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Lots of folks back East, they say, is leavin' home every day
Beatin' the hot old dusty way to the California line
'Cross the desert sands they roll, gettin' out of that old dust bowl
That old Dust Bowl was not just a place, but a disaster of epic proportions—and it was only partially a "natural" disaster.
In 1935, Readers Digest published a letter written by an Oklahoma farmer describing Dust Bowl conditions:
In the dust-covered desolation of our No Man's Land here, wearing our shade hats, with handkerchiefs tied over our faces and Vaseline in our nostrils, we have been trying to rescue our home from the wind-blown dust which penetrates wherever air can go. It is almost a hopeless task, for there is rarely a day when at some time the dust clouds do not roll over. 'Visibility' approaches zero and everything is covered again with a silt-like deposit which may vary in depth from a film to actual ripples on the kitchen floor. (Source)
Sounds pretty miserable, huh?
People thought it was a natural disaster—and some thought it was a God-sent one—but we know now that the Dust Bowl was caused by a combination of over-farming of the land and a severe drought that began in 1931. The sun-baked soil, stripped of grasses and nutrients by farming, could no longer hold its own against the strong winds that blew through the Great Plains, and the winds picked up the black dust and formed apocalyptic, scary clouds.
With no hope of running successful farms and the constant threat of this disturbing form of weather, hundreds of thousands of residents of the Dust Bowl areas migrated west to California to seek work. Head over to the Meaning tab for more on this.
Now, the police at the port of entry say,
'You're number fourteen thousand for today'
After California landowners encouraged Dust Bowl residents to come West, government forces subjected the migrants to illegal profiling at the California border.
Here's what a car salesman says to the migrating Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath:
"That's what you think! Ever hear of the border patrol on the California line? Police from Los Angeles—stopped you bastards, turned you back. Says, if you can't buy no real estate we don't want you. Says, got a driver's license? Le's see it. Tore it up. Says you can't come in without no driver's license."
John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie had both observed the same injustice firsthand. Business owners had distributed tens of thousands of flyers in the Great Plains, inviting the down-and-out workers to come out to the land of milk, honey, and employment.
Many times, though, these same businesses—mostly orchards and large farms—only had a few hundred jobs on offer. By the late 1930s, there was a massive overflow of migrants who were called "Okies," an offensive term for poor white people.
The wealthier Californians who had been there before were paranoid about an Okie takeover, and had the roads into Southern California blockaded by state police. Although they had no legal right to do this, they often turned back travelers who didn't look employable. Even those who had sold the family farm to come to California.
Oh, if you ain't got the do re mi, boys, you ain't got the do re mi
"Do re mi" was Woody's phrase for money.
This line pretty much means, look out buddy, if you're poor now, you ain't gonna get rich in California.
Guthrie mumbled about the "do re mi" as he was playing his songs for Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress in 1940, saying, "You can gamble for it, lie for it, steal for it, bum for it, beg for it, do anything else in the world for it, you can even chase people out of their house and home for it—do-re-mi." (Source, 76)
Woody Guthrie, by the way, was not all that into money. "Money bothered Woody," wrote biographer Joe Klein. "Getting it turned people into animals and losing it drove them crazy. He refused to acknowledge its existence in quantities beyond what he needed for immediate use, and squandered his windfalls" (Source, 37).
California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see
Woody Guthrie loved California, but it was also the site of his own political disillusionment.
Drawn by the invitation of an aunt, Guthrie had left Oklahoma for California in 1936. When he got to the so-called Promised Land, he was stunned by its rolling hills, lush orchards and fertile valleys.
But he was equally disturbed by the gross poverty he found the migrant workers living in. They'd ben promised paradise, and only got more suffering, which gives a line like this one a sad, realist irony.
There is no paradise on earth, it seems to say. But good luck out there in California.