Dust Bowl Ballads

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Dust Bowl Ballads
Dust Bowl Ballads 1940 Album Cover.jpeg
Studio album by
ReleasedJuly 1940 (1940-07)
RecordedApril 26 and May 3, 1940
VenueVictor Records, New York[1]
LabelVictor Records
ProducerRobert P. Weatherald[1]
Professional ratings
Review scores
AllMusic (vol. 1)[2]
AllMusic (vol. 2)[3]

Dust Bowl Ballads is an album by American folk singer Woody Guthrie. It was released by Victor Records, in 1940.[4] All the songs on the album deal with the Dust Bowl and its effects on the country and its people. It is considered to be one of the first concept albums.[5] It was Guthrie's first commercial recording and the most successful album of his career.

Dust Bowl Ballads was originally released as eleven songs on two simultaneously released three-disc set albums of 78 rpm records entitled Dust Bowl Ballads, Vol. 1 and Dust Bowl Ballads, Vol. 2. The twelve sides in total had one song each except for the double-sided "Tom Joad" which was too long to be pressed on a single side of a 78. However, two of the thirteen songs recorded on the sessions, "Pretty Boy Floyd" and "Dust Bowl Blues" were left out due to length. All of the tracks were recorded at Victor studios in Camden, New Jersey on April 26, 1940, except "Dust Cain't Kill Me" and "Dust Pneumonia Blues" which were recorded on May 3. In 1950, and in 1964 during the American folk music revival, reissues were released in LP format by Folkways Records after RCA refused Guthrie's request to re-issue the album.[6] RCA Victor also re-released the album in 1964 but with the two previously unreleased tracks included, and in 2000 this was reissued by Buddha Records with an additional previously unreleased alternate version of one song. The complete Dust Bowl Ballads remains available on compact disc through Smithsonian Folkways.[7]

Like many of Guthrie's later recordings, these songs contain an element of social activism, and would be an important influence on later musicians, including Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Phil Ochs and Joe Strummer.


As Southern and Great Plains states became unlivable because of drought and the Depression, California came to seem like the land of milk and honey to desperate farmers. Guthrie spent this time hoboing with displaced farmers from Oklahoma to California. Guthrie learned their traditional folk and blues songs and discovered his own version of the blues, one on which he’d play endless variations, earning him the nickname the "Dust Bowl Troubadour"[8][9]

At the time Victor Records was looking for an answer to rival Columbia Records folk singer Burl Ives, so they signed 27-year-old Guthrie and put him in a recording studio. This would be the only major label for which Guthrie ever recorded. He later went on to record more with Moses Asch of Folkways Records.

On the liner notes for the Folkways Records reissue Woody Guthrie said:

I've lived in these duststorms just about all my life. (I mean, I tried to live). I met millions of good folks trying to hang on and to stay alive with the dust cutting down every hope. I am made out of this dust and out of this fast wind and I know that I'm going to win out on top of both of them if only my government and my office holder will help me. I wrote up these eight songs here to try to show you how it is to live under the wild and windy actions of the great duststorms that ride in and out and up and down.[10]

Songs and themes[edit]

Dust Bowl Ballads chronicles the 1930s Dust Bowl era during The Great Depression, where farmers were dispossessed of their land by a combination of weather conditions and bank foreclosures. The album is semi-autobiographical, mirroring both Guthrie’s own life and John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, which had just been turned into a film. The album follows the exodus of Midwesterners headed for California. Hailing from Oklahoma, Guthrie had a detailed knowledge of the Dust Bowl conditions that had led to an exodus of Okies west to California, and witnessed the economic hardships there where they became poor migrant workers in often harsh conditions.

Guthrie alternates between reporting the story, commenting on it humorously, and embodying the characters of the Okies with whom he identifies in songs. The humorous talking blues song "Talkin' Dust Bowl Blues", starts off telling the story in the first person of a family who had an average life of a farmer in Nineteen Twenty-Seven, before the drought started and then have to migrate after losing their farm. “The black ol' dust storm filled the sky and I swapped my farm for a Ford machine” sings Guthrie. Although it is done comically and Guthrie himself chuckles at the absurdity, it does not hide the horrifying circumstances they go through in their travels and arrival. "Blowin' Down This Road" has a more defiant tone with the repetition of the line "I ain't a-gonna be treated this-a-way."

After arrival in California, the Okie migrants realize that California is not so welcoming and a rough place to settle if you do not have money, or "Do Re Mi". This is a cautionary tale to all those others traveling across the country who were dreaming of a promised land or “Garden of Eden” as Guthrie calls it in the song, telling them there’s so many people going to California it might be better to go back east. Guthrie captures the hopelessness of the crop and bank failures, the rigors of the journey west and the crushing disappointment that ensued when California offered a reality nearly as harsh as the land left behind.[11] "Dust Cain't Kill Me" sets a darker tone, where Guthrie acknowledges the destruction wrought by the dust storms, killing his family, but still keeping a determined positive attitude that it would not kill him. The final song on Volume 1, split into two parts, tells the story of “Tom Joad", the leading character in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. "Wherever people ain’t free/Wherever men are fightin’ for their rights,” he sings, “That’s where I’m a-gonna be.”

Volume 2 starts out with the waltz "The Great Dust Storm", describing the catastrophe when a giant dust storm hits the Great Plains "On the fourteenth day of April of 1935", transforming the landscape and resulting in a diaspora of people heading west where they have been promised there is work aplenty picking fruit in the lush valleys of California. "Dusty Old Dust" follows, telling a similar story in a more humorous manner. The character says his farewell repeating “so long, it's been good to know yuh” in the chorus, which is what the song is now most commonly known as, as he has “got to be driftin' along”.

In "Dust Bowl Refugee", Guthrie tells a first-person story of the struggles and nomadic life of the travel out west. The comedic "Dust Pneumonia Blues" comments on the physical effects many experienced in the Dust Bowl. He notes the song was supposed to have yodeling in it, but he was unable to yodel because of the dust in his lungs. "I Ain't Got No Home in This World Anymore" uses a tune borrowed from the Christian hymn "Heaven Will Be My Home", the spiritual message is amended to one about the plight of the Okies. "Vigilante Man" is an attack on the hired thugs who harassed the Dust Bowl refugees, which contained a verse referring to Preacher Casey, a character in The Grapes of Wrath.

The 2000 Buddha Records reissue bonus track "Pretty Boy Floyd", tells the story of the famous outlaw Pretty Boy Floyd, an American bank robber who was pursued and killed by a group led by FBI Agent, Melvin Purvis. This song was written in March 1939, five years after Floyd’s death. Guthrie shows Floyd as a misunderstood Robin Hood who was adored by the people. “But a many a starvin' farmer The same old story told How the outlaw paid their mortgage and saved their little homes”

Yes, as through this world I've wandered / I've seen lots of funny men / Some will rob you with a six-gun / And some with a fountain pen. And as through your life you travel / Yes, as through your life you roam / You won't never see an outlaw/ Drive a family from their home.

Track listing[edit]

1940 Victor Records[edit]

All tracks are written by Woody Guthrie, except where noted.

Dust Bowl Ballads, Vol. 1
1."Talkin' Dust Bowl Blues"26619 – A2:45
2."Blowing Down This Road" (Woody Guthrie & Lee Hays)26619 – B3:06
3."Do Re Mi"26620 – A2:40
4."Dust Cain't Kill Me"26620 – B2:58
5."Tom Joad-Part 1"26621 – A3:24
6."Tom Joad-Part 2"26621 – B3:30
Dust Bowl Ballads, Vol. 2
1."The Great Dust Storm"26622 – A3:24
2."Dusty Old Dust" (later becoming known as "So Long, It's Been Good to Know Yuh")26622 – B3:09
3."Dust Bowl Refugee"26623 – A3:14
4."Dust Pneumonia Blues"26623 – B2:46
5."I Ain't Got No Home In This World Anymore"26624 – A2:50
6."Vigilante Man"26624 – B2:50

Release history[edit]

1950 Folkways Records Reissue[edit]

Victor eventually let the original sets go out of print. Guthrie wrote to the label asking for a reissue in LP format and got a negative response. Guthrie then authorized Folkways Records to copy the discs and, in October 1950, Folkways put out its own 10" LP version. This was called Talking Dust Bowl and contained just eight tracks with the two sides subtitled into two groups of songs:

Talking Dust Bowl (Folkways, 1950)
- Side one - Dust Bowl Ballads
A1 Dust Storm Disaster
A2 So Long (Dusty Old Dust)
A3 Talking Dust Blues
A4 Dust Can't Kill Me
- Side two - Migrant Worker's Songs
B1 Blowing Down This Road
B2 Dust Bowl Refugee
B3 Tom Joad, Part 1
B4 Tom Joad, Part 2

1964 Folkways Records Reissue[edit]

Dust Bowl Ballads
Compilation album by
LabelFolkways Records
Folkways Records Reissue ratings
Review scores

RCA protested, but, in the face of Guthrie's go-ahead, backed off, giving Folkways tacit permission to do a second reissue as a 12" LP. Released in 1964, this re-created the original titles and full contents of the 1940 releases of 78s in their original running order, but combined the two parts of "Tom Joad" into one track:

Dust Bowl Ballads (Folkways, 1964)
A1 Talkin' Dust Bowl Blues 2:45
A2 Blowin' Down This Road 3:06
A3 Do Re Mi 2:40
A4 Dust Cain't Kill Me 2:58
A5 Tom Joad (Part 1) / Tom Joad (Part 2) 6:34
B1 The Great Dust Storm 3:24
B2 Dusty Old Dust 3:09
B3 Dust Bowl Refugee 3:14
B4 Dust Pneumonia Blues 2:46
B5 I Ain't Got No Home In This World Anymore 2:50
B6 Vigilante Man 3:31

1964 RCA Victor Records Reissue[edit]

RCA Victor Records Reissue ratings
Review scores
Record Mirror[13]

However, in spite of this, RCA also re-released the album in 1964 in its RCA Victor Vintage Series, on a 12" LP with issue number LPV-502. Their re-release reshuffled the original order of tracks and took the opportunity to include the two extra songs recorded on the 1940 sessions and previously unreleased, being "Pretty Boy Floyd" and "Dust Bowl Blues":

Dust Bowl Ballads (RCA Victor, 1964)
A1 The Great Dust Storm 3:22
A2 I Ain't Got No Home In This World Anymore 2:47
A3 Talkin' Dust Bowl Blues 2:42
A4 Vigilante Man 3:22
A5 Dust Cain't Kill Me 2:57
A6 Pretty Boy Floyd 3:08
A7 Dust Pneumonia Blues 2:46
B1 Blowin' Down This Road 3:02
B2 Tom Joad - Part 1 3:27
B3 Tom Joad - Part 2 3:27
B4 Dust Bowl Refugee 3:06
B5 Do Re Mi 2:35
B6 Dust Bowl Blues 3:27
B7 Dusty Old Dust 3:07

2000 Buddha Records Reissue[edit]

Dust Bowl Ballads
Compilation album by
ReleasedMay 23, 2000
LabelBuddha Records
Professional ratings
Review scores
Rolling Stone[15]

Sixty years after the recordings were first released, Woody Guthrie's odes to the Dust Bowl were presented in their fourth different configuration for a CD edition digitally remastered by Doug Pomeroy. The running order of the tracks were again shuffled and a previously unreleased alternate take of "Talking Dust Bowl Blues" was added.

Dust Bowl Ballads (Buddha, 2000)
1."The Great Dust Storm (Dust Storm Disaster)"3:21
2."Talking Dust Bowl Blues"2:42
3."Pretty Boy Floyd"3:10
4."Dusty Old Dust (So Long It's Been Good to Know Yuh)"3:09
5."Dust Bowl Blues"3:27
6."Blowin' Down the Road (I Ain't Going to Be Treated This Way)"3:04
7."Tom Joad, Pt. 1"3:24
8."Tom Joad, Pt. 2"3:30
9."Do Re Mi"2:36
10."Dust Bowl Refugee"3:07
11."I Ain't Got No Home"2:46
12."Vigilante Man"3:23
13."Dust Cain't Kill Me"2:56
14."Dust Pneumonia Blues"2:42
15."Talking Dust Bowl Blues (alternate version)"2:27

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b Guthrie, Woody. "Dust Bowl Ballads". Discography of American Historical Recordings. UC Santa Barbara Library. Retrieved 29 January 2020.
  2. ^ Ruhlmann, William. "Woody Guthrie - Dust Bowl Ballads". AllMusic. Retrieved July 16, 2019.
  3. ^ Ruhlmann, William. "Woody Guthrie - Dust Bowl Ballads". AllMusic. Retrieved July 16, 2019.
  4. ^ "Timeline of Woody Guthrie | Articles and Essays | Woody Guthrie and the Archive of American Folk Song: Correspondence, 1940-1950 | Digital Collections | Library of Congress". Loc.gov.
  5. ^ "The return of concept album". The Independent. 2 October 2009. Retrieved 16 November 2012.
  6. ^ Smithsonian Folkways: Sounds to Grow On Episode 20. Broadcast February 21, 2010. Folkways.si.edu
  7. ^ Dust Bowl Ballads. Smithsonian Folkways Records. Folkways.si.edu
  8. ^ "THE DUST BOWL: A Film by Ken Burns". Pbs.org.
  9. ^ Alarik, Scott. "Robert Burns unplugged". Boston.com.
  10. ^ "Dust Bowl Ballads : Woody Guthrie : Sleeve notes" (PDF). Folkways-media.si.edu. Retrieved 2022-03-19.
  11. ^ "Dust Bowl Ballads [Buddha]". Rollingstone.com. 1989-05-04.
  12. ^ Ruhlmann, William. "Woody Guthrie - Dust Bowl Ballads". AllMusic. Retrieved July 16, 2019.
  13. ^ "Woody Guthrie: Dust Bowl Ballads" (PDF). Record Mirror. No. 185. 26 September 1964. p. 10. Archived from the original (PDF) on 1 April 2022. Retrieved 15 August 2022.
  14. ^ Ruhlmann, William. "Woody Guthrie - Dust Bowl Ballads". AllMusic. Retrieved July 16, 2019.
  15. ^ Decurtis, Anthony (1989-05-04). "Woody Guthrie - Dust Bowl Ballads [Buddha]". Rolling Stone. Retrieved July 16, 2019.

External links[edit]