Step into the Dustbowl
Maybe these sentiments ring a bell: the world is in panic, marriages are falling apart, the dollar is cheap and humanity might just be facing its natural demise. While the pandemic lifestyle may bring such annoying conundrums to mind for some readers, in the 1930s Midwest, similar stressors could usually be chalked up to a series of incredible dust storms across America’s proverbial frontier. As his friends and neighbors struck out further west to escape the dust and poverty, activist and musician Woody Guthrie stayed and documented the struggle. Guthrie spent years in the Midwest wandering among the shanties and highways before he laid down tracks for his all-time most popular album, Dustbowl Ballads.
Recently, a compilation album called Home In This World: Woody Guthrie’s Dustbowl Ballads was released, giving some big-name acts and smaller outfits a chance to reconsider Guthrie’s songs from a modern perspective. To this end, many of the artists featured on the album positively extend themselves to due Guthrie justice, blowing the doors down with their virtuosity, containment and arrangement of the songs.
The South Carolina duo Shovels & Rope tackles the first track on the album called “Dust Bowl Blues.” Their song listens like an introduction to some ghosts from the Dustbowl prairies—which seems like a fitting way to bridge the gap between Guthrie’s moment and the present one. With Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst’s chilling harmony, listeners will feel invested in the temporal rift that Home In This World exists in. The thrummed, droning bass and quick up strum lends “Dust Bowl Blues” a familiar train engine rhythm, and some windy production effects abandon Guthrie’s poke and pluck melodies for a gothic, haunting feel.
On the album’s next track, Lost Dog Street Band performs the classic tune “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore.” While Guthrie’s iconic traveling thumb and thin guitar melodies adorn the original breezy 1940s reel, Lost Dog’s version plays more like a sea shanty. The arrangement of the song is strong, maintaining some of Guthrie’s original riffing and rhythm. However, something about the bumping jug-bass or the harmonica player’s practiced sass rings a bit more contrived than Guthrie had intended. In a world of sorrow, Lost Dog’s version of the song plays for the Mumford and Sons crew.
Watkins Family Hour’s version of “Blowin’ Down This Road” tracks loyally with their hits like “The Cure” in terms of harmonies and finely picked out guitar lines; it makes for a strong cover. It takes a bit of frustrated listening to get to other showstoppers on the album. Once listeners get through John Paul White’s crooning cover of “Pretty Boy Floyd,” with opaque Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash influences, they will stumble across Lee Ann Womack’s unremarkably hymn-like “Dusty Old Dust.” Somehow, Womack takes Guthrie’s sarcastic mocking out of the refrain “So long/ It’s been good to know ‘ya,” infusing it instead with a sing-songy and optimistic quality similar to her classic hits like “I Hope You Dance.”
Colter Wall and Waxahatchee do well by Guthrie, with good contributions in terms of musical control—the former by talking his guitar’s talk with brilliant interstitial improvisational picking on “Do Re Mi” and the latter by throwing us a simple, lackadaisical tune about nomads that brings the album’s contextual relevance into the frame on “Talkin Dust Bowl Blues.”
Chris Thile’s “Tom Joad Part 1” steals the album. Thile is consistently hot upon his own heels on the track. A virtuosic player, he unapologetically shows his chops with complicated rabbit chase arpeggios and chunked-out rhythms. Lillie Mae follows Thile up with “Tom Joad Part 2,” a similarly impressive performance marked by dynamic pacing and deep-pocketed picking duels. Both tracks take liberties with the cadence of the original “Tom Joad” sequence, but none of the heartiness is lost.
Other songs to note on the album include the heavily funky “Dust Cain’t Kill Me” by The Secret Sisters, which oozes with heavy bass and plenty of wavering key action, as well as the Felice Brothers’ take on “The Great Dust Storm.” The album concludes with a final call for justice which rings from Parker Millsap’s “Vigilante Men.” Invoking names like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd against a swamp-rock soundscape, Millsap capitulates on the song’s original purpose to smack us back into the present. It makes us wonder: why does a vigilante man “carry that sawed-off shotgun in his hand?”
Home In This World: Woody Guthrie’s Dustbowl Ballads is a treat for veteran Guthrie-lovers and newcomers alike. Without looking for an explanation, but instead feeling the collective sighs ruminating across America, the album presents Guthrie’s work for a new generation in a new time and place.