Perhaps the image most identified with Woody Guthrie is that of the Dust Bowl Refugee, one of many migrants who, like Steinbeck's Okies in The Grapes of Wrath, headed west on Route 66 when they lost their farms to the depression, drought, and dust. Woody lived with these people in Oklahoma and Texas and traveled among them many times throughout the 30's as they filled the highways west. Out of these experiences came many songs, the Dust Bowl Ballads, which are largely responsible for identifying Woody as a Dust Bowl Refugee.
Depending on the audience, this mythic Refugee has different significance and does different cultural-symbolic work. To the Okie and Arkie refugees of the thirties, this mythic Refugee was one of their own, a friend and also a hero, a spokesman for all refugees. As Woody traveled with these people in the thirties, he found that they "identified with the old songs he sang and enjoyed the words he made up, sometimes on the spot. His singing became more than entertainment; it became a link to his people." 1 In 1937, this link grew as he reached a radio audience in Los Angeles which had "absorbed over a third of the southwestern migrants between 1935 and 1940." 2 The Woody and Lefty Lou show was a great success, bringing in floods of fan mail, all showing that these refugees identified with Woody and Lefty Lou, and claimed them as their own. Woody took on a hillbilly persona, and dished out what he called his "Cornpone Philosophy". Perhaps more than this, his songs and singing style identified him as an authentic Dust Bowl Refugee.
In songs such as "Dust Bowl Refugee" and "So Long", Woody takes on the persona of the refugee, putting himself right in the middle of the dust storm or highway. Furthermore, Woody's voice, untrained and imperfect, sounds familiar, casual and comfortable, accompanied only by a guitar, sounding itself like a voice as Woody plays it, rambling through the tune. The Library of Congress recordings, full of talk as well as song, show us how Woody blended the two, blurring the boundary between talking and singing. The talking he does with Lomax has a singing quality to it, with repetition, rhyme, rhythm, and silences and changes in pitch that create tone and convey meaning. At the same time, his singing is much like talking, most obviously in his "talking blues". All of this makes for songs that seem not so much performance as a personal communication. What the radio did for FDR in his fire-side chats, Woody's style does for the stories he tells in song, and ultimately for the image of Woody as the dustiest of Dust Bowl Refugees.Talking with a singingness
--from Library of Congress Recordings
|--from The Asch Recordings|
Ironically, it was because Woody was on the radio, that this Dust Bowl Refugee was able to be a spokesman for his people who were united by a lack of employment, such as a radio show, and by an anonymity, also effaced by the celebrity of a radio show. Woody "never really experienced the despair of many of the migrants (he never had trouble singing for food or drinks, and did not need much money since he had left his family back in Texas and didn't worry about supporting them)...Even though he was often penniless, that was more the result of irresponsibility, lack of career ambition, or just plain choice (he would squander money on drinks for others before he had a chance to send money to Mary and his two children) than a lack of opportunity....his traveling was a matter of preference, not necessity." 3 In these ways, Woody was not the Dust Bowl Refugee he seemed. Yet, he had a life of his own trials, felt their trials, if he did not live them, and shared their suffering and anger. Though in a sense, Woody's life was not an entirely authentic expression of the Dust Bowl Refugee's experience, the refugees identified with him and felt that his songs were. No doubt, it is Woody's sincere identification with, and interest in these people which come across in his songs, and make them enduringly powerful works of art and advocacy.
As Woody was introduced to Communism and became more politically minded, he more fully realized the political potential of his mythic image and songs, as tools of advocacy for the worker. His image as an authentic Dust Bowl Refugee made him a representative of the migrants who identified with him, and also made him useful to the Socialist community of folklore and folk music, fathered largely by Alan Lomax (more on that in the next section). Thus, in addition to the songs themselves, the emphasis placed upon them by those who recorded Woody, especially Lomax, and the way they presented these recordings go a long way to make this particular myth of the Dust Bowl Refugee. Certainly, part of why Woody's dust bowl songs have been carried down to us is not only Woody's interest in them, but Alan Lomax's interest as well.
The Dust Bowl repertoire was useful to Lomax's interests and goals in that they identified Woody as what Lomax considered an authentic folk musician, come from among the hard-lived people as well as a socialist hero of the proletariat. (It is at this point that Lomax's and Woody's interests and goals intersect and overlap, as do the myth of the Dust Bowl Refugee and the Folk Hero of the next section). Lomax's interests come across in his Library of Congress interview wich elicits story after story and song after song from Woody about the Dust Bowl as well as proletariat heros like Pretty Boy Floyd, and the villanous "bankers". The recordings firmly establish Woody's authenticity as one of the "folk", the Dust Bowl Refugees. To Lomax, the New Yorker with an academic bent, Woody's life is something like a museum artifact, the "real thing", and if he isn't darn right reverent, its clear Lomax finds Woody's life to be pretty "cool".
Dust Bowl Ballads was the first of only a hand-full of records which were released while Woody was still making music. Lomax convinced Victor Records to record the album in 1940. Liner notes below, from a 1950 release of the record, indicate, again, how Woody's image was melded with the authenticity of the Dust Bowl experience. In a way that is almost humorous to us today who are accustomed to liner notes filled with pictures of and notes from the musicians, these record notes give a scientific explanation of the Dust Bowl, complete with the WPA Farm Security Administration photographs of the Dust Bowl which were to grace countless writings about Woody. Click on the images for larger, readable images.
The myth of the Dust Bowl Refugee is the creation site of authenticity, where Woody not only expresses but even validates the Dust Bowl experience just as it validates Woody's authenticity as one of the "folk".
Woody's travels among the Dust Bowl migrants was arguably one of the most formative experiences of his life. Yet, even before that, Woody was fashioned and fashioning himself as a Dust Bowl Refugee. A Dust Bowl Refugee is much more than someone forced off their farm during the Great Depression.
Pastures of Plenty
It's a mighty hard row that my poor hands has hoed
And my poor feet has traveled a hot dusty road
Out of your dustbowl and westward we rolled,
Lord, your desert is hot and your mountains are cold.
I work in your orchards of peaches and prunes,
And I sleep on the ground 'neath the light of your moon.
On the edge of your city you'll see us and then
We come with the dust and we go with the wind.
California, Arizona, I make all your crops,
Then it's north up to Oregon to gather your hops;
Dig beets from your ground, cut the grapes from your vine
To set on your tale your light sparkling wine.
Green Pastures of Plenty from dry desert ground,
From the Grand Coulee Dam where the waters run down;
Every state in this union us migrants has been
We'll work in your fight and we'll fight till we win.
It's always we ramble, that river and I,
All along your green valley I'll work till I die;
My land I'll defend with my life if needs be,
'Cause my Pastures of Plenty must always be free.
Woody's songs show a Dust Bowl Refugee to be a person who lives a hard life of trials. That the refugee's whole life is pervaded with trials is suggested by the naturalistic metaphors. Troubles and hard life are like the dust and the wind and the road, all forces and things outside of and much larger than the people, themselves, and over which they have no control. Their troubles come just as the Great Dust Storm of '35 did, a disaster so unexpected and massive they thought it the end of the world. And their troubles never end like the road they must walk, ever receding into the distance; the hard times are the road which is life itself.
In "Dust Can't Kill Me", the dust storm becomes a symbol for all troubles as it is equated with the landlord that took the homestead, the dry spell that killed the crop, the traitor that took the home, the highway that's got the relatives, and even the wind that blows down the world.
|"Dust Can't Kill Me"|
While Woody may not have experienced the Dust Bowl in the same way that other Refugees did, he did have a very difficult childhood full of trials which were not to subside in his adult life. In so far as the Dust Bowl Refugee seeks refuge from trials, Woody is the real thing.
Also implicit in "Dust Can't Kill Me" and other songs, is the ability to endure and to maintain hope, as Woody affirms that the troubles can't kill him at the end of the verse. The songs themselves are vehicles for hope, comfort, and camaraderie. As such, they, perhaps more than anything, make Woody a true Dust Bowl Refugee.
Finally, the Dust Bowl Refugee is a migrant, and movement, directionless and unstable movement, is the state of the Refugee's existence. In "Dust Bowl Refugee", the people ramble and roll; in "Pastures of Plenty", they come with the dust and they go with the wind. "I Ain't Got No Home In This World Anymore", an adaptation of the Baptist hymn of lamentation, "This World Is Not My Home", is what Klein calls an "anthem of homelessness". 4 And in "Ramblin' Round", Woody tells us he wishes he could get married and settle down, but he "can't save a penny" as he "goes round and around". These songs show movement to be one with loss, of one's home, farm, job, and family. In general, the metaphors of these songs equalize dust storms, hard times, movement, injustice, and life, and, to an extent, hope and endurance. Through Woody's Dust Bowl Ballads, dust storms become a metaphor, as does the Dust Bowl Refugee who is thereby lifted from any particular time period. Thus we find Pastures of Plenty, written in and about the Pacific Northwest in 1941, to be as much about the Dust Bowl Refugee as the song of that title.
As early as his childhood, Woody was showing characteristics that indicated that if he wasn't the dustiest of Dust Bowl Refugees, he was perhaps the most naturally mobile. Many of what for most people are stabilizing factors were missing from Woody's life. His family was a veritable storm itself, with the tumult of a fist-fighting father, hell-bent on success but headed for failure, and a mother so ravaged and swayed by Huntington's Disease as to become violent and irrational. Woody, himself, was somewhat of a misfit with his peers. Lacking metaphysical grounding, he became something of a self-conscious non-conformist. Appropriately, this took form in the image and behavior of rootlessness. Klein writes:
"the only real enjoyment in Nora's [Woody's mother] life now was going to the movies...Woody sat at her side as they watched the cowboy and the pirates and the sheiks. Their favorite, though, was Charlie Chaplin. They loved watching the little tramp with the ratty clothes and the wild mop of hair make fools of the snooty rich, the bullies, and the police. The tramp was far more clever than he appeared at first; he was shy and looked sort of clumsy, but actually moved with a delicate grace. His poverty beggared their vacant gentility-it almost seemed a matter of choice on his part. He played the fool, and stood apart, and saw clearly all that went on around him....Woody who was small and wore ratty clothes and had a wild mop of hair, obviously took note....He became known around town as an 'alley rat,' a loner, a scavenger who went around collecting junk in a burlap sack." 5
Rootlessness, non-conformity, dry wit, grace, poverty, and class politics all blended in the deceptive and dissembling image of the tramp, just as they would in the image of Woody Guthrie.
Klein also includes some telling descriptions of Woody through the eyes of Matt Jennings, one of Woody's earliest friends and musical collaborators. Matt and Woody, at 17, were both part of the Corncob Trio in Pampa, Texas. Klein writes:
"Matt Jennings began to notice that the way he looked at things, the very shape of the world, seemed to change when he was around Woody. It wasn't anything he could put his finger on; in fact, it barely dented his consciousness at first, but the little guy was downright...disorienting. He had no sense of perspective, or at least a different sense than normal people-especially when it came to things that Matt considered the basics of life, like time and money and planning for the future. Nor did Woody seem to care very much what people thought of his eccentricity, although-Matt soon realized-he saw everything, every nuance of each reaction was filed and catalogued. But the oddest thing about Woody was that he could become, quite literally, childlike: when he was interested in something or someone-and, sooner or later, he was interested in virtually everything in town-he would dive in like a child, entirely preoccupied, losing all sense of time and place, and his wonderment was so infectious that sometimes Matt would be swept right along with him." 6
It is interesting that Klein, or Jennings, uses spatial terms, such as disorienting, to describe Woody's personality and its effect. It's also interesting to note just how much movement pervaded Woody's life, from his many travels within and outside of the country, to the urgent fluidity of his writing in letters, prose, and the poems of his songs. At the same time, this movement was somehow coupled with his unwavering sense of hope and purpose; Woody once said that his brother was making his life, while Woody was letting his life make him; for the Dust Bowl Refugee whose nature is to wander, the boundary is blurred.
To what extent Woody really was a Dust Bowl Refugee depends entirely on how one defines it. In the Library of Congress recordings, Woody says he wasn't quite like the other people of Okemah in that his father was doing well financially at that point in their lives. In this and many other ways, Woody did not suffer hard times the way others did. Yet, his life was particularly filled with trials of the extremest kind. Did Woody leave the Dust Bowl for the same reasons as others? Did the dust really drive him away or was it just the desire to wander or irresponsibility? Does it matter? Is the Dust Bowl Refugee, the one with endurance and hope, a realistic portrayal of the 1930's migrants? How is our conception of these migrants influenced by the myth of the heroic Dust Bowl Refugee? How is it influenced by Woody's incarnation of that representative hero and the differences between Woody's experience and that of the migrants, that is, the authenticity of Woody as the Dust Bowl Refugee?