Music Was Made for You and Me
Music is an excellent medium for the teaching of history. It enlivens the classroom and excites students about learning. Yet music is also an important research tool that aids scholars in serious historical analysis. The same intrinsic motivation that allows students to connect with various songs demonstrates that humans have an innate connection to music. In other words, music is a reflection of culture. Therefore, historians can use music as an instrument to interpret the cultural context in which events occurred. The Great Depression and the music of Woody Guthrie is a prime example.
When I teach about the Great Depression, I emphasize that the Depression was a double entendre-that is it was depressing economically as well as psychologically. I want my student to understand how the depression influenced the very core of people. Their way of thinking about themselves and their communities changed. I use the story of Woody Guthrie to demonstrate this.
Woody was born in Okemah, Okalahoma in 1912. he experienced an enormous amount of tragedy at an early age. Unbeknownst to his family, Nora Belle Guthrie, Woody’s mother, suffered from Huntington’s Disease, the hereditary condition that would eventually take Woody’s own life. More than likely, the disease led to Nora’s neglect and ill-treatment of her children. Guthrie’s sister Clara died in a household fire probably set by his mother. Eventually Nora would be institutionalized, while Guthrie drifted about living on the street and at friends’ homes. Yet Guthrie’s mother also had a positive influence on young Woody. She often sang while working around the house, and at an early age Woody began to make up his own songs using the same melodies. The Guthries made their way to Pampas, Texas, the sight of the latest oil boom. In Pampas, Woody joined his first band, the Corncob Trio.
It was about this time that the Dust Bowl reached the Texas panhandle. As with many of his countrymen, Guthrie soon left Texas to find opportunity in California. Joining the “Okie” migration to California, Woody eventually penned his experiences into volumes of songs. These songs found their way onto the airwaves in Los Angeles, over the Tehachapi Mountains and into the migrant farm labor camps of the Imperial Valley. Those listening to the songs enjoyed Guthrie’s lyrics, which employed beautiful word-pictures and biting humor to expose the plight of migrant families and celebrate their contributions to the state. These songs have become an avenue for historians to explore the experience of migrants from the Dust Bowl and to better understand the historical significance of the Great Depression.
The lyrics of Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi,” “Pastures of Plenty,” “This Land is Your Land,” and “Talking Columbia” provide an insight into Guthrie’s views of the Great Depression as well as the New Deal. The popularity of these songs demonstrated how Guthrie’s ideas resonated with many Americans. The song “Do Re Mi” characterized Woody’s folksy humor that caused many to compare him with the popular humorist Will Rogers. It was his humor and writing ability that first put Woody on the radio with his sidekick Lefty Lou. In “Do Re Mi” Woody sang:
Lots of folks back East, they say,/
Is living home every day/
Hitting that hot old dusty road/
For the California line/
Getting out of the old Dust Bowl/
They think they’re going to a sugar bowl/
But here’s what they find/
The police at the port of entry says/
Your number fourteen thousand for today/
Oh’ if you ain’t got the do re mi boys/
Then you better go back to beautiful Texas/
Oklahoma, Georgia, Kansas, Tennessee/
California is a garden of Eden/
A pleasure to visit or see/
But believe it or not/
You won’t find it so hot/
If you ain’t got the do re mi.
Woody captured the experience of many migrants to California. Most thought California to be a paradise, a land of economic progress and social opportunity-a myth that had been created since the state’s inception. However, much as the forty-niners during the Gold Rush, the vast majority found the opposite to be true. Los Angeles police illegally patrolled the border and turned back anyone who did not have enough money. Such a policy was to prevent those seeking public relief from overwhelming local communities. The end result, as Woody’s lyrics attested, was the added humiliation to families already disposed from their homes and farms in the Midwest.
Woody attempted to elevate the migrant worker to a higher moral plane. Where most saw drifters or bums, Woody saw the backbone of the nation. Perhaps the best example of this was in “Pastures of Plenty”:
It’s a mighty hard road that my poor hands have
My poor feet have traveled a hot dusty road/
Out of your dust bowl and westward we rolled/
And your desert was hot and your mountains
California and Arizona, I make all your crops/
And it’s north up to Oregon to gather your hops/
Dig the beats from your ground, cut the grapes
from your vine/
To set on your table your light sparkling wine ..
Well, it’s always we rambled that river and I/
All along your green valleys I’ll work till I die/
My land I’ll defend with my life if it be/
Because my pastures of plenty must always be
With the repetitious use of “your,” Guthrie strikes a class-conscious tone of defiance and resilience. Woody paints workers as patriotic by placing them on the same level as soldiers fighting fascisms. In fact, Woody’s own actions demonstrated his patriotism. he joined the merchant marine with his friends Cisco Houston and Jimmy Longhi so that he could participate in the war effort as a union man in the National Maritime Union.
Woody’s most remembered song was “This Land is Your Land.” he wrote it in 1940, after hearing the song “God Bless America” over and over. Woody found that song to be too sappy given the state of America’s economy and the plight of so many jobless. His original title was “God Blessed America for You and Me” but later changed it to a verse more easily sung. While this song has passed from decade to decade, several verses have been forgotten but by a handful of singers. These lyrics demonstrated that the song cannot be understood but in the context of the Great Depression:
Was a big high wall there that tried to stop me/
A sign was painted said: Private Property/
But on the backside it didn’t say nothing/
That side was made for you and me/
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people/
By the relief office I seen my people/
As they stood there hungry I stood there asking/
Is this land made for you and me?/
This land is your land/
This land is my land/
From California to the New York Island/
From the redwood forest/
To the Gulf Stream waters/
This land was made for you and me.
The song that many see as America’s second national anthem was a critique of private property. It had a collectivist outlook, not unlike John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath that suggested Americans were all one big family. However, for most Americans, these stanzas have been lost over time and, consequently, the original meaning of the song has also been lost.
Finally, Woody’s songs suggested that many Americans saw the New Deal’s conservationist programs as an excellent way to improve the economy. In fact, Woody and his family traveled to the Pacific Northwest looking for work with the Bonneville Project Authority. The BPA employed him to write songs that could help sell bonds. What resulted was Woody’s most prolific and concentrated writing. he wrote twenty-six songs in thirty days for a dam worker’s pay of $266.66 per month. His songs included “Roll on Columbia,” “Roll Columbia Roll,” “Grand Coulee Dam,” “Song of the Coulee Dam,” and “Talking Columbia.” In “Columbia’s Waters,” Woody sang:
Good morning Mr. Captain, good morning man/
I’m just a stranger traveling through your land/
Do you need a right good worker on your big
Grand Coulee Dam…
That Columbia River rolls right down the line/
The Columbia water tastes like sparkling wine/
But the water in the Dust Bowl tastes like pickle
The money I draw from working on the Coulee
My wife will meet me at the kitchen door
stretching out her hand/
She’ll make a little down payment on a forty-acre
track of land/
We’ll farm along the river, work it from sun to
Walk along the river and listen to the factories
I’ll think to myself, “Great goodness alive, look
what we’ve done done.”
In Woody’s view, the Columbia River was being wasted until the construction of the Coulee Dam. The dam brought work to the unemployed, irrigated farmland to waste (unfarmed) land, and electricity to factories and homes. Through the right kind of management and hard work progress could come from the land. These views were immensely popular and are what caused Woody’s songs to resonate with so many. Such an insight also helps student to understand why Franklin Delano Roosevelt became one of the nation’s most popular presidents.
But Woody’s lyrics and life offer much more than just a look at economics and politics. Woody’s songs tell much about gender relations, for example. A true man was hard-working, while a true woman belonged in the kitchen. In other words, Woody Guthrie demonstrates that music offers much for historians young and old. Teachers will find many opportunities and resources to incorporate music into the classroom.
Woody Guthrie, Bound for Glory (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1943)
Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives at http:// www.woodyguthrie.org
Woody Guthrie, “Dust Bowl Ballads” Rounder Records Corporation, 1988.
Woody Guthrie, “Columbia River Collection” Rounder Records Corporation, 1987.
Elizabeth Partridge, This Land Was Made for You and Me: The Life and Songs of Woody Guthrie (New York: Viking Press, 2002).
Pete Seeger, Where Have all the Flowers Gone: A Singer’s Stories. Songs, seeds. Robberies (Bethlehem, PA: Sing Out Corporation, 1993).
John Whitmer earned his doctorate in 2002 from the University of Idaho. His dissertation was titled, Contesting the Golden Dream: The Shaping of San Francisco’s Labor Landscape, 1847-1907, Whitmer has taught at several community colleges in the Bay Area and is now an assistant professor of history at Simpson College in Redding, California. By all accounts Whitmer enjoys using music in the teaching of history, and he finds it particularly beneficial when looking at the Great Depression.
Copyright California Council for the Social Studies Spring 2004
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