Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Revisit: Woody Guthrie - Dust Bowl Ballads

Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look. go to for more.

In these depressingly shitty economic times, where executives pay themselves and their cronies massive bonuses and then solicit the government for grotesque sums of money for their failing companies, where the lowly workaday peons that make up the bulk of America's population see their home values plummet and employment status grow ever more precarious, Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads sounds as startlingly relevant as ever. Originally released in 1940 as the Great Depression had not yet ended - it would take a war to do that - Guthrie's concept album chronicles the hardships and injustices wrought by the Depression and the Dust Bowl. Guthrie's depictions of those most affected, those migrant workers who slowly shuffled west to a California spoken about in mystical tones and would be saddled with the derogatory "Okie," are sympathetic, humorous, sobering and, ultimately, defiant and optimistic. Its music is deceptively simple, featuring little more than Guthrie's voice set against strums of the machine that he claimed killed Fascists; for better or worse, the approach utilized here and throughout much of Guthrie's catalog still influences generations of earnest folksingers. Yet under this simplicity lies one of music's most coherent, focused and endearing concept albums.

Dust Bowl Ballads marked Guthrie's first commercial recording and, even when judged against his extensive recorded output, remains his finest effort. Recorded in just two separate sessions in 1940, it's since been released in various formats. RCA Victor Records, with the type of hatchet job insight that major labels still follow today, would eventually issue 11 of these songs, with "Dust Bowl Blues" and the key "Pretty Boy Floyd" excluded because of length. A mid 1960s LP version included these two omitted tracks and offered a new running order. The currently available CD version is likely the most complete view we'll get, containing yet again a different running order as well as an alternate version of "Talking Dust Bowl Blues."

Filled with allusions to John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, a novel that would effectively shape Guthrie's worldview for much of his life, the album mixes a loose chronological narrative with the singer's experiences as he traveled around the country chronicling the effects of the Depression. Guthrie mythologizes these Dust Bowl refugees as he rails against the profiteers of migrants' labor. Certainly the common depiction of Guthrie as an intensely serious, humorless, firebrand proletariat folkie who dealt only in absolutes is at least partly attributable to Dust Bowl Ballads; it's clear who the heroes and villains are throughout the album. The album contains doses of bleakness and despair, with a righteous accusatory finger pointed at the grossly wealthy and their authoritarian abuses of power that often defined Guthrie's oeuvre. The central image of "The Great Dust Storm (Dust Storm Disaster)" is that of a family huddled in a shack as the children cry, the migrants' naïvely optimistic view of California as a "garden of Eden" is shattered amid the disillusionment of "Do Re Mi," and the dead man walking in "Dust Pneumonia Blues" isn't long for this world. The narrators of "Dust Bowl Blues" and "I Ain't Got No Home In This World Anymore" have suffered countless indignities; in the latter song the narrator describes his rootless existence and matter-of-factly mentions how he's been harassed by the cops, had his house taken from him by a rich man, and lost his wife in the dust storm. In these simple songs Guthrie paints a dark portrait of both the Dust Bowl and its affect on those hardest hit by it, as well as strictly adheres to the social awareness usually associated with folk music.

Still Dust Bowl Ballads is equally optimistic, a fact that was too frequently lost on all those earnest folksingers of the 1950s and 1960s. Perhaps this is where Steinbeck's influence on Guthrie is most apparent; the folksinger mimicked Steinbeck's sympathetic and heartfelt depiction of the Joads' uniquely American character and set it to music. The album's despair is often tempered with both humor and defiance, with Guthrie's migrants displaying an internal strength and determination to not succumb to life's hardships. Sometimes this comfort comes from tales of near-mystical heroes; in "Pretty Boy Floyd," the bank robber is transformed from a petty criminal into a Robin Hood figure who gives his loot to the poor. Other times this optimism stems from a strong sense of self-identity and pride, especially in "Blowin' Down This Road" and "Dust Bowl Refugee," where Guthrie's subjects maintain dignity in the face of poverty, hunger and unemployment. Guthrie's characters are mentally strong, at times almost unbelievably so. The subject of "Dust Can't Kill Me," whose alternately had his baby and family die in the dust storm, landlord take his home and then destroy it over with a tractor, crops rot and furniture sold off at the local pawn shop, somehow boasts of his own invulnerability at sharing a similar fate. It's an uplifting snapshot of the will to live and the album's most singular moment of defiance (or, perhaps, hubris).

If Dust Bowl Ballads can be faulted for anything, it does, like much of Guthrie's catalog, offer few shades of gray in terms of heroes and villains. Its migrant masses are all heroic and its outlaws are simply misunderstood vigilante philanthropists, while cops and unscrupulous capitalists stand firmly with their feet on the necks of these masses. Seventy years after its first release, there's a poignancy to the album that still resonates with contemporary listeners. Given the album's minimal arrangements and Guthrie's often deadpan delivery, coupled with its stark cover of a dilapidated and abandoned shack and subject matter chronicling a dark chapter in this country's history, it's tempting to view the album as mournful and exceedingly dark. Yet the album breathes with determination and defiance, with Guthrie's characters rarely succumbing to their horrible lot in life. In times like these, Guthrie's wandering Okies and their troubles don't seem so remote or irrelevant.

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