Art in Crisis: Woody Guthrie and the Dust-bowl Ballads

The 1930s were a dark time for America. With widespread droughts causing devastating environmental collapse, many of America’s working classes were forced to undertake mass migrations through a dead landscape known as ‘the dustbowl’ to find whatever scraps of work were still available. Leaving their families and loved ones behind, these workers were trapped in a cycle of ill-health and poverty, faced with deadly ‘black blizzards’ of toxic dust, and abandoned by their government at the very time they needed them most. Amidst this backdrop, the songwriter Woody Guthrie documented the conditions he faced in a huge number of songs that became collectively known as ‘Dustbowl Ballads’, giving a voice to the thousands of workers who journeyed with him through such hostile terrain. When it would have been so easy to lose hope - as sadly so many did - Guthrie provided a platform by which to articulate and challenge the actions of his government, almost single-handily spearheading a musical protest movement that exists to this day. Occupying a communist position - whilst notably avoiding becoming a signed-up member of the party - he played upon the ‘hill-billy’ connotations ascribed to the working class, using his position as a working-class Oklahoman to imbue the largely middle-class American folk scene with some much-needed authenticity. In addition to music, Guthrie was a prolific writer and sloganeer - his guitar famously emblazoned with the message ‘This machine kills fascists’ - even playing a part in the interwar communal living scene that would act as a direct precursor to the post-war ‘hippy’ movement.

By the 1950s, plagued by both ill-health and the propagation of a strong anti-communist sentiment, Guthrie fell into a professional and personal decline - culminating in a tragic gasoline accident that damaged his arm and prevented him from ever playing the guitar again. He died in 1967 after a nearly twenty-year battle with Huntington's disease - but even in death, he was an inspirational figure. Not only did his renown help to raise awareness of the previously little-known disease - with his second wife, Marjorie Greenblatt Mazia, founding the Huntington's Disease Society of America - but his true-to-life, political songwriting inspired a whole new generation of composers, including a young Bob Dylan who befriended Guthrie in the final years of his life. By turning tragedy into a living document of workers conditions, Guthrie was able to galvanise generations of workers, activists, and song-writers to challenge the actions of their government. As Dylan would later suggest, Guthrie's songs ‘were really beyond category. They had the infinite sweep of humanity in them’.

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