly economical, California is always idealized as a true paradise and associated with miracles. The childish stories from boosters about incredible harvests and amazingly fast growing fruit very likely contributed to this image.

They say in California
That money grew on trees,
That everyone was going there
Just like a swarm of bees [20]

This fragment comprises several familiar images creating an idealistic view of California. Both natural and economical attractions have supernatural qualities. There is money, and it grows - miraculously - on trees. Moreover, the comparison between people and "bees" implies a similarity between California and a flower. The possibility of a disappointment is subtly anounced in the use of the past tense.

The most important factor was very likely the "word of mouth"-effect. The successful settlers (and a lot of the initial settlers were quite successful) told their stories to the families at home in Oklahoma. Often these families decided to join them. Moreover, the success stories got around creating the impression, among larger communities, that California was a great place for farming. Stein quotes the testimony of a migrant, who left after a friend who "was out here [=California] last year, went back to Oklahoma telling folks he hadn't had any trouble in getting work at higher pay." [21] And Woody Guthrie, in his autobiography, recalls a letter from his aunt Laura: "... when Texas is so dusty and bad, California is so green and pretty. You must be twenty-five by now, Woody. I know I can get you a job here in Sonora. Why don't you come?" [22] These stories were much more powerful than the counter propaganda which tried to warn off Oklahoman farmers by claiming there was no work. The positive image, created by boosters and initial migrants, proved to be hard to get rid off. What lingered was the idea that it was easy for a farmer to find work in California. From a song by Jack Bryant:

You've heard the story
Of old Sunny Cal
[ . . . ]
They say, "Come on, you Okies,
Work is easy found
Bring along your cotton pack
You can pick the whole year round" [23]

It is significant that this song is about a story, and the positive things about work in California are within quotation marks. "Sunny Cal" is a reputation in Oklahoma, the singer does not report his personal experiences, but refers to common knowledge: "you've heard the story, they say ...." This also announces indirectly the disappointment which might follow.

4. California

Unsurprisingly, California could not always live up to the high expectations. The attitude toward the new home was often ambivalent. The possibilities may have been there, but not everyone could profit from them.

Especially in the early stages of the migration there were many farmers who succeeded in making a new living. These people fitted comfortably within the American dream and their stories were eagerly published by journalists, who "usually [reported] that America's losers had become modest winners." [24] They were the proof that the Dream was still alive and that the system of "opportunity for all" still worked. As I described before, these success-stories found their way back to Oklahoma and attracted more migrants. And not all of them were equally successful, after all, this was the time of the Great Depression.

Due to the nature of agriculture in California, there was a real and stable use, only for short-term workers. During harvest time, many laborers were needed, but once brought in, the employment was gone: farm-workers had to become travelers. Other than the Mexicans and the Japanese workers, who were used to this procedure, the dust bowl migrants brought their whole lives and families with them, hoping to settle down. "And this is a new thing in migrant labour, for the foreign workers were usually imported without their children and everything that remains of their old life with them."[25]

Every year, in the winter, the families were out of work and out of food. John Steinbeck wrote a pamphlet about the situation, Their Blood Is Strong in which he calls agricultural policy a failure. He considers the situation inhumane and calls upon the Californian government to do something. The migrants had now become a political problem.

The first response of the authorities was: scaring off the job seeking migrants with signs that were posted in Oklahoma along Highway 66 and which read, for example: "NO JOBS in California [...] No State Relief Available for Non-Residents." [26] And if these did not work (and they often did not), the migrants found that the mentality of hospitality in California had changed significantly. They were called "Okies" and "Arkies" and that was more than an indication of origin. "Okie" became a label for poor whites; it signified "loser" and was used with contempt: "You take some of these guys and give them the best land in the Garden of Eden and they'd starve to death," a farmer from Kern County commented. [27] There was of course nothing new about the negative stereotyping of migrants, but the former generations were foreigners: Mexicans and Japanese. There was more protest and social unrest now, probably for the cynical reason that "these were white, old-stock American natives, Protestant Americans, rural Americans, heartlanders, who were now bearing the brunt of prejudices traditionally addressed to `foreigners'".[28] An important part of John Steinbeck's closing argument from Their Blood Is Strong - written with the best intentions, taking the side of the losers - is the point that the new migrants "are of the best American stock, intelligent, resourceful."[29] No one came to this kind of defense for Mexicans and Japanese workers.

The change of attitude is clearly reflected in the songs. An Oklahoman folk song from the late thirties is unusually pessimistic and the image it gives of the West differs very much from the "poor man's heaven" that was portrayed in earlier songs:

You people of Oklahoma
If you ever come out West,
Have your pockets full of money,
And you'd better be well-dressed [30]

The hints of disappointment which was only indirectly present in earlier songs, are made explicit. The truth is harsh: you have to be rich if you want to make it, in California as much as anywhere.

The song that tells the story most completely is Woody Guthrie's "Do Re Mi". I will quote it in its entirety, because it comprises all stages of the migration, and because it covers many elements I discussed.

Lots of folks back east, they say, leavin' home every day,
Beatin' a hot old dusty trail to the California line.
Cross the desert sands they roll, gittin' out of the old dust bowl;
They think they're goin' to a sugar bowl, here's what they find:
The police at the port of entry say:
"You're number fourteen thousand for today"

If you aint got the Do Re Mi,
Better go back to beautiful Texas,
Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee,
California is a garden of Eden,
A paradise to live in or see.
But believe it or not, you won't find it so hot,
If you aint got the Do Re Mi.

If you want to buy a home or farm, that can't do nobody harm,
Or take your vacation by the mountains or sea.
Don't trade your old cow for a car, better stay right where you are,
Better take this little tip from me:

'Cause the governor on the radio today
Jumped up to the microphone and he did say:

If you aint got the Do Re Mi . . . [31]

This song tells the whole story. It gives the initial reason to leave ("that old dust bowl"), it reflects the hope of the travelers ("sugar bowl"/"garden of Eden"), tells about the trip ("dusty trail"), about the disappointment ("you won't find it so hot"), about the warnings of the officials ("governor on the radio"). It shows the attitude of the Californians: the authorities ("the police at the port of entry") as well as the general attitude: if you want to take a vacation, if you have money, then you are welcome. Otherwise, you "better go back".

Most farmers did not go back though but stayed in California, successful or not. They simply had no choice: from California, it is not possible to go further west. California is the true and "final frontier in America." [32] If you do not make it here, you have spoilt your last chance. There are some songs in which the hopelessness of that situation is turned into the wish to go even further, but the destination is vague, and it does not seem as easy as it was to "keep on moving":

How can you keep on moving, unless you migrate too?
They tell you to keep on moving, but migrate you must not do.
The only reason for moving, and the reason why I roam,
To move to a new location, and find myself a home [33]

In this song, resignation is no longer an important motive. The song clearly is a complaint toward authorities ("they"), with their impossible demands. The tone is decisively bitter. The furthest place west has been reached, and "they" still want you to "keep on moving". In the context of California's reputation as the "true and final frontier", this is a harsh verdict.

5. History written by musicians

There are different ways to tell the story of the dust bowl. The dust bowl can be seen as an example "of human endurance in the face of natural adversity - or as a symbol of human irresponsibility in the face of natural fragility." [34] One of these explanations is not to be preferred above the other: these are two ways to tell the story.

The songs reflect the need for people to turn their problems into a story, to make sense of what is happening. "Without some plot to organize the flow of events, everything becomes much harder - even impossible - to understand."[35] From this viewpoint, the dust bowl ballads constitute the "mythology" of the dust bowl farmers.

The officials and agronomists presented the dust bowl as a manmade disaster, but the victims created a narrative of doom and judgment. The story as told by the folk singers, especially Woody Guthrie, is a story of hope and misery. The songs are almost always about the other place, the place of hope. The Oklahoman farmer sings about the fruit bowl, but the migrant in California hears he should "better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Georgia ...". The Oklahoman farmer leaves for "poor man's heaven", but the reality is that an Okie is not welcome if he does not have money.

It is interesting to observe that the early songs hardly reflect the political side of the dust bowl as much as could be expected. The musical counterparts to Carey McWilliams' arguments or John Steinbeck's pamphlet can only be found in songs which were written later - afterwards. The contemporary songs tell about the individual hardships, a change-the-world attitude is unusual, even in most of the Dust Bowl Ballads of Woody Guthrie, whose songs had a strong social dimension.

Folk music fulfilled a comparable function as blues music. It tells about the misery and failures of the poor, but it is also a reflection of their hope. A hope which centers upon "mobility" and upon its main symbol: the highway. The story of the dust bowl, from this perspective, is the story of traveling, moving and always searching for a better place.

Where Ry Cooder revived the original stories, Bruce Springsteen historicizes in his recent The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995). All the familiar elements play their part: the disaster (`Dry Lightning'), the mythical role of the highway (`Highway 29') and the inevitability of going west (`Goin' someplace there's no goin' back). Springsteen also draws the parallel between the days of the great depression and the contemporary urban crisis in the United States. The Dust bowl-imagery has survived the nineteen thirties and the music played a part which should not be underestimated.


1. Carey McWilliams, Ill fares the land; Migrants and Migratory Labor in the United States (New York, 1967), 199.

2. R. Douglas Hurt, The Dust Bowl: An Agricultural and Social History (Chicago, 1981), 18.

3. Alan Lomax, Alan, ed., Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People (New York, 1967), 218.

4. Hurt, 1981 2.

5. Walter J. Stein, California and the Dust Bowl Migration. Contributions in American History 21 (Westport etc., 1974), 14.

6. Hurt, 1981 54.

7. Lomax, 1967 229.

8. Paul Oliver, Blues Fell This Morning: Meaning in the Blues (Cambridge, 1990), 31.

9. Dorothea Lange and Paul Schuster Taylor, An American Exodus; A Record of Human Erosion in the Thirties (New Haven etc., 1969), 56.

10. McWilliams, 1967 127.

11. Stein,1974 38.

12. Lange and Taylor, 1969 48.

13. Lomax, 1967 63.

14. Lange and Taylor, 1969

15. Robert Johnson, Complete Recordings. Columbia Records, 467-246 (1990).

16. James N. Gregory, American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California (New York etc., 1989), 10.

17. See for example Gregory, 1989 7. He adds in a note that "This is asserted more than it is proven" but also that it "seems true enough for migration to California," 260n.

18. Carey McWilliams, Southern California: An Island on the Land (Salt Lake City, 1988), 137.

19.Lomax,1967 217, 224.

20. Gregory, 1989 20.

21. Stein, 1974 24.

22. Woody Guthrie, Bound for Glory (New York, 1990), 249.

23. Gregory, 1989 20.

24. Gregory, 1989 xiv.

25. John Steinbeck, Their Blood Is Strong (San Fransisco, 1938), 2.

26. Gregory, 1989 22.

27.Gregory, 1989 101.

28.Gregory, 1989 102.

29.Steinbeck, 1938 30.

30. McWilliams, 1967 30.

31. Lomax, 1967 230-231.

32. McWilliams, 1967 188.

33. Ry Cooder, Into the Purple Valley. Reprise Records, 244-142 (1972). The song was originally written by Agnes Cunningham.

34. William Cronon, "A Place for Stories: Nature, History and Narrative," The Journal of American History 78 (4, 1992): 1347-1376.

35.Cronon, 1992 1351.

Copyright Bertram Mourits 1997

Bertram Mourits studies at Utrecht University

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