Songs, Images, and Voices from the Dust Bowl, California-Arizona Migration, Great Depression, and New Deal

Josette Madonia March 25, 2013 1

The 198 String Band at Tempe History Museum

By Josette Madonia
Arizona Community Press | www.azcommunitypress.org

The 198 String Band played at the Tempe History Museum on March 14, 2013. The 198 String Band hails from Buffalo, NY and is comprised of Tom Naples (guitar, banjo, autoharp), Peggy Milliron (guitar and vocals), and Mike Frisch (fiddle, guitar, vocals).  Their set titled “Keep on Moving” included songs, images, and voices from the Dust Bowl, California-Arizona Migration, Great Depression, and New Deal.  Each member of the group has a unique background that contributes to the story-telling aspect of this particular set.  Tom Naples traveled the route of the Dust Bowl migrations and interviewed former migrant camp residents.  Peggy Milliron is a history researcher and contributed to the photo research and editing for the show.  Mike Frisch is a Professor of American Studies and History at the University of Buffalo.

The band played old songs from the Great Depression against a backdrop of photographs from the Great Depression.  During the performance, the band also included voice recordings of families displaced during the depression interspersed throughout their set.  The photographs used in the program were from the Library of Congress, the American Folk Division in Washington, D.C.  The Library of Congress has approximately 165,000 photographs documented by the Farm Security Administration (FSA).  The library includes some color photographs. Color photography had just come out around that time. Many photos in the collection are the earlier work of Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) documenting displaced farm families and migrant workers during the Great Depression.  The FSA was established in 1937 by the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration to combat poverty during the depression by providing assistance to the rural poor and migrant agricultural workers.  The FSA took on all the programs of the Resettlement Administration.  This included the rural rehabilitation program which set up rural relief camps for homeless families.   The media used during the 198 String Band’s set was obtained by the FSA documenting these homeless families that were given temporary shelter in the camps.

Color photograph from the archives
http://myloc.gov/exhibitions/boundforglory/pages/default.aspx

The playlist focused on songs that were divided into different concentrations including:  the Depression Overview, Hardship and Heading West, The New Deal, Migrant Workers/Union Organizing, The Dustbowl Migration, and FSA Migrant Camps/California.  The start of the set included songs, “I’m Going Where There’s No Depression” and “Breadline Blues”.  “Breadline Blues” tells the woes of men unable to find work who had to beg and finally stand in the bread line for free food.  Some families that could not find work started heading west.  “Arizona” was written by Jack Bryant, an FSA resident.  The song tells the story of his stop in Arizona on his travels from Oklahoma to California.  A sampling of his thoughts are contained in the following lyrics,

Away out on the desert where water is hard to find

It’s a hundred miles to Tempe and the wind blows all the time

You will burn up in the daytime, yet you’re cold when the sun goes down,

I want to be in Oklahoma, be back in my hometown.”

The part of the set that focused on the New Deal included songs about the National Recovery Administration (NRA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).  The NRA was created to bring industries together to write codes of fair practice in order to reduce destructive competition, set minimum wages and maximum weekly hours, and more.  In 1935, after the two-year renewal charter for the NRA expired, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the NRA law was unconstitutional, infringing on the separation of powers.  Although the NRA ended, the long-term result was the growth of unions.

Woman hanging National Recovery Administration poster in a restaurant.

The CCC provided unskilled, manual labor jobs related to the conservation and development of natural resources in rural lands owned by federal, state and local governments.  The program was for unemployed, unmarried men from relief families, ages 18–25.  The jobs even included work in Arizona.  The website, The Living New Deal, Still Working for America, documents and maps the living legacy of FDR’s New Deal.  The New Deal left its legacy on public works including, libraries, courthouses, bridges, roads, trails, murals and more.  Some of the projects can be viewed on their website, The Living New Deal.

Civilian Conservation Corps in Arizona.
From a slideshow of CCC workers in Arizona, http://azstarnet.com/gallery/news/local/photos-the-civilian-conservation-corps-in-southern-arizona/collection_a013192e-6337-11e1-ac58-001871e3ce6c.html#1

 

The Migrant Workers/Union Organizing section included the song “We’d Rather Not Be on the Rolls of Relief”.  The original recording of the song is sung by a resident worker of the FSA.  The song displays the man’s pride of earning his own way as opposed to taking relief or working for the WPA (Works Progress Administration).  At the end of the song the man says he has joined the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations), which organized workers in industrial unions.

As the set progressed to the period of The Dustbowl Migration, songs included Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home” about a worker who wanders around from town to town.  The song seems as true back then as it is today, “Rich man took my home and drove me from my door and I ain’t go no home in this world anymore.”

In this audio recording, Tom Naples (guitar, banjo, autoharp) walks us through the dust bowl through archival recordings and oral histories in The Perfect Storm:

The set of the 198 String Band ended with songs about FSA Migrant Camps/California.  All photos and audio of the Great Depression were taken from the Library of Congress as documented by the Farm Security Administraion (FSA).  The song, Little Rag Houses, is about the tents in which the camp residents lived.

I don’t want your little rag houses, I don’t want your navy beans
All I want is a greenback dollar for to buy some gasoline.

The scenery here is getting rusty, I’ll go further down the line
Where the fields are green and pretty, it’ll satisfy my mind.

We don’t want to be a burden, on the people of this land.
We just want to earn our money, and you people know we can.

So goodbye, my friends and neighbors, we are on the tramp
Many thanks to all officials of this migratory camp.

We don’t want your little rag houses, we don’t want your navy beans
All we want is a greenback dollar for to buy some gasoline.”

~Little Rag Houses

Video including sound from the 198 String Band and photographs from the Great Depression:

  • http://www.facebook.com/jemadonia Josette Madonia

    This event at the Tempe History Museum was free. For a list of other events see their page on the City of Tempe website: http://www.tempe.gov/index.aspx?page=943.