Woody Guthrie: Prophet of the Dust Bowl

Posted on July 22, 2012


2012 is the centennial of Woody Guthrie’s birth.  That scrawny little guy with a guitar is America’s iconic folk chronicler, passing down the roads of the 1930s and 1940s, singing to any crowd that would listen whatever verses were current in his mind of his thousand or so songs.  The people he most famously chronicled were the dust bowl refugees of the 1930s, victims of an economic collapse coupled with environmental disaster.

Woody wrote:

 A dust storm hit, and it hit like thunder

It dusted us over and it covered us under

Blocked out the traffic and blocked out the sun

Straight for home all the people did run (singin’)

 So long, it’s been good to know ye

So long it’s been good to know ye

So long it’s been good to know ye

This Dusty Old Dust is a-getting my home

And I’ve got to be driftin’ along

 The Dust Bowl paralleled the Great Depression, was one of its causes and a part of its trials.  Perhaps you saw the pictures of the looming dust clouds or the migrant workers living in Hoovervilles and lean-tos on the edge of town or beside the road.

Perhaps you read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or saw John Ford’s film of the book starring Henry Fonda.

Woody made the environmental refugees of the American dust bowl the subject of the first concept album, Dust Bowl Ballads, recorded in 1940 for Folkways Records.  Many of the people he sang about were former farmers, as might be gathered from Steinbeck’s book for instance, but they were town and middle-class folk as well, people whose fortunes had collapsed along with the farmers when the dust storms came and blew away all the soil.  You didn’t have to be a farmer to be a dust bowl refugee.

Heat and drought triggered the Dust Bowl, but ultimately it was careless environment practices and ignorant and outdated farming techniques which allowed it to happen.  These practices and techniques have largely changed, and the demographics aren’t the same either.  Because North America is no longer as rural a society as it once was, because science is much better able to anticipate and cope with the conditions which laid us low in the 1930s, it would require a climate much worse than that experienced in the 1930s to bring back dust bowl conditions again.  Unfortunately, if we continue with our current and lethal reliance on fossil fuels, those much worse conditions are practically guaranteed.

I’m not, by the way, talking about what is happening now, or what happened last year in Texas.  Last year, Texas experienced the warmest summer ever recorded by any US state, fought huge wildfires and suffered more than $7 billion in agricultural losses.  This year, with ongoing drought, after the record-setting wildfires in Colorado, the big news is the endangered corn and soybean crops involving many states and with echo effects already being felt in the cattle industry, for instance, which depends heavily on the corn crop, and with skyrocketing corn and soy prices on the stock market.

1297 counties in 29 states have been declared federal disaster areas because of this year’s drought.  Temperature records have fallen or been equaled this summer which have stood since the time of the Dust Bowl.  More will likely fall as the summer proceeds.

Some of this is purely local, but what is happening in the US is also clearly part of a global trend.  The Earth has just seen the warmest 12 months in the modern temperature record.  If El Niño develops later this year—and the experts are predicting that it will—then 2013 will almost certainly bring us a record-setting year for global temperatures.


None of this promises a dust bowl.  Extreme as the climate has been, it will take repeated bouts of similar conditions over an extended period of time to actually threaten a new dust bowl.

The hot weather we are experiencing now is only a taste, and it will get worse.  But it is still possible to prevent a full-blown dust bowl from enveloping the American mid-west if humanity cuts back its fossil fuel use drastically in the coming decades.  If we don’t, however, then the dust bowl of 2050, unlike the dust bowl of the 1930s, won’t be going away.  It will not be solvable by adapting to new agricultural techniques.  It will come and it will stay, and, as before, it’s the people who will have to leave, because large parts of the landscape will no longer support the populations who now live there.

See http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/05/24/478771/my-nature-piece-dust-bowlification-grave-threat-it-poses-to-food-security/

Will the generation born now at the centennial of Woody Guthrie’s birth—our own children, our own grandchildren—find their homes blown away with the heat and dust like those of Woody’s generation?  In 2050, when another self-inflicted dust bowl moves in permanently, will Woody’s words sound like a prophecy to another generation of homeless?

Well, I’m stranded on this road that flows from sea to sea

A hundred thousand others are stranded here with me

A hundred thousand others, there’ll be a hundred thousand more

I ain’t got no home in this world anymore

It is only a prophecy if we, living in this generation, allow it to be.