So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh…

April 14, 1935.

A cold front moving down from Canada clashed with a warm front moving up over the Dakotas. In a matter of hours, the temperature dropped thirty degrees and the wind whipped into a frenzy, throwing up dust and debris from a land aching for rain. The cloud grew into a storm hundred of miles wide and thousands of miles tall, wreaking havoc from Colorado to Texas and generating enough static electricity to power New York City for an entire day. In a time period marked by ferocious dusters, this one stood alone, blocking out the sun for hours and convincing some it was the end of the world.

In Pampa, Texas, huddled around a single lightbulb as the monster raged just outside the walls, a twenty-two year old folk singer named Woody Guthrie began to hum, the first line of a song forming inside his mind:

So long, it’s been good to know yuh…

Guthrie was born on July 14, 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma, the son of tough but musically-inclined parents. His childhood was shaped by the discovery of oil in Okemah in 1920, the subsequent boom–and later, bust–of his hometown leading to his eventual exodus to the Texas Panhandle, where he met and married Mary Jennings in 1933. It was during this time that Guthrie first tried his hand at a musical career, forming The Corn Cob Trio and, later, the Pampa Junior Chamber of Commerce Band. He was talented, and the future looked promising.

But then the dust storms started.

The drought and depression put an end to Guthrie’s musical aspirations for the time being, as day-to-day survival quickly became a very real priority. Desperate for a way to support his family, which now included three young children, Guthrie hit the road, hitchhiking and hopping trains, taking small jobs wherever he could and sending the money back to Pampa, where his wife and his children remained. In addition to playing guitar, he painted signs and worked a root beer stand (which also sold illicit corn whiskey) on his way to California, the great mecca for dust bowl refugees looking for work. There he found a job at KFVD in Los Angeles, singing songs that resonated with the thousands of “Okies” scattered in makeshift communities throughout the California hills and garnering enough attention that he was soon invited to New York to record a few of his songs, a collection entitled Dust Bowl Ballads. Tracks included ‘Dust Pneumonia Blues’ and ‘I Ain’t Got No Home in This World No More,’ as well as the song Guthrie had penned while huddled against the wrath of the Black Sunday storm:

I’ve sung this song, but I’ll sing it again
Of the place that I lived on the wild windy plains
In the month called April, county called Gray
And here’s what all of the people there say:

(Chorus)
So long, it’s been good to know yuh;
So long, it’s been good to know yuh;
So long, it’s been good to know yuh
This dusty old dust is a-gettin’ my home
And I got to be driftin’ along

A dust storm hit, an’ it hit like thunder;
It dusted us over, an’ it covered us under;
Blocked out the traffic an’ blocked out the sun
Straight for home all the people did run
Singin’:

(Chorus)

We talked of the end of the world, and then
We’d sing a song an’ then sing it again
We’d sit for an hour an’ not say a word
And then these words would be heard:

(Chorus)

 

Guthrie’s music brought a sense of humanity and present-ness to a crisis many had viewed as someone else’s problem. By the time his album was released, the worst of the drought and dusters had passed, but the memory and ill-effects still remained. The songs, while autobiographical, did not shy away from social activism. Guthrie had experienced firsthand not only the horrors of the Dust Bowl, but also the prejudice and scorn towards so-called “Okies” fleeing the drought. His songs gave voice to those who, like himself, had faced injustice from their fellow man on top of the physical hardship inflicted by the ground at their feet. Take, for example, the lyrics to another track, ‘Do-Re-Mi’:

Lots of folks back East, they say, is leavin’ home every day
Beatin’ the hot old dusty way to the California line
‘Cross the desert sands they roll, gettin’ out of that old dust bowl
They think they’re goin’ to a sugar bowl, but here’s what they find
Now, the police at the port of entry say
“You’re number fourteen thousand for today”

Oh, if you ain’t got the do re mi, folks, you ain’t got the do re mi
Why, you better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee
California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see
But believe it or not, you won’t find it so hot
If you ain’t got the do re mi

You want to buy you a home or a farm, that can’t deal nobody harm
Or take your vacation by the mountains or sea
Don’t swap your old cow for a car, you better stay right where you are
Better take this little tip from me
Cause I look through the want ads every day
But the headlines on the papers always say

If you ain’t got the do re mi, boys, you ain’t got the do re mi
Why, you better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee
California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see
But believe it or not, you won’t find it so hot
If you ain’t got the do re mi

 

Guthrie went on to write hundreds of songs and become a powerful force in the use of music for political and social change. Perhaps his most famous song, “This Land is Your Land,” was added to the National Recording Registry in 2002. However, Dust Bowl Ballads remains the most successful of his albums. A generation later, his gentle strumming and haunting melodies still capture the hopelessness of an era we cannot forget, bringing human emotion and dignity to stories that might otherwise by relegated to dusty photographs.

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