“it helped define all the folk music that followed it” – William Ruhlmann, All Music Guide
Album Tracks: **
The Great Dust Storm (Dust Storm Disaster)
Talking Dust Bowl Blues
Pretty Boy Floyd *
Dusty Old Dusty (So Long It’s Been Good to Know Yuh)
Dust Bowl Blues *
Blowin’ Down the Road (I Ain’t Going to Be Treated This Way)
Tom Joad, Pt. 1
Tom Joad, Pt. 2
Do Re Mi
Dust Bowl Refugee
Dust Cain’t Kill Me
Dust Pneumonia Blues
Talking Dust Bowl Blues [alternate version] **
* 1964 reissue
** 2000 reissue
“RCA Victor Records, the only major label for which Guthrie ever recorded, issued two three-disc 78 rpm albums, Dust Bowl Ballads, Vol. 1 and Dust Bowl Ballads, Vol. 2, in July 1940, containing a total of 11 songs. (Tom Joad was spread across two sides of a 78 due to its length)” (Ruhlmann 2).
“Twenty-four years later, with the folk revival at its height, RCA reissued the material on a single 12” LP in a new sequence and with two previously unreleased tracks, Pretty Boy Floyd and Dust Bowl Blues, added” (Ruhlmann 2).
“Thirty-six years on, the Buddha reissue division of BMG, which owns RCA, shuffles the running order again and adds another track, this one an alternate take of Talking Dust Bowl Blues” (Ruhlmann 2).
Dust Bowl Ballads
“When 27-year-old Woody Guthrie appeared in New York City in the winter of 1940, he struck observers as a living, breathing embodiment of the characters John Steinbeck had written about in his best-selling novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939), which had just been turned into a motion picture. Hailing from Oklahoma, Guthrie had a detailed knowledge of the Dust Bowl conditions that had led to an exodus of Okies west to California, where they became migrant workers in often onerous conditions, and he used that knowledge to create songs with the tunefulness of Jimmie Rodgers and the wry wit of Will Rogers. Victor Records, looking for an answer to rival Columbia’s folk singer Burl Ives, signed Guthrie and put him in a recording studio, resulting in two simultaneously released three-disc albums of 78s” (Ruhlmann 1) known at the time as Dust Bowl Ballads, Vol. 1 and Dust Bowl Ballads, Vol. 2. Collectively the two volumes “constitute a consistent concept album that roughly follows the outlines of…The Grapes of Wrath” (Ruhlmann 2).
“The story begins, as The Great Dust Storm (Dust Storm Disaster) has it, ‘On the fourteenth day of April of 1935,’ when a giant dust storm hits the Great Plains, transforming the landscape. Shortly after, the farmers pack up their families and head west, where they have been promised there is work aplenty picking fruit in the lush valleys of California. The trip is eventful, as Talkin’ Dust Bowl Blues humorously shows” (Ruhlmann 2), “though his comic observations did nothing to hide the circumstances as he spoke in the first person of an Okie taking his family to California” (Ruhlmann 1).
“Blowin’ Down This Road was more direct, with its defiant tag line, ‘I ain’t a-gonna be treated this-a-way’” (Ruhlmann 1). Meanwhile, Do Re Mi “ counseled that the promises about California were false and that, as dispossessed and desperate as they might be, the Okies were better advised to stay home unless they were ready to establish themselves immediately in the West, unless they had ‘the do re mi,’ (i.e., money)” (Ruhlmann 1).
“Guthrie’s songs go back and forth across this tale of woe” (Ruhlmann 2), sometimes focusing “on human villains, with deputy sheriffs and vigilantes providing particular trouble” (Ruhlmann 2), and sometimes “on the horrors of the dust storm” (Ruhlmann 2), such as on Dust Cain’t Kill Me, which finds “the singer admitting it could kill his family, for instance, but nevertheless asserting that it wouldn’t kill him” (Ruhlmann 1).
“In Pretty Boy Floyd, he treats an ancillary subject, as the famous outlaw is valorized as a misunderstood Robin Hood. Guthrie treats his subject alternately with dry wit and defiance, and listeners in 1940 would have been conscious of the deliberate contrast with Jimmie Rodgers, whose music is evoked even as he is being mocked in Dust Pneumonia Blues” (Ruhlmann 2).
“In case the connection to The Grapes of Wrath was not clear enough, Guthrie concluded the [original] album with the two parts of Tom Joad, which was nothing less than a musical retelling of…the novel” (Ruhlmann 1).
“Guthrie played acoustic guitar rhythmically and efficiently, occasionally also blowing on a harmonica to accompany his singing, which was full of rural diction and country twang, but still got his points across clearly. Victor got more than it bargained for in signing Guthrie. He was far more serious, and far more accomplished, than a light entertainer like Ives. The whole panoply of a national disaster was set out in his music, expressed with both humor and conviction” (Ruhlmann 1), all the while “croaking, cackling and pounding his guitar” (Blender). As folk singer Pete Seeger said, these were “‘hard-hitting songs for hard-hit people’” (Blender).
“Sixty years later, listeners may hear these songs through the music Guthrie influenced” (Ruhlmann 2); “he was Bob Dylan’s principal inspiration” (Blender). “Either way, this is powerful music, rendered simply and directly. It was devastatingly effective when first released, and it helped define all the folk music that followed it” (Ruhlmann 2).
Blender Magazine’s 100 Greatest American Albums (10/08)