Dust Bowl Ballads
With this series of vivid story-songs, Woody Guthrie made the dust storms that roiled the Southwest in the 1930s a part of the American experience. People in other parts of the country heard news about them, of course, but Guthrie’s accounts brought the devastation to human scale, where the suddenness and terror, and the lingering aftereffects, could be fully felt. They gave the dust dimension.
Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, and like so many fleeing the dust in the 1930s, moved to California. These songs chronicle the hardships faced by the victims of the drought there, and the pain they felt having to abandon their homes. When he recorded this set in New York in 1940, his voice held traces of the dust, mixed, naturally, with indignation. “Tom Joad, Part 2” tells about the trials of dust-bowl refugees, among them a preacher who can’t take it anymore. “Vigilante Man” explores the inevitability of violence—and the all-too-human men who inflict it—in forsaken places.
Guthrie, who later in 1940 wrote his most famous song “This Land Is Your Land,” isn’t much of a showman here—he emphasizes the hearts and souls of the people he’s met—people who had no time to worry about the fine points of craft. He plays rudimentary guitar, and sings with little affectation save a parched dryness in his voice.
Dust Bowl Ballads remains Guthrie’s most successful record, both in terms of sales and influence. Bob Dylan made these songs the backbone of his early repertoire, and wrote countless verses that follow Guthrie’s outlines. Bruce Springsteen’s The Ghost of Tom Joad looked at the descendants of the dust bowl, the victims of the same type of economic dislocation in a different time. These and other acolytes aspire to what came naturally to Guthrie here—narratives in which specific trials and tribulations offer insight into that elusive set of qualities sometimes called “the American character.”
RELEASED: 1940, RCA. (Reissued 2000, Buddha.)
KEY TRACKS: “Talking Dust Bowl Blues,” “Pretty Boy Floyd,” “I Ain’t Got No Home,” “Vigilante Man.”
The Vietnam vet is home, and struggling. Money’s running out. He doesn’t exactly have employable skills. The mood of John Prine’s “Sam Stone” is one of quiet and vague desperation, until Prine drops in a single line: “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes.”
That’s Prine: Blunt and casual and chilling all at once. His songs seem to be ambling along, radiating simplicity, and then wham, Prine shares a single telling detail, in this case a heroin habit, that gives his narrative urgency. Like an old-time raconteur, he’s got a stealthy, well-honed sense of the dramatic. Unlike most songwriters who were commenting on the effects of war in 1971, the former mailman and army mechanic didn’t align himself with any cause—as he recalled in an anthology, “all the other Vietnam songs were basic protest songs. . . . I don’t remember any other songs that talked about the soldiers at all.”
This record would be an essential bit of American songwriter lore just for “Sam Stone.” But it also includes several pieces that are just as acutely observed—including the prayerlike “Angel from Montgomery,” which is practically a standard, and the austere “Hello in There,” which should be one. These and several other barbed commentaries established Prine as a songwriter’s songwriter. Once you digest this chilling, carefully wrought gem, there are a bunch of equally pointed (and almost as great) Prine records waiting.
GENRES: Folk, Rock.
RELEASED: 1971, Atlantic.
KEY TRACKS: “Hello in There,” “Sam Stone,” “Angel from Montgomery.”
Inside Dave Van Ronk
Dave Van Ronk
These songs—blues laments, haunting spirituals such as “Motherless Child,” and enduring ballads like “Poor Lazarus”—were frequently part of Dave Van Ronk’s performances in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. And as a result, they seeped into the consciousness of several generations of aspiring folk musicians and pop singer-songwriters. On the scene at the exact moment the folk revival gained traction, Van Ronk (1936-2002) was heard regularly at places like the Gaslight and Gerde’s Folk City. His shows became magnets for such fresh-off-the-bus musicians as Bob Dylan.
“Van Ronk was one of the few white performers who credibly sang the blues. A big man, his severe, husky voice was well suited to the style, as was his elemental, never flashy guitar accompaniment. While others wrote originals based on traditional forms, Van Ronk stuck to the source material, reinterpreting allegorical songs like “Samson and Delilah” in rousing, often surprising ways.
The two stellar albums repackaged on this disc, Folksinger and Inside Dave Van Ronk, were both recorded in April 1962. The first features just his voice and guitar, the second adds dulcimer, autoharp, and twelve-string guitar. They stand not just as a high point of his art, but among the most important artifacts of the folk revival: Where some of his peers were writing brainy and somewhat detached odes, Van Ronk was digging deep into the songbook of the American experience, and creating music that resonates in still-wrenching ways.
RELEASED: 1962, Fantasy. (Reissued 1969.)
KEY TRACKS: “Samson and Delilah,” “Cocaine Blues,” “Long John,” “He Was a Friend of Mine,” “Poor Lazarus,” “Motherless Child,” “Stackerlee.”