Released in 1940, many consider Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads to the first “concept album.” Listening, it is easy to see why as the name really says it all: Woody Guthrie with guitar and harmonica singing ballads about the dust bowl, it’s just that simple. These aren’t just songs about the Dust Bowl, however. They about the poor sharecroppers, farmers, and family folk impacted by the dust storms of the 1930’s. Through these songs you can see the dust, taste it, smell it, feel it all over your body. The songs are that powerful. The first song (The Great Dust Storm) tells the story. You see that big dust cloud, you learn how the farmers reacted, how scared they were and you can’t believe how bad the storm was, that it could be related to the devastation wrought by a Hurricane Katrina or the wildfires in Colorado Springs.
Dust Bowl Ballads contain songs that are probably familiar to most, even if you don’t know the names or who even sang them: Dusty Old Dust (So Long It’s Been Good To Know You) and Blowin’ Down the Road (I Ain’t Gonna Be Treated That a Way) are so familiar that they’re ingrained in our musical DNA. Pretty Boy Floyd has been covered by so many folk artists, it’s hard to keep count. A musical highlight for me is Do Re Mi, a song about the Okies moving to California and finding out it isn’t the paradise it was advertised as. The fact is that there were so many people moving to California that the local farming communities passed anti-vagrancy ordinances and the Okies had to prove that they either had a job or money (do-re-mi).
Finally one can’t have a song about the Dust Bowl and not mention The Joads. Woody Guthrie loved the movie Grapes of Wrath so much that he wrote a seven minute song (broken into two parts) that basically tells the entire Grapes of Wrath story (with a riff stolen from an older folk song). It’s just as heartbreaking as the book and movie. If you ever need a seven minute refresher of Grapes of Wrath, you may want to check out Tom Joad I and II.
Woody’s voice is quite plaintive but ironically it’s his voice that really gives these songs their texture. The guitar and harmonica are simple, as are the lyrics. But it’s Woody Guthrie’s gift that he could take complex issues and boil them down to their very core. Very few songwriters have been able to do that and to do it over a whole album and it makes Dust Bowl Ballads one of those foundational albums that everyone should have, regardless of your musical tastes.
Supposedly you can stream the album from the Smithsonian here. But I couldn't get it to work.