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In good ways and bad, one name has defined Oklahomans for most of our history. Follow this controversial word as it transforms from a Dust Bowl slur to a twenty-first century badge of honor.
By Brian Ted Jones
Published January/February 2016
Oklahoma was a little more than twenty years old when the Dust Bowl began. If a man was nineteen at statehood, he’d have been about forty-three in the summer of 1931, when a nearly ten-year drought settled over the Great Plains. That man might have been around the same age as the farmers in the first chapter of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.
“To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth,” Steinbeck writes in the novel’s first lines.
The farmers stand outside their houses and stare at the dying country.
“The women came out of the houses to stand beside their men—to feel whether this time the men would break,” Steinbeck writes.
There’s an entire history in that line—“whether this time the men would break.”
This time. The early Oklahomans could remember a time before, a prior apocalypse. For most of them, these were the stories of their arrival in the state: Indians physically driven here by the United States Army; African Americans driven here by the regime of murder and terrorism that prevailed in the South after Emancipation; Southerners driven here in the devastated aftermath of the Civil War. The Dust Bowl—made worse by the indifference of banks that had prospered off Oklahoma settlement for decades—was just one more in a long line of catastrophes, and in Steinbeck’s parlance, Okie took on the power of a stigma. Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl, it was said, were coming west to take jobs and resources away from hard-working Californians.
“Okie use’ ta mean you was from Oklahoma,” Steinbeck writes. “Now . . . Okie means you’re scum. Don’t mean nothing itself, it’s the way you say it.”
It was through the lens of this cataclysm that Woody Guthrie found his voice in the world. After leaving his hometown of Okemah in 1931, he settled in the Texas Panhandle community of Pampa, where he married Mary Jennings and supported his family any way he could. This often meant playing guitar and singing in saloons, at concerts, and on radio shows.
Woody moved his family to California in 1937, where he got a job singing traditional songs over the airwaves at Los Angeles radio station KFVD. He became a star among migrant workers who’d fled the Dust Bowl and resettled in California. The songs Woody sang reminded the refugees of the life they’d left behind.
Woody also was an early pioneer of modern talk radio. He used his broadcasts to condemn public corruption and the exploitation of working people and to praise union organizers and even the outlaw Pretty Boy Floyd, who, according to legend, destroyed mortgage documents every time he robbed a bank and spread the loot once he had it.
But Woody wasn’t content to remain in California, so he moved to New York City in 1940. There, he fell in with political activists and folk singers like Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, and Watonga native Sis Cunningham. That year, he recorded the album Dust Bowl Ballads.
Dust Bowl Ballads is an epic poem about the people of the Great Plains who were driven west by ecological disaster. Woody released the album in the summer of 1940, when he was not quite thirty. Like many Oklahomans uprooted by the Great Depression, he’d spent much of the previous decade wandering. The songs are a cry of solidarity from the singer to the people he’s singing about.
There’s a narrative unity to the songs on Dust Bowl Ballads. In “The Great Dust Storm,” also known as “Dust Storm Disaster,” Woody sings, “Our relatives were huddled into their oil boom shacks / And the children they was cryin’ as it whistled through the cracks.” In “Dust Bowl Blues,” he sings in the voice of man whose farm has “turned into a pile of sand” and who sets out with little more than a bottle. This man had a gal “young and sweet / but a dust storm buried her sixteen hundred feet.”
In “Dust Bowl Refugee,” Woody takes a longer view, imagining the Okies’ struggle as a regular feature of history: “Hard, it’s always been that way / Here today and on our way / Down that mountain, ’cross the desert / Just a Dust Bowl refugee.”
In language inspired by The Grapes of Wrath, which had been released the previous year, Woody echoes this universality in the song “Tom Joad”: “Ever’body might be just one big soul / Well it looks that a-way to me / Everywhere that you look, in the day or night / That’s where I’m a-gonna be, Ma / That’s where I’m a-gonna be.”
In Steinbeck’s version of the scene, Tom Joad imagines this idea in the context of a never-ending struggle for basic human dignity.
“Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat,” Joad says, “I’ll be there.”