day in the 1930s in Pampa,
Texas, when it looked like the world was about to end, Woody Guthrie
wrote a song about it. The world didn't end, so Woody moved to California
and kept writing songs.
The end of the world, as Guthrie perceived it that day, came in the
form of one of the worst dust storms in American history. The storm
had its origins in the Dakotas where a high-pressure system was challenged
by a hard-charging cold front from Yukon country. The wind howled
like a hammer and picked up tons of Dakota dirt and propelled it southward,
where many more tons of dirt, exposed by the plow to the wind, was
carried south, toward Oklahoma and Texas.
The day the storm hit Texas started off like a picture from one of
the newspaper and magazine advertisements for the region that drew
many people to the plains in the first place, back when the rains
came and the grass grew and stitched the land together, before it
was all plowed up. On that beautiful spring morning, April 14, 1935,
people who had endured so much might have thought the worst was over.
They were wrong; the worst was on its way.
The plains, from the Texas
Panhandle to the Canadian border, had been blasted by wind and
dirt for five years at this point, and most people who had settled
the region during wetter years were gone now to California and other
climes judged to be friendlier than the wind and dust-ravaged Great
Plains. Collectively, the hard-scrabble Dust Bowl refugees were referred
to as Okies and were immortalized in John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath."
And in Woody Guthrie's music.
Guthrie had moved with his father to Pampa
from Oklahoma six years prior to the storm, after his mother was institutionalized.
Woody dropped out of Pampa High School but he was a voracious reader
of everything from the classics to philosophy. An uncle taught him
how to play guitar while he worked at Harris Drug Store in Pampa
as a soda jerk. From time-to-time Woody started making up tunes to
go with his poetry. Some of the tunes were pretty good. They lyrics
weren't bad either.
|On an April day
that started off so bright and turned so dark so suddenly, Woody Guthrie
and some friends huddled in a room around a single light bulb with
only faint wisps of light penetrating the dust. It was, Guthrie thought,
like the Red Sea closing in on the Israelites.
"This is it," one of the people in the room with Guthrie said. "The
end of the world."
Of all the storms that blasted the plains in the 1930s, the one that
swept down from the Dakotas that day was the worst of them all. More
than 300,000 tons of topsoil formed a rolling cloud of dust that turned
night into day, turned an idyllic Sunday morning in April into something
that made even these hard veterans of the storms think the end of
the world had indeed arrived. News accounts of the storm gave the
time and place its enduring name: the Dust Bowl.
As the dusty, choking darkness of what came to be called Black Sunday
rolled through Pampa,
Guthrie started humming a tune about leaving these hard times behind.
"Dusty Old Dust (So Long, It's Been Good to Know Yuh)" came from that
storm. It's one of Woody Guthrie's best-known songs, perhaps second
only to "This Land is Your Land."
The song was prophetic. Woody soon joined that line of refugees escaping
the plains with little more than the clothes they wore and lungs full
of dust. He did some hard traveling and wrote songs by the thousands,
eventually earning a recording contract and a large measure of commercial
success. But he never forgot that he had been of those Dust Bowl refugees,
and the experience figured one way or another into many of his best-known
Others have told and written about the Dust Bowl over the years, but
Woody Guthrie gave it a soundtrack.