Willem Lange: The Man Who Chronicled the Dust Bowl With Biting Irony
It’s hard to believe how clueless we were back East. During the Great Depression, while we had bread lines, the CCC and occasional hobos, the Midwest was blowing away in dust storms into the Gulf of Mexico, and thousands of displaced, practically penniless Americans were making their way west toward the promised land of California. It wasn’t till the publication of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath in 1939 that many people around here began to appreciate the calamity that had denuded the prairies of their fertility and people. As a kid, I spent Sunday afternoons in the parlor listening to the old folks grumbling. I heard all about the Irish Catholic Democrats who ran Albany, and about hard times, but never about the Dust Bowl.
After supper last evening, Mother and I indulged ourselves by watching a rerun episode of Downton Abbey, in which the only ominous note was a passing mention of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (“We haven’t heard the last of that.”). I had intended to leave before Ken Burns’ new documentary, The Dust Bowl, started, but lingered and got hooked. For two hours we watched the slow, but certain decline of the prairies from shortgrass to industrial farming to sand dunes and devastation. Every time you thought it couldn’t get worse, it did.
I kept wondering when they’d bring in the most famous bard of the Dust Bowl, Woody Guthrie. Woody had been there in 1935 when a fierce “duster” chased everybody indoors. After several years of battering already, many folks thought this storm, the worst yet, was literally the end of the world. The prayin’ people were prayin’, Woody noted, and in his song So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh, described one worship service: “Preacher could not read a word of his text, an’ he folded his specs, took up collection, said, ‘So long, it’s been good to know yuh.”
That was pure Woody: wry and ironic. It’s also a hint of a development gathering strength in America: the growing disconnect between the workers and farmers of an increasingly mechanized society and the plutocrats who owned and controlled capital and the means of production. The country was suddenly awash in men without jobs, families on the move in rattletrap vehicles, and petty crime. The cops apparently couldn’t, or didn’t bother to, distinguish between hobos and tramps, or honest or crooked, and treated the dispossessed with a uniform brutishness. You can sense the reaction to that in the words of Woody’s East Texas Red (“the meanest bull around”) and Do Re Mi, in which the cops at the California state line turn migrants back unless they have the do-re-mi — the means to support themselves — while looking for advertised jobs that, it turns out, don’t exist.
By the accident of birth, both in date and location, Woody grew up right in the middle of all that ferment. Born in Okemah, Okla., east of Oklahoma City, during the 1912 presidential campaign, he was named after the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson. He was deeply affected by the death of his sister, Clara, his mother’s institutionalization for “madness” (later diagnosed as Huntington’s disease, which years later killed Woody, too), and his family’s penury. He left home as soon as he was able and took to the road with a wiry physique, a willingness to work hard for wages, a guitar and his fertile imagination.
Of these times he wrote Hard Travelin’, describing not just his experiences with temporary jobs, but those of his fellow travelers, as well. It wasn’t uncommon, if you hung about a town anywhere looking for work, to be arrested and imprisoned for vagrancy. In Woody, the authorities found the wrong man to arrest; the autocrats would have their misdeeds fed back to them in dozens of Woody’s stinging popular songs. “Damned old judge, he said to me, ‘It’s 90 days for vagrancy,’ and I been doin’ some hard travelin’, Lord.”
Woody was a great fan of Jimmie Rodgers (as am I), the so-called Singing Brakeman and Father of Country Music, whose yodeling blues lit up the radio waves in the late ’20s and early ’30s. Rodgers died of tuberculosis in 1933, but his deep-blue, slightly naughty, homeless style continued with Woody’s I Ain’t Got No Home and Goin’ Down the Road. They’re the songs of a man who’s taken a beating, is expecting more, but who’s always hopeful of a job, a woman, a home and adventure in the next town down the line. To this day, over 60 years after discovering them, I travel with Woody and Jimmie on the truck CD-player, and with Jack Kerouac under the seat.
Woody inspired the Weavers and Pete Seeger, who were blackballed — as he would have been, had he lived — during the Red-baiting ’era. But he left something priceless: a record of coping with hard times with grit, irony, perseverance and humor. I wish he were with us today.
Willem Lange’s column appears here on Wednesdays. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.