Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Top 102 Albums. No 59. Dustbowl Ballads.

Top 102 Albums. No 59. 
Dustbowl Ballads - Woody Guthrie.

Like many people I first became fully aware of Woody Guthrie through Bob Dylan. But he'd infiltrated my mind long before that! My Daddy Rides a Ship in the Sky was on a children's compilation by skiffle stalwart Wally Whyton that was one of my real first introductions to music. This was one of my favourite songs and its vision of the links that hold society together resonated to me as a little kid and still does.

"Don't be afraid when it gets dark and rains
My Dad'll bring your daddy back home again

But this vision of a society where everyone form the top to the bottom helped each other get home was not  a true vision, and Guthrie new that as well as anyone. Not everyone has a home.

"I mined in your mines and I gathered in your corn
I been working, mister, since the day I was born
Now I worry all the time like I never did before
'Cause I ain't got no home in this world anymore

Now as I look around, it's mighty plain to see
This world is such a great and a funny place to be;
Oh, the gamblin' man is rich an' the workin' man is poor,
And I ain't got no home in this world anymore."

My next meeting with him was his wonderful autobiography Bound for Glory, which I must pull down from the shelves for a reread. I then picked up some compilations which contain great songs but there is a unity to this record which makes it a satisfying album to listen to. When I finally got my hands on it I listened to it obsessively for a while. It's one of those records.

This album tells the story of the Dust Storms that destroyed millions of acres of farmland in Oklahoma, Texas and neighbouring states in the NineteenThirties, creating waves of refugees and inspiring Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, the story of which is reprised here in Tom Joad, Pt's 1 & 2.

"On the 14th day of April of 1935,
There struck the worst of dust storms that ever filled the sky.
You could see that dust storm comin', the cloud looked deathlike black,
And through our mighty nation, it left a dreadful track.

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 judgement, we thought it was our doom."

You can hear his influence on Dylan, particularly on Talkin Dust Bowl Blues,  the similarities to which are so evident in some of Dylan's early talking blues that it goes beyond influence to imitation.

The songs are specific ("14th day of April of 1935"), universal, defiant, despairing, funny, simple and sophisticated. It is heartbreaking and inspiring. Originally recorded in two days back in 1940 it remains an inspiration to generation after generation.

It will never die.

"I have weathered a-many a dust storm,
But it can't get me, boys,
And it can't kill me.

That old dust storm, well, it blowed my barn down,
But it can't blow me down,
And it can't blow me down.

That old wind might blow this world down,
But it can't blow me down,
It can't kill me.

That old dust storm's killed my baby,
But it can't kill me, Lord
And it can't kill me."


  1. I came to him via billy bragg who I also got into dylan via ,I ve not this collection but have two colllections of his works that brought cheap oh and his novel on my tbr pile ,all the best stu

    1. The great thing is no matter which end of the musical journey you start at you can still arrive at all the same destinations.

  2. Reminds me of this:
    “We shall not cease from exploration

    And the end of all our exploring

    Will be to arrive where we started

    And know the place for the first time”
    Taken from ‘Little Gidding’ by T. S. Elliot

    His voice was thin, his picking fine; one of the great social poets.
    I watched 'Grapes of Wrath' at the weekend so this has been on my mind.
    The Bragg/Wilco Mermaid Avenue Sessions are accessible and great; Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key is irresistible...

    1. One of my favourite quotes, Trevor! Haven't seen `The Grapes of Wrath' since I was a kid. Must watch again.
      Ain't nobody that can sing like him, alright.

  3. The film is beautiful to behold! Some of John Ford's finest horizons (bottom 3rd as ever) and the loveliest black and white tones now that it's been remastered. And then there is the acting, no ham in sight considering the potential for it. The Joads are a believable clan, Jim Casey heartbreaking. And Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) nails the big 'un at the end; has me sobbing every time:

    I'll be all around in the dark. I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look, wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build, I'll be there, too.

    Although the piece is stark it is fueled by optimism; shame that the film was given an upbeat ending and missed few of the novel's more potent scenes; the film is a family affair (The Joads) whilst the novel focuses on the journey as a part of the "family of man": in the novel Rose-of-Sharon ("Rosasharn") Rivers gives birth to a stillborn baby. Later she offers her milk-filled breasts to a starving man, dying in a barn. The symbolism is obvious but breathtakingly sad; too much for the censors I guess.
    Ma Joad concludes the film, saying:

    I ain't never gonna be scared no more. I was, though. For a while it looked as though we was beat. Good and beat. Looked like we didn't have nobody in the whole wide world but enemies. Like nobody was friendly no more. Made me feel kinda bad and scared too, like we was lost and nobody cared.... Rich fellas come up and they die, and their kids ain't no good and they die out, but we keep on coming. We're the people that live. They can't wipe us out, they can't lick us. We'll go on forever, Pa, cos we're the people.

    Cue a Guthrie tune...