Monday, February 16, 2009

Dust Bowl Daddy - A My Town Monday Post

Times are hard for lots of folks right now. Yet they were harder still for those trying to get along back in the 30's. However, for one Texas Panhandle boom town, the Great Depression was of little consequence .

Gushing with money from the oil and gas reserves below ground, Pampa, Texas barely noticed the bust. The same cannot be said about the dust.


Wind erosion and drought decimated the southern plains and deepened the depression in those areas that relied solely on agriculture to get by, but boom towns like Pampa thrived and swelled as hungry, desperate people poured in from surrounding states.

One such person was a fellow named Charles who was forced to leave his family behind in the town of Okemah, Oklahoma. Charles eventually settled in Pampa and sent for his family, including his oldest son Woodrow who was named after President Woodrow Wilson.

Woodrow was a young man of 19 when he arrived in Pampa, Texas, but despite his dad's efforts, his heart wasn't in oil field work. He preferred to while away his time with a harmonica, but did manage to save enough money doing the occasional job to eventually buy a guitar.

Woodrow fell in love with a girl named Mary, the younger sister of a fellow musician and in 1933 they were married. Along with his brother-in-law and another man, Woodrow formed a musical group called The Corncob Trio. Later they added more members and changed their name to the Pampa Junior Chamber of Commerce Band.

But as the depression worsened and the the dust storms became more frequent, Woodrow struggled to support his growing family.

In 1937, he took to the road. Like his dad a few years earlier, Woodrow was forced to leave behind his wife and kids. They stayed in Pampa.

Traveling along Route 66 with other dust bowl refugees, Woodrow took whatever odd jobs he could find. He hitchhiked, hopped freight trains and walked until he reached California. Never without his guitar, he often played and wrote songs in saloons and in appreciation for a place to sleep at night.

In California, he faced anger and scorn from those who opposed the influx of "Okie" outsiders, but eventually he landed a job playing old time traditional songs at a Los Angeles radio station. Woodrow was an instant hit among the thousands of dust bowl refugees living in cardboard cities as the sound of his voice reminded them of home.

As his audience grew, he began to intersperse political commentary into his program. Soon his criticism of corrupt politicians and business men began to come out his his songs. As did his passionate support of the union organizers for migrant farm workers and other humanist principles.

But Woodrow wasn't the type to hang out in one place. He was the kind of man that had to keep moving so he decided to try his luck in New York City. He arrived in the Big Apple in 1940 and that same year John Steinbeck won the Pulitzer for The Grapes of Wrath. Here was Woodrow, the spitting image of a Steinbeck character in real life. Woodrow was quickly embraced for his musical authenticity, especially by those in the leftist movement. His popularity grew and finally he had the financial means to send for his family who were still living back in the Texas Panhandle town of Pampa, Texas.

It was also during this time that Woodrow, better known as Woody Guthrie, wrote his most famous song ...



There is much more to Woody's life than I am able to include in this post, but I wanted to highlight Woody's connection to the Texas Panhandle and how his early life shaped the creation of that song that every American has sung at one point or another, and was sung by Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen at Barack Obama's recent inauguration.

Knowing the history of his life, I can almost picture him plodding along dusty Route 66. A guitar is slung over his back, his thumb is in the air, the soles of his shoes are tattered and flapping to the steady rhythm of his stride ... and deep in his brain, the words of this land are taking seed.



Please check back for more My Town Monday links

Mary Nix -- Olmsted Falls, Ohio
Debra -- Village of Peninsula, Ohio
Patti Abbott -- Detroit, Michigan
Jenn Jilks -- Gravenhurst, Ontario, Canada
Chris -- Hong Kong, China
Barrie Summy -- San Diego, California
Lyzzydee -- Stanley County Durham, England
Linda McLaughlin -- Anaheim, California
Reb -- Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Kyles -- Orara River Australia
Clare2E -- Larchmont, New York
Lauren -- Chicago, Illinois
PreTzel -- Iowa
Barbara Martin -- Toronto, Canada
Passage of a Woman -- Kingston, Tennessee
Britta Coleman -- Fort Worth, Texas
Paul Brazill -- Hartlepool, England
Clair Dickson -- Livingston County, Michigan

49 comments:

preTzel said...

Very interesting. I remember watching a special on The Weather Channel about that dust bowl. The strangest part was the thriving of the jackrabbits and the killing of thousands.

Sarah Laurenson said...

Awesome post. I kept trying to figure out who he was as I was readng with no luck. Well written.

Patti said...

ugh...when i see pics of the dust storms, i thank god he saw fit to exclude me from those days. he put me in texas after air conditioning and filters were common...

debra said...

My post is up,Travis. As always, I'll be back to read :-)

Being Beth said...

This was SO interesting -- I too didn't have a clue who you wrote about -- but that song has been one of my favorites ever since my fifth grade chorus sang it way back in the mid 1960's. Something about it kind of fills me up, and it comes to mind every time I go on a road trip and see that ribbon of highway.

Thanks for sharing the history behind the song.

writtenwyrdd said...

I knew who it was, but I didn't know the facts of his life. He is still a folk music legend.

Glad you got a new house under contract, Travis.

Linda McLaughlin said...

That's a beautiful post, Travis. I enjoyed it a lot.

Linda, who _may_ have a MTM post late today or tomorrow.

debra said...

It is interesting that we both wrote about this time period, Travis. I think that folks can relate to those days these days...

Gary Corby said...

Fascinating stuff. I had no idea that's who Woody Guthrie was.

pattinase (abbott) said...

This seems a little too relevant. I have one tonight.

Jenn Jilks said...

You had me, Travis. I didn't recognize Woody as Woodrow! Clever piece. He is a favourite of mine! My post is up: MTM: Gravenhurst.

Sepiru Chris said...

Travis,
Excellent post about Woody.

My post, sort of on robbery and Hong Kong castles, is up here:

http://e-cuneiform.blogspot.com/2009/02/portcullis-and-other-modern.html

Tschuessm,
Chris

David Cranmer said...

Great post and photos and Woody's music is still so poignant.

Barrie said...

Fascinating, fascinating, fascinating! I loved this post. Oh yeah, and mine is up!

Linda McLaughlin said...

Hi Travis. I've done a MTM post on Anaheim getting geothermal energy that'll go live at midnight. Linda

Mary said...

Fascinating post, Travis.

Crystal Phares said...

Great post Travis!

Barbara Martin said...

Now I know. The depression was bad in Canada too, but my mother who lived on a farm, said they always had something to eat while others often went hungry.

My MTM post will be up in the morning as I'm still deciding which of the 49 photos needs to go in.

DrillerAA said...

His son, Arlo, looked very much like Woody as a young man. Interesting fact that Woody was not a particularly great vocalist. In fact, he was a little monotone.
Arlo was a better singer than his dad.
If this link works, it will take you to a duet with Arlo and Emmy Lou Harris. http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x13sel_arlo-guthrie-emmylou-harris-deporte_events

Reb said...

As soon as you mentioned guitar, I guessed Guthrie, but, it really was a guess. I had no idea he was that old, or from Texas. Great post, scary wonderful photos.

Mine is up and now is really boring.

the walking man said...

A good thing, for America, he didn't like oil field work.

lyzzydee said...

Hi Travis, I had no idea that dust storms were so destructive (sounds a bit daft to say that now) But as someone said on my post, the old days ain't all they are cracked up to be!!

Chris Eldin said...

Wow--I will definitely have to come back to read this.

One of the most depressing books I ever read was a children's book called "Out of hte Dust." *shivers* It was maudlin.

Anyway, there's a shout out for you on the Book Roast.
:-)

www.bookroast.blogspot.com

kyles said...

Fabulous post Travis, I like the evocative way you write, gives us readers a real sense of time and place, mine is kinda minimalist in contrast, but hopefully others will enjoy reading of the land down under :)

kyles
http://itwasalwayssimple.blogspot.com/

Chick said...

Great post...I've seen his son, Arlo play live many times & it always makes me feel like I lived through the peace love times of the 60's.

What I love most about his shows...besides all the great music is that there's always a charitable aspect to the show...always.

Clare2e said...

Cool Post. Unpleasantness is up at Women of Mystery from my home town in Larchmont.

Lauren said...

Interesting. I love that song. Nice to have some background on it.

Also, I've got a MTM post on Chicago's urban art piece The Cloud Gate.

your other wife said...

Very interesting Thanks

preTzel said...

Travis, I have put my MTM post. :)

Passage of a Woman said...

Wonderful post. I didn't make the connection until the you revealed Woodrow. I love connecting people with their history.

My MTM post it us, a penmanship lesson in Kingston.

http://passageofawoman.blogspot.com/

Britta Coleman said...

Kern says he drank a beer in the tavern underneath the apartment where Woody Guthrie lived in Oklahoma. A fine tribute, I think.

My post isn't an official My Town--it's about 5 Things I did this Weekend. (In Fort Worth. Does that count?)

Glad to catch up with you via the blogosphere, and my prayers in house hunting.

Paul Brazill said...

Hi travis. I did a post about the possible new Hartlepool mayor.

Charles Gramlich said...

I grew up after the dust bowl but even as a youngster I can remember seeing the sky all reddish hazed from dust blown in from farming country well away from us.

Mr. Shife said...

Always learn something interesting when I stop by here Travis. Thanks for that and hope all is going well for you and the family.

ande said...

Beleive it or not I grew up in Pampa. My 5 year old daughter's music class recenlty did a unit on Woody and she bops around singing his tunes. It's cute! I enjoyed this

Kimberly said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kimberly said...

I didn't know about his Pampa connection. Thanks for this, Travis. It was lovely.

Clair Dickson said...

Nice post. And amazing dust bowl pix.

My MTM post is finally up.

Chumplet - Sandra Cormier said...

I'd like to try a MTM but I grew up in so many different towns I wouldn't know which to pick.

Josh said...

superb post dude, I wish I had half the mind you do.

Georgie B said...

Nice post.

Thanks for giving a little more background on such a fascinating individual.

Melanie Avila said...

What a great story!

Bina said...

That is a great story Travis. (and it still amazes me how well you write). Woodrow sounds like an amazing man and all his efforts really did pay off. Unfortunately I can't see (or hear) the video because my work computer won't allow me, but I'll definitely look at this again when I get home.

Thanks for sharing this great American story.

Bina said...

Holy Crap! He wrote "This land is your land?" Now I am impressed.

Cloudia said...

Fantastic post that should be more widely published!
Sorry I've been too swamped to put up a specifically "My town" post this week, Travis. Aloha-

Ello said...

That was awesome! I loved reading it!

Junosmom said...

Hi Travis, well better late than never. I finally posted my MTM. And it's still Monday where I live.

Danette Haworth said...

Travis,
What a wonderful post. I had no idea who you were leading up to. You really painted the picture of how one man's persistence and belief in his gift paid off.

AstroGremlin said...

Beautifully written. Tough times don't last, tough people do.