Dust Bowl Blues
Dust Bowl Blues
By: Woodrow Wilson Guthrie
Date: April 1940
Source: Guthrie, Woody. "Dust Bowl." Ludlow Music, 1940.
About the Author: American folk singer and guitarist Woodrow Wilson "Woody" Guthrie (1912–1967) was born in Okemah, Oklahoma. Guthrie moved onto the panhandle of Texas in 1931 after the extended illness and death of his mother left his family penniless. With the Great Depression upon the nation, Guthrie was barely able to survive in Texas. When the harrowing drought that helped bring on the Dust Bowl arrived on the Great Plains in 1935, Guthrie left for California like many other thousands of farmers and unemployed workers who were looking for a better life. Songs about the desperate predicament found among the poor and homeless quickly made him a popular personality and opinionated spokesman for those he sang about. Some of these songs include "Dust Bowl Blues," "This Land Is Your Land," and "I Ain't Got No Home." After witnessing firsthand a giant black dust storm blowing across the Texas plains, Guthrie wrote the song "So Long, It's Been Good To Know Yuh (Dusty Old Dust)."
Beginning around the 1880s, pioneer settlers started to extensively farm the former short grasslands of the Great Plains with improper agricultural practices for such a semi-arid climatic environment. With the removal of these stable grasses, a sustained period of drought and perpetually strong and destructive wind and dust storms (often called Black Blizzards) caused severe soil erosion, removal of topsoil, and nutrient leaching in the latter half of the 1930s in many areas of eastern Colorado, western Kansas, eastern New Mexico, the Oklahoma Panhandle, and western Texas. As conditions worsened, any soil conservation measures that had been previously used were drastically cut or eliminated in order to reduce costs. In order to make more money, farmers often expanded onto poorer lands that caused even more vulnerability to loss of soil moisture, depletion of soil nutrients, wind erosion, and other environmental problems.
In 1935, the Federal Soil Conservation Service (SCS, now called the Natural Resources Conservation Service) estimated that about 100 million acres (40 million hectares) of land in the southern Great Plains were affected, with about one-third to one-half of the area severely damaged after the total removal of the native grasses.
Consequently, many environmental problems were created. Crops were damaged or destroyed by low rainfall, high temperatures, wind and dust storms, and hungry swarms of insects. These problems not only caused business losses, unemployment, and other hardships to people, but also harmed wildlife and plant life. This ecologically and economically devastated area became known as the Dust Bowl. The series of storms that occurred in the 1930s in the southern Great Plains are considered one of the worst environmental disasters in history.
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With thousands of people leaving the Dust Bowl area for better living and working conditions, most of the remaining people were forced to take government aid due to the unworkable conditions of their lands and the concurrent hardships of the Great Depression. By 1935, soil conservation and rehabilitation projects of the federal and various state governments were countering the effects of the Dust Bowl with such programs as large-area grass seeding; three-year rotation plantings of wheat-sorghum (no crops); contour, lister, and chisel plowing; terracing; strip planting; and the planting of hardy plants and shelter trees. For instance, in chisel plowing the plow blade was dug deeply into the soil, which left large chunks of dirt above the surface to be used as a windbreak, which helped to slow erosion.
One especially important federal program was the Dalhart Wind Erosion Control Project (by the Soil Erosion Service of the Department of Commerce). In 1934, it made widespread loans to cattlemen to feed starving stock and to farmers to buy seeds; it also provided jobs to unemployed workers for the improvement of lands.
Another organization, the Southwest Agricultural Association, helped to create greater government control onto the proper conservation of lands throughout the southern plains. During this time, the SCS publicized soil conservation practices through its new soil conservation districts. Farmers were shown the benefits of such conservation practices as contouring and terracing. Irrigation was also promoted, as was the benefits of crop diversity. In order to help the environmental condition of the Dust Bowl, the federal government also created new reservoirs and enlarged existing reservoirs, improved farm policies, added insurance and aid programs, and removed the most sensitive agricultural lands from crop production.
Such relief and conservation programs instituted within President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal were used to prevent the reoccurrence of the problem. However, various dry spells on the southern plains between the early 1950s and the late 1970s were responsible for recurrences of dust storms—indicating that such programs had not been totally successful.
The lessons learned from the Dust Bowl show the destructive power that inappropriate and untested human actions can have on environmental conditions. As farmers expanded into new lands with new agricultural ideas and equipment, the native environment was replaced with a vast farmland. As farmers made more profits with their expanding operations, they caused more and more damage to the environment. Within a few years of such actions, much of the native grasses that had firmly held the soil together were destroyed by greedy farming and ranching practices.
Such inappropriate practices went directly against the soil conservation methods used by former generations of farmers and ranchers and the collection of agricultural data by scientists (such as the evidence of cyclical drought periods in the Great Plains over the past hundreds of years). Appropriate farming practices that had been used in the moist eastern areas of the country had been unwisely continued in the dryer western plain states—much to the detriment of the soil and ultimately to the fate of its users.
Farmers seeking profits over environmental conservation led to the disastrous consequences of the Dust Bowl. The significance of the Dust Bowl showed the amount of damage and destruction that can happen to the ecological and social infrastructure of society when short-term actions are made without due consideration to the environment. However, on the other hand, the widespread damage brought on by the storms of the Dust Bowl helped to bring national attention to the necessity of soil and water conservation measures to maintain farm productivity. Today, such measures are a critical part of all farming practices throughout the United States.
Isaacs, Sally Senzell. Life in the Dust Bowl. Chicago: Heinemann Library, 2002.
Lookingbill, Brad D. Dust Bowl, U.S.A.: Depression America and the Ecological Imagination, 1929–1941. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2001.
Sites, Geoff. "The Dust Bowl and Agricultural Capitalism: An Environmental Disaster to the Plains Region." English Discourse—the e-journal. 〈http://www.englishdiscourse.org/edc.1.1sites.html〉 (accessed March 8, 2006).
"Surviving the Dust Bowl." PBS Online/WGBH, 1999. 〈http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/dustbowl〉 (accessed March 8, 2006).
"Voices from the Dust Bowl." American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. 〈http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/afctshtml/tshome.html〉 (accessed March 8, 2006).
"What is Drought: Drought in the Dust Bowl Years." National Drought Mitigation Center. 〈http://www.drought.unl.edu/whatis/dustbowl.htm〉 (accessed March 8, 2006).
Audio and Visual Media
Gazit, Chana. "Surviving the Dust Bowl." Television program in The American Experience series. PBS/WGBH, 1998.