"On the 14th day of April of 1935/There struck the worst of dust storms that ever filled the sky."
So begins "Dust Bowl Ballads," Woody Guthrie's great song cycle, recorded (most of it, anyway) on a single day in April 1940 at RCA Victor's Camden, N.J., studio. For his efforts, Guthrie was paid $300, which he used as a down payment on a car. "This bunch of songs ain't about me," he wrote in the album's original liner notes -- but of course they were. "They are 'Oakie' songs, 'Dust Bowl' songs, 'Migratious' songs, about my folks and my relatives, about a jillion of 'em, that got hit by the drouth, the dust, the wind, the banker, and the landlord, and the police, all at the same time."
Guthrie, himself an Okie, was living in New York when his friend Alan Lomax, the folklorist, persuaded RCA to produce a 12-song, two-volume collection of the folk singer's Dust Bowl songs. The label liked the idea and arranged for Guthrie to take the train down to Camden. "I don't usually write ballads to order," Guthrie told Pete Seeger, "but Victor wants me to do a whole album of Dust Bowl songs, and they say they want one about Tom Joad in 'The Grapes of Wrath.'" Guthrie meant John Ford's movie version, not John Steinbeck's book, which had been published in 1939. (He claimed not to have read it.) Guthrie went to see the picture one evening, then he stayed up all night swigging from a jug of wine and writing "Tom Joad." Sung to the tune of "John Hardy," an outlaw ballad, he finished a trenchant, six-minute summary of Ford's movie. "Wherever little children are hungry and cry," Guthrie sings in his rough, twangy voice, paraphrasing Henry Fonda's famous lines, "Wherever people ain't free/Wherever men are fightin' for their rights/That's where I'm a-gonna be, Ma/That's where I'm a-gonna be."
The other songs are just as powerful. There's "The Great Dust Storm (Dust Storm Disaster)," the opening number, about the defining moment of the Dust Bowl, when a black wall of dust blew across the plains. It was an event Guthrie witnessed while living in Pampa, Texas. There's "Pretty Boy Floyd," about the famous bank robber, recast by Guthrie as a Depression-era Robin Hood who leaves $1,000 bills under the napkins of starving farmers. There's "Dust Bowl Blues," Guthrie's take on a Jimmie Rodgers-style country blues melody. There's "Vigilante Man," an eerie portrait of the goons who terrorized the migrant farmers searching for work. ("Tell me what is a vigilante man?/Has he got a gun and a club in his hand?/Is that a vigilante man?") There's "Do Re Mi," one of Guthrie's most famous songs, a lighthearted reality check for the poor souls dreaming of milk and honey as they headed for California, the Promised Land. On all of them, Guthrie plays guitar -- perhaps it was the one with "This Machine Kills Fascists" scrawled on it -- and harmonica. The sound is spare, the aural equivalent of Dorothea Lange's famous black-and-white photographs of poor migrant families.
"Dust Bowl Ballads" didn't cause much of a stir when it was released, though some reviews were favorable. One writer in particular, Howard Taubman of the New York Times, seemed to understand what Guthrie was trying to achieve with his music: "These albums are not a summer sedative. They make you think; they may even make you uncomfortable." But as Guthrie became more famous, so did "Dust Bowl Ballads." By the time it was reissued in 1950, it was widely considered a landmark recording. In the 1960s, it served as a musical road map for folkies like Bob Dylan and Ramblin' Jack Elliot. More recently, Bruce Springsteen fell under its powerful sway, particularly on "Nebraska" and "The Ghost of Tom Joad."
"This Land Is Your Land" may be Guthrie's most famous song, but "Dust Bowl Ballads" is his masterpiece, an American classic that deserves to be placed alongside "Huckleberry Finn," Elvis Presley's Sun sessions or, for that matter, both versions of "The Grapes of Wrath." It's that good.
Rounder Records released "Dust Bowl Ballads" as a CD in 1988, but that version has been out of print for several years. Buddha Records has brought it back. The latest reissue contains just one previously unreleased song -- an alternate version of "Talking Dust Bowl Blues" -- but the sound is far superior to Rounder's disc, so much better, in fact, that it renders that earlier CD obsolete. Buddha also had the good sense to restore Guthrie's wonderful liner notes. They were, as usual, characteristically understated and humble. "This bunch of songs are really just one song, 'cause I used the same notes," he wrote. "Just fixed 'em a little different, that's all. Same old notes as ever."