Dust Bowl Blues

by Michael G. Livingston


I’ve seen the dust so black that I couldn’t see a thing,
I’ve seen the dust so black that I couldn’t see a thing.
And the wind so cold, boy, it nearly cut your water off.

I seen the wind so high that it blowed my fences down,
I’ve seen the wind so high that it blowed my fences down.
Buried my tractor six feet underground.

Well, it turned my farm into a pile of sand,
Yes, it turned my farm into a pile of sand,
I had to hit the road with a bottle in my hand.

From Dust Bowl Blues by Woody Guthrie (1930s)

Drought began in the U.S. in 1930, shortly after the country collapsed in a massive economic depression. That drought lasted until 1937 and affected almost every state in the country at least for one of those years. The worst hit areas were in Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and New Mexico.

Caused by higher than normal temperatures and lower than normal rainfall and snowfall, the droughts led to giant and widespread dust storms. The storms started in 1932. By 1933, the frequency and scope of the storms had increased dramatically. In April of 1933 alone, the U.S. Weather Bureau reported 179 dust storms. And in November of 1933, a dust storm originating in the western states reached New York.

In 1934 the intensity and scope of the storms increased even more. A storm starting in Montana and Wyoming on May 9 of that year reached Madison, Wisconsin, and Dubuque, Iowa, on May 10. By that evening, 12 million pounds of dust were falling on Chicago. The next day, the storm reached the eastern seaboard.

Starting in 1935, the worst of the storms were concentrated in what was called the dust bowl by the people of the time. The dust bowl, as I’ve indicated, included much of the Texas panhandle, all of the Oklahoma panhandle, the eastern third of Colorado, the western half of Kansas, and parts of New Mexico and Nebraska. The storms lasted until 1941, with the worst storms occurring in the dust bowl in 1937.

Some of the storms were like winter blizzards, with giant black clouds of dirt accompanied by lightning and thunder. The worst of these “Black Blizzards” took place on Sunday, April 14, 1935, known at the time in the U.S as Black Sunday. The second kind of dust storm, called sand blows, were more frequent and buried fences, livestock, tractors, and homes with sand.

The dust bowl was immortalized in song, photographs, prose, and film. Woody Guthrie’s songs were perhaps the best known at the time. His Dust Bowl Ballads were recorded by RCA in 1940, but he had been writing and performing them throughout the 1930s. Dozens of photographers recorded the plight of the dust bowl inhabitants, including such photographers as Dorothea Lange, who produced some of the most haunting images of the time. John Steinbeck’s bestseller Grapes of Wrath (based on his travels to the dust bowl and reporting on the area) was published in 1939. The following year John Ford directed the movie of the same name starring Henry Fonda.

The U.S. government took a number of steps to combat the dust bowl, including the construction of a massive system of dams in the western states. These dams provided water to people, agriculture, and business in the western states, as well as cheap electricity. The electricity, in turn, made it cheap to pump water from deep underground.  The government investment made it possible to reestablish and intensify agriculture in the dust bowl region, and fueled the growth of urban areas such as Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles.

Now the ground water is running out, being used up 14 times faster than it can be recharged, and drought conditions are returning due to global warming. Some people, it seems, can not add 2+2 and get 4. Just as in the 1930s, the fundamental problem is not technology but our economic system, which treats water as a commodity to be used for profit. The use of water as a mostly free commodity to be taken and used to make a profit has resulted in the waste and irrational use of a limited resource. The swimming pools and golf courses of Phoenix and Las Vegas are some examples.

Rational use of this invaluable (I would say sacred) resource can only come about under a democratically run socialist society that is based on principles of justice and sustainability. Our political misleaders in the Democratic and Republican parties are not doing anything about the looming crisis. It is time for the rest of us to start working on short-term and long-term solutions. After all, we don’t want to get the “dust bowl blues.”

January 23, 2005

The author can be contacted at livingstonmiguel@hotmail.com