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Music / Dust Bowl Ballads

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"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."

"Harsh voiced and nasal, his guitar hanging like a tire iron on a rusty rim, there is nothing sweet about Woody, and there is nothing sweet about the songs he sings. But there is something more important for those who will listen. There is the will of the people to endure and fight against oppression. I think we call this the American spirit."
John Steinbeck, "Hard Hitting Songs For Hard-Hit People", about Dust Bowl Ballads.

Dust Bowl Ballads is a 1940 album by Woody Guthrie which, because it was his first commercial recording, can be called his debut album. The tracks are semi-autobiographical, and a musical document about the time he spent in Oklahoma during The Great Depression, when local farmers and migrant workers were not only hit hard by economic recession, but also by severe dust storms. Guthrie describes their hardships, making the album not only a musical masterpiece but also an Unintentional Period Piece of historical value.

Because of the fact that the entire album was built around one major theme and all of the songs follow a strong narrative it is widely considered one of the oldest examples of a Concept Album, if not the oldest.note  It could also be considered a very early example of a Distinct Double Album, as it was originally released as two collections of three 78 rpm discs, although every reissue since the Folkways LP release in 1964 had easily fit every song onto one disc.

"Dust Bowl Ballads" remains to this day Guthrie's best-selling album and was a major inspiration to many Folk Music artists and socially conscious singer-song writers. Notable admirers include Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen.


Side One

  1. "The Great Dust Storm (Dust Storm Disaster)"
  2. "I Ain't Got No Home In This World Anymore"
  3. "Talking' Dust Bowl Blues"

Side Two

  1. "Vigilante Man"
  2. "Dust Can't Kill Me"
  3. "Pretty Boy Floyd" note 
  4. "Dust Pneumonia Blues"
  5. "Blowin' Down This Road"

Side Three

  1. "Tom Joad, Part 1"

Side Four

  1. "Tom Joad, Part 2"

Side Five

  1. "Dust Bowl Refugee"
  2. "Do Re Mi"
  3. "Dust Bowl Blues" note 

Side Six

  1. "Dusty Old Dust"

The CD reissue adds an alternate take of "Talkin' Dust Bowl Blues".

Dusty Tropes

  • Alliterative Title: "Dusty Old Dust"
  • Arc Words: "Dust". The word appears in so many songs that you can make a Drinking Game out of it.
  • Barefoot Poverty: The people described in the songs are dirt poor. "Blowin' Down The Road"
    You two dollar shoe hurts my feet
  • But Now I Must Go: "Dusty Old Dust"
    This dusty old dust is a-gettin' my home,
    And I got to be driftin' along.
  • Concept Album: All songs are about the same topic, Oklahoma during The Great Depression.
  • Crapsack World: America during The Great Depression wasn't a happy place, and the Dust Bowl had it especially bad.
  • Dead Partner: "Dust Bowl Blues"
    I had a gal, and she was young and sweet,
    But a dust storm buried her sixteen hundred feet
    She was a good gal, long tall and stout
    (...) I had to get a steam shovel just to dig my darlin' out
  • Deadly Dust Storm: Feature in most of the songs.
  • Department of Redundancy Department: The song "Dusty Old Dust". Not to mention the fact that half of the songs all have the word "Dust" in them.
  • Distinct Double Album: This album was brought out in a collection of six 78 rpm sides, making it actually a six sided album. Of course, when longer album formats became available it all fitted on one record.
  • The End of the World as We Know It: "Dusty Old Dust" describes how the dust storm "blocked out the traffic and blocked out the sun".
    Now the telephone rang and it jumped off the wall
    That was the preacher, a-makin' this call
    He said: "Kind friend, this may the end:
    An' you got your last chance of salvation of sin!
  • Even Evil Has Standards: "Pretty Boy Floyd" ends with the title character pointing out that even his fellow bank robbers don't drive families from their homes, unlike the Depression-era bankers he's crusading against.
  • Face on the Cover: A picture of Woody in close-up.
  • Fainting: "Dust Pneumonia Blues"
    Down in Texas, my gal fainted in the rain,
    Down in Texas, my gal fainted in the rain,
    I throwed a bucket o' dirt in her face just to bring her back again.
  • Family-Unfriendly Death: "Dust Can't Kill Me"
    That old dust storm killed my family
    But it can't kill me, Lord
    And it can't kill me.
  • Heavy Meta: "Dust Pneumonia Blues"
    Now there ought to be some yodelin' in this song
    Yeah, there ought to be some yodelin' in this song
    But I can't yodel for the rattlin' in my lung
  • Just Like Robin Hood: "Pretty Boy Floyd"
    But a many a starving farmer
    The same old story told
    How the outlaw paid their mortgage
    And saved their little homes.
    Others tell you 'bout a stranger
    That come to beg a meal,
    Underneath his napkin
    Left a thousand dollar bill.
  • List Song: "The Great Dust Storm" mentions all the locations where the dust storms struck.
  • Money Song: "Do-Re-Mi" is about how California is a great place to live if you have it, not so nice if you don't. The title plays on the slang term "dough" for money.
  • My Country Tis of Thee That I Sting: "Talking Dust Bowl Blues"
    An' my wife fixed up a tater stew
    We poured the kids full of it,
    Mighty thin stew, though,
    You could read a magazine right through it.
    Always have figured
    That if it'd been just a little bit thinner,
    Some of these here politicians
    Coulda seen through it.
  • New Sound Album: At the time no album like this was ever released before. It features socially conscious music played on an acoustic guitar about a very topical subject at the time.
  • One-Man Song: "Pretty Boy Floyd", "Vigilante Man", "Tom Joad".
  • Outlaw: Pretty Boy Floyd is described as an outlaw in the eponymous song.
  • The Pen Is Mightier: "Pretty Boy Floyd"
    As through this world you travel, you'll meet some funny men
    Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen
  • Pep-Talk Song: Despite the misery Guthrie still puts faith in people to never give up.
    • "Blowin' Down This Road"
      I'm a-goin' where the dust storms never blow,
      I'm a-goin' where them dust storms never blow,
      I'm a-goin' where them dust storms never blow, blow, blow,
      An' I ain't a-gonna be treated this way.
      (...) I'm a-lookin' for a job at honest pay,
      I'm a-lookin' for a job at honest pay,
      I'm a-lookin' for a job at honest pay, Lord, Lord,
      An' I ain't a-gonna be treated this way.
    • "Dust Can't Kill Me"
      That old wind might blow this world down
      But it can't blow me down
      It can't kill me.
  • Perpetual Poverty: A major theme.
  • Product Placement: "Talking Dust Bowl Blues"
    And I swapped my farm for a Ford machine
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Several things Guthrie describes were events he personally experienced or witnessed.
  • Shout-Out:
    • "Tom Joad" is the protagonist from the novel The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, which was made into a movie that same year by John Ford.
    • "Pretty Boy Floyd" is about a notorious bank robber from the era, who got shot by the police in 1934.
    • Bob Dylan's "Talkin' New York" from his debut Bob Dylan (1962) is closely based on "Talking Dustbowl Blues" and also references "The Ballad Of Pretty Boy Floyd".
  • Something Blues: "Talkin' Dust Bowl Blues", "Dust Bowl Blues", "Dust Pneumonia Blues".
  • A Storm Is Coming: The songs are about dusty sand storms that struck disaster in Oklahoma. "The Great Dust Storm", for instance:
    On the 14th day of April of 1935
    There struck the worst of dust storms that ever filled the sky.
    You could see that dust storm comin', the cloud looked deathlike black,
    And through our mighty nation, it left a dreadful track.
    From Oklahoma City to the Arizona line,
    Dakota and Nebraska to the lazy Rio Grande,
    It fell across our city like a curtain of black rolled down,
    We thought it was our judgement, we thought it was our doom.
  • Time Marches On: All songs refer to the era of The Great Depression.
  • Walk the Earth: "I Ain't Go No Home"
    I ain't got no home, I'm just a-roamin' 'round,
    Just a wandrin' worker, I go from town to town.
    And the police make it hard wherever I may go
    And I ain't got no home in this world anymore.