Perhaps the lone salvation of human tragedy is that occasionally it finds its poet, the one person who lends enduring meaning to suffering and rescues dignity from disaster. The Dust Bowl crisis of the Thirties found its poet in Woody Guthrie, as the recently re-released Library of Congress Recordings and Dust Bowl Ballads demonstrate with overwhelming clarity.
The Library of Congress Recordings are particularly remarkable. The three-record set, which was recorded for a radio show in 1940 at a studio owned by the Department of the Interior, runs nearly three hours. It consists of Guthrie performing twenty-eight songs during the course of a rambling interview with musicologist Alan Lomax and Lomax’s wife, Elizabeth Littleton.
In response to Lomax’s questions, Guthrie, who was born in 1912, chronicles his harrowing family life in Oklahoma, his days of “hoboin'” and his experiences with the Okies who traveled the hard road to the promised land of California. His songs weave in and out of the conversation.
Guthrie seems incapable of discussing a subject without striking a resonant moral chord. Early on he drifts into talking about “the colored situation” and tells how he came upon a wailing harmonica instrumental he calls “Railroad Blues.” He first heard the piece, he tells Lomax, while walking past a barbershop in Oklahoma as a young black man played it. Guthrie describes the tune as “undoubtedly the lonesomest piece of music that I ever run into in my life.” He asked the man where he learned it. “I just lay here and listen to the railroad whistle,” the man explained, “and whatever it say, I say too.” “He never did play the same piece no two days alike,” Guthrie says of the man, “and he called them all ‘Railroad Blues’!”
In the Dust Bowl migrations, Guthrie discovered his own version of the blues, one on which he’d play endless variations. As Southern and Great Plains states became unlivable because of drought and the Depression, California came to seem like the land of milk and honey to desperate farmers. In song after song — “Talking Dust Bowl Blues,” “I Ain’t Got No Home,” “Will Rogers Highway” — Guthrie captures the hopelessness of the crop and bank failures, the rigors of the journey west and the crushing disappointment that ensued when California offered a reality nearly as harsh as the land left behind.
Horrifying as the situation was, Guthrie was capable of perceiving the absurdities of it. In “Do-Re-Mi” he can barely suppress his chuckles as he advises westward-bound refugees that “California is a garden of Eden/A paradise to live in or to see/But believe it or not/You won’t find it so hot/If you ain’t got the do-re-mi.” Such tough knowledge doesn’t prevent him, however, from being obviously moved some time later as he describes an old man hitching to California and refusing to believe that his hardships are not about to end.
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Among its fourteen superb selections, Dust Bowl Ballads offers better-recorded versions of many of the songs on the Library of Congress Recordings, without the conversation. Because of the circumstances under which it was made, the three-record set, unlike Dust Bowl Ballads, is sonically subpar. Also, Guthrie occasionally makes false starts, hits bum notes and goes out of tune in this one-take setting. Still, the substance and historical import of the Library of Congress Recordings by far outweigh its technical shortcomings. And, to emphasize a point that was made when Bruce Springsteen, U2 and Bob Dylan paid tribute to Guthrie on Folkways: A Vision Shared last year, the importance of Guthrie’s music is not exclusively historical. The lessons his songs teach are essential in a time that has its own problems with homelessness, displaced workers, bank failures and farm crises.
As usual, Woody said it best. “Wherever people ain’t free/Wherever men are fightin’ for their rights,” he sings in “Tom Joad — Part 2,” on Dust Bowl Ballads, “That’s where I’m a-gonna be.” That’s as true now, more than twenty years after Woody Guthrie’s death, as it ever was.