It was 81 years ago that Oklahoman Woody Guthrie put out his first commercial album, Dust Bowl Ballads (1940). The 14 songs painted a bleak picture of American farm life during the Great Depression, leavened with self-deprecating humor, melodrama, and stark realism. The record is now considered a classic. Its tunes have become a standard part of the folk canon, with many taught to schoolchildren as part of their elementary education.
Music supervisor and producer Randall Poster (The Wolf of Wall Street, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Boardwalk Empire) saw the parallels between Guthrie’s times and today. We might not have dust storms, but environmental degradation, rural poverty, and such continue to be a severe problem. Poster assembled a diverse group of musicians, most of whom could be classified under the Americana label, despite their different styles, to recreate Guthrie’s original record.
The general approach is hagiographic. These are timeless and enduring songs, and the artists tend to play them straight with a rural accent. Therefore, it’s not surprising that Home in This World: Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads has the endorsement of the Woody Guthrie Estate. While Guthrie’s music has many covers and compilations, this marks the first time a particular album has been recreated.
Past tributes to Guthrie featured musicians like Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, and Bob Dylan offering their renditions of many songs on this album. Heck, if superstars like these are afraid to tamper with Guthrie, no wonder less popular artists do the same. The differences between Springsteen’s take on “Vigilante Man” and Parker Milsap’s; Mellencamp and Colter Wall’s “Do Re Mi”; Dylan’s “Pretty Boy Floyd” and John Paul White’s are minor as compared with their similarities. That said, Milsap, Wall, and White do excellent jobs of conveying Guthrie’s messages about rural poverty, economic discrimination, and social justice. Milsap’s inclusion of George Floyd in his updated rendition is especially notable for showing the modern currency of the lyrics.
The number of women contributing to the album shows the changes in contemporary folk-related music that men heavily dominated. Half of the 14 cuts are by females or groups with women in the forefront (Shovels & Rope, Lost Dog Steet Band, Watkins Family Hour, LeeAnn Womack, Waxahatchee, Lillie Mae, and the Secret Sisters). Like the men, these acts perform in their individual styles (bluegrass, indie rock, country, etc.) yet play things straight. The best cuts include Womack’s humorously prophetic” Dusty Old Dust” with its familiar refrain “So long, it’s been good to know you”; Waxahatchee’s comically apocalyptic “Talkin’ Dust Bowl Blues”; and Shovels & Ropes’ stark take on “Dust Bowl Blues”.
The contributors are overwhelmingly white, with Swamp Dogg being the main exception. Nothing on his take on “Dust Bowl Refugee” suggests his racial identity, which would be patronizing. Dogg sings with a combination of determination and desperation to present the plight of the migrant.
Home in This World: Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads may not be as revelatory as the original album, but it’s still quite good and serves a worthwhile purpose. The Dust Bowl Troubadour still has much to teach us about the damage we do to the Earth and ourselves. We need to care for the land and each other to make the world a better place. We may no longer be living in the Great Depression, but there are strong correspondences between them that we ignore at our peril.