“Harsh voiced and nasal, his guitar hanging like a tire iron on a rusty rim, there is nothing sweet about Woody, and there is nothing sweet about the songs he sings. But there is something more important for those who will listen. There is the will of the people to endure and fight against oppression. I think we call this the American spirit.” John Steinbeck on Woody Guthrie
A particularly poignant image from Dorothea Lange:
[Photo: Shorpy/Dorothea Lange for the Resettlement Administration]
August 1936. “Example of self-resettlement in California. Oklahoma farm family on highway between Blythe and Indio. Forced by the drought of 1936 to abandon their farm, they set out with their children to drive to California. Picking cotton in Arizona for a day or two at a time gave them enough for food and gas to continue. On this day they were within a day’s travel of their destination, Bakersfield. Their car had broken down en route and was abandoned.”
As it’s Music Monday, and I haven’t honoured it for a while, here’s some songs. The road in the picture must be Route 466, the road that leaves the iconic Route 66 at Kingman, Arizona, ran through Bakersfield on to the California coast. These were the routes that carried thousands of migrants westward from the ecological and economic disaster of the Dust Bowl: half a million Americans made homeless, 15% of Oklahoma’s population moving to California.
Here’s Woody Guthrie and “Dust Cain’t Kill Me”, from his Dust Bowel Ballads, which Steinbeck was describing in the quote at the start of this post.
And here is Red Kilby doing “Bakersfield Sound”, explaining and celebrating the amazing musical culture created by the dustbowl migrants and their children in the interior of California. That’s the great Ralph Mooney on steel guitar; he passed away last year: incredibly influential in country music, but little known outside it.
Here’s a young ex-con Merle Haggard singing “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive” (“Down every road, there’s always one more city/I’m on the run, the highway is my home“) on the Buck Owens Ranch Show. Owens was the king of the Bakersfield sound.
And finally, here’s Merle again, with his Okie anthem, “Okie from Muskogee“, with Willie Nelson, in a lovely self-parodic mode: