– John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, 1939
"Well, most of the people in the Dust Bowl talked about California. The reason they talked about California was that they'd seen all the purty pictures about California and they'd heard all the purty songs about California and they'd read all the handbills about comin' to California and pickin' fruit. And these people naturally says well, if this dust keeps on blowin' the way it is we're gonna have to go somewhere, and most of' 'em, I'll dare say seventy-five percent of 'em was in favor of goin' to California cause they'd heard about the climate there, you could sleep outdoors at night, and any kind of a seed that you put down in the ground why, it'd grow back out again. All such things as that made all these people want to go to California."
–Woody Guthrie, interview with Alan Lomax, 1940
Woody Guthrie was a farm boy from Oklahoma with a thick Great Plains accent and a Shakespearean knack for songwriting. John Steinbeck was a Stanford University dropout obsessed with depicting the struggles of "the common man" through his writing. They ultimately became two of the most influential people to speak out about one of the largest migrations in U.S. history, the movement of over two million people from the Great Plains states to the lush valleys of California in search of a better life.
Guthrie tells the story on his 1940 album, Dust Bowl Ballads, which is in many ways an echo of Steinbeck's 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath. And whether it is conscious or not, both works are very much a part of our popular understanding of the Great Depression and the American West today. If you're from California or you know anyone from there, or if you've been to L.A. and wondered how so many people ended up in such a dry place, or if you've ever heard the term "Okie," or—perhaps most relevant of all—if you have ever been forced to read The Grapes of Wrath, Woody Guthrie is a good track to get on. In Dust Bowl Ballads, this goofy folk singer takes us on pretty much the same trip as The Grapes of Wrath, but Guthrie does it with a guitar and a sense of humor.
The story begins in a lot of places, but we could say the whole Dust Bowl problem began in earnest in 1931, when an ugly conglomeration of events led to the beginning of a huge disaster. For a bit of Dust Bowl background, the arid plains of Oklahoma, Kansas, north Texas, and parts of New Mexico and Colorado only started to be heavily populated in the 1800s. In the early 1800s, the newly formed U.S. government forced the Native Americans of the southeastern states to resettle in Oklahoma, notably during the 1830s when Cherokees were pushed West on the infamous Trail of Tears. Only about fifty years later, the government created a much more generous policy designed to get poor white people to settle those same territories, offering free land to all those willing to go out and farm it (much of that land was not exactly free but re-possessed from the Cherokees, meaning that part of the role of the whites was to forcibly take over Cherokee land). In any case, Polish, German, Slavic and Irish whites, as well as some former black slaves, went west to take advantage of what seemed at the time like a great opportunity. (Read more about Oklahoma's history here.)
The U.S. government got what it wanted, which was the creation of Oklahoma as a state in 1909. But on a humanitarian level, it might not have been the best idea for the feds to send all these folks out to the plains to build up small farms. Within a few decades, the dry, majestic lands extending west from Arkansas had become over-farmed and unkempt. Vegetation and nutrients had slowly been removed from the soil by intensive farming, and that over-farming only increased as the agricultural economy failed after World War I. When a drought hit the area in 1931 (coinciding, you might remember, with the most severe economic depression in national history), the results were disastrous. The dry, unhealthy soil could no longer hold its own against the cold winds, and dust storms began to accumulate regularly, destroying farms and causing misery and health problems for the farmers. Farms were failing, oil boom towns were slowing down, and hundreds of thousands of people knew it was time to go.
Woody Guthrie was actually one of these people, but his reasons for leaving were a little bit different. He was a relatively successful sign-painter and musician, born in Oklahoma but married in nearby Pampa, Texas (similarly dusty, dry and desolate). Rather than pursue the farming life, he was a small-time city boy, getting by through playing in bands, making signs and advertising slogans up for businesses, and often just singing and making people laugh for a dime. Although the living conditions were harsh all around him, he and his young wife and child hadn't really suffered the way many others had. So when he left Texas to go West, it was because he couldn't seem to kick a travel bug he had. In 1936, Guthrie wandered out of town on a series of hitched rides and hopped trains to make his way out to California.
Guthrie's biographer, Joe Klein, describes 1936 as a "strange moment in the Great Depression. The worst was supposed to be over, the economy was supposed to be improving…and life probably was better for some people. But for the rest—for those left hungry and jobless in a time of mild optimism—it seemed worse than ever. That certainly was true in the Southwest, where the dust and drought were only the most obvious signs of a general collapse. Even in fertile areas, small farmers were being driven out to make room for massive corporate entities that farmed with machines and could actually wring a profit from the land…a human convulsion of epic proportions was in progress. The whole countryside seemed to heave and groan as the farms emptied and the highways filled" (Woody Guthrie, 78).
Woody Guthrie found himself traveling alongside many of these down-and-out Dust Bowl refugees, riding train cars from Texas to California to Oklahoma and back. John Steinbeck was in San Francisco at the time, interviewing poor migrant workers for a series of articles in the local paper and completing an early novel.
"When I got to California, I seen things out there that I wouldn't believe," said Guthrie in a 1940 interview. "If people woulda said and told me that there was hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and thousands of people, livin' around under railroad bridges, down along the river bottoms in old cardboard houses, in old rusty beat-up houses that they'd made out of toe sacks and old dirty rags and corrugated iron that they got outta the dumps and old tin cans flattened out…I wouldn't believe it. Cause all these people didn't go out there to loaf around, they didn't go out there to have a good time, they went out there for one reason and absolutely one reason, and that was because they thought that they could get some work there. And when they got out there they found theirselves settin' alongside the road or up in the hobo jungles, campin' around three or four hundred families on one hillside…"
Guthrie left California shocked and disillusioned. Gorgeous though the landscape was, Woody had seen a sort of discrimination he wasn't used to as a white man. Californians showed an open bias and hatred for the so-called "Okies," the people from his own homeland. He also saw that many of them had been duped, coming all this way to find work only to find that work was scarcer than the advertisements had hinted.
How did so many workers get lured West if there were no jobs? There were a few factors at work, and there's some debate about how much it all could have been avoided. The most insidious reason for the disastrous migration was the actions of some owners of the orchards and farms of fertile California. At first, these growing agribusinesses didn't have enough workers to harvest the bounty. They reached out to tens of thousands of Dust Bowlers with flashy handbills. Word spread, and by the end of the decade they had thousands of workers too many. This took away the workers' negotiating power and meant that the owners could push wages far, far down—if someone wasn't willing to work for a lousy wage, he or she could just be replaced by any of the thousands of other desperate souls milling about, willing to work at any price. And of course, the Dust Bowl conditions were a huge factor even without the lure of jobs. It was easy to convince a family they should head west for a better future; after all, it seemed like there was literally nothing left for them. But California was also still trying to recover from the Great Depression, so in some ways there was no good place to go. "Do Re Mi" addresses this dilemma, admonishing people that you can't make it in California if you don't have any cash to begin with. Since the whole reason to go to California was to get work and make money, the Dust Bowl farmers were really in a bind.
More than two million Dust Bowl migrants gradually filled the farms, towns and streets of California. Many of them found nothing better than illness, poverty, and continued migration as they searched out work up and down the state. "Starving children with distended bellies were not an uncommon sight in dusty migrant camps located next to huge orchards spilling with fruit…and protected by armed guards," Klein explains (113). The federal government's Farm Security Administration had set up a few model camps for migrants by the decade's end, but the majority lived in absolute squalor. Both John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie saw all this; they also saw the powerful agricultural corporations crushing the activities of the Communist and Socialist union organizers. The unions had little success in California, and worker uprisings were sometimes suppressed with full-scale violence.
Guthrie's experiences in California ended in a full political conversion. He was still charmed with a love of words and wandering, but he also became bitterly angry. He took a job doing a radio show in L.A. for a while, but in 1939 he split again, this time heading to New York. He was "discovered" by folklorist Alan Lomax and taken in by the East Coast leftist scene. It was there that he began to compose a whole album about the Dust Bowl situation.
Guthrie was an enchanting storyteller, and he brought the horror stories and stories of solidarity he had seen in his travels into his songs. He had seen death, illness, and misery beyond compare, and he hated that these displaced and homeless people from his homeland were called "refugees" (does anyone remember a debate about the exact same issue when Hurricane Katrina displaced thousands from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast?) Interestingly enough, he was also influenced directly by John Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath.
The Grapes of Wrath quickly made it big and made Steinbeck famous. A movie was released, and controversy arose: some didn't like Steinbeck's anti-corporate take on the Dust Bowl tragedy (but hey, all press is good press, right?). Still, no one could deny that his impassioned and crushing vision of the Dust Bowl migration was so explicit and so heartfelt that it made you feel like you were out there on the road with the Joad family, watching children starve to death and suffocating in the dust. Liberals took to the book, jumping on the Dust Bowl migrants as a social cause. Guthrie himself read the book several times. He drew directly from Steinbeck's fiction in songs like "Tom Joad" and "Dustbowl Refugee." With its sad, bitter warning to the Okies not to leave behind all they have and go west, "Do Re Mi" wraps up the message of The Grapes of Wrath neatly into a song. "California was emphatically not the promised land of the migrants' dreams," admits a California history website today. "Do Re Mi" and all of Dust Bowl Ballads stands alongside The Grapes of Wrath as a basic cultural record of one of the more tragic episodes in American history.
Are you wondering how the tragedy resolved itself? After all, we did just say that over two million folks went to California in the middle of a depression to find themselves in competition for a handful of agricultural jobs. Well, since you wondered, we'll tell you: In the early 1940s, World War II created a whole new industry in some American cities, especially the port cities of California. The Okies who didn't join the army and fight in the war ended up moving to urban areas and getting jobs in factories building weapons and shipping war supplies—L.A. expanded exponentially during this time. All this gave people a bit of relief from the long recession, which in turn contributed to a refreshed sense of patriotism. "God Bless America" became the anthem of the day, and that's how we ended up with another great Woody Guthrie song: "This Land is Your Land." But that's actually another story.