1940 Headlines … Great Depression continues … World War II: Germany occupies France, but is repelled by U.K.; tensions rise between Germany and neutral U.S. … First McDonald’s restaurant is founded
“Fixin’ to Die Blues” (Vocalion 05588, 1940)
“Fixin’ to Die Blues” may be Bukka White’s best recording, a powerful, chilling blues that tells the story of a man facing imminent death. White sings in a repetitive style that invokes Memphis gospel, but the rapid tempo and quivering delivery imbue the song with desperation instead of hope, as do the stark lyrics: “Just as sure we live, sure we born to die / I know I was born to die, but I hate to leave my children crying.”
~ You may also like: Bukka White, “Parchman Farm Blues” (Okeh 05683, 1940)
“Talking Dust Bowl Blues” (Victor 26619, 1940; Dust Bowl Ballads, Volume 1, Victor P-27, 1940)
“Dusty Old Dust (So Long It’s Been Good to Know Yuh)” (Victor 26622, 1940; Dust Bowl Ballads, Volume 2, Victor P-28, 1940)
Before Woody Guthrie, folk music mostly concerned itself with universal themes or the recounting of old stories or historical events. Considering that the music was used as a means of oral history by poor, rural and often illiterate communities, that is not surprising. With the advent of recorded music and the increasing literacy and urbanization of the nation, Guthrie saw the potential of this simple, straight-forward music to speak to a wider audience and tell more personal, more immediate stories. His voice wasn’t polished, but it was steady and his slow, Oklahoma drawl added credence to his everyman tales. His writing was superb – from his witty, personable lyrics to his knack for simple, catchy melodies. Guthrie’s own career was cut short by Huntington’s disease; he stopped recording in 1956 and finally succumbed to the illness in 1967 at the age of 55. But his legacy looms large and he has been an influence on every folk singer since.
Guthrie used his music to draw attention to issues of importance to him. In 1940, that issue was the plight of farmers affected by the Dust Bowl disaster that had devastated crops throughout the Great Plains. Guthrie recorded 15 songs for Victor, 12 of which were released both as singles and as part of two collected “albums” of three records (six songs) each: Dust Bowl Ballads, Volume 1 and Volume 2.
One of the best tracks is “Talking Dust Bowl Blues” from Volume 1. Guthrie delivers a casual, spoken monologue, brilliantly matching his timing to the guitar accompaniment to make it simultaneously rhythmic and conversational. The performance works on so many levels. The lyrics tell a truly engaging and sympathetic story of man whose farm fails and is forced to “swap [his] farm for a Ford machine” and head to California in search of a better life for his family. And yet the story is far from morose. Guthrie’s charm and wit give the song balance and even allow for some humor to come through, adding warmth to the situation without ever losing sight of the underlying desperation. At the end, he gets in a subtle dig; while talking about how little he and his family have to eat, the narrator says of his supper: “Mighty thin stew, though / You could read a magazine right through it / I always have figured that if it had been just a little bit thinner / Some of these here politicians could have seen through it.”
~ You may also like: Woody Guthrie, “Do Re Mi” (Victor 26620, 1940; Dust Bowl Ballads, Volume 1, Victor P-27, 1940)
Another great recording from Dust Bowl Ballads is “Dusty Old Dust” from Volume 2. A more traditional, straightforward song, it simply and directly recounts how the dust storms “Dusted us over and covered us under.” The song’s chorus, “So long, it’s been good to know you,” carries a dual meaning as people both fled from the dust storms and saw them as the end of the world.
~ You may also like: Woody Guthrie, “I An’t Got No Home in This World Anymore” (Victor 26624, 1940; Dust Bowl Ballads, Volume 2, Victor P-28, 1940)