Wednesday, Apr 09 2014 06:00 AM

Guest Columnist: Dust Bowl, music and memories

Woody Guthrie, the renowned Dust Bowl troubadour, was so inspired by John Ford's classic 1940 film, "The Grapes of Wrath," he immediately found a copy of the book upon which it was based, took it home and devoured it, front to back. When he was finished, he read it again.

Then Guthrie himself put pen to paper, and hand to guitar, to write one of his most enduring songs, "The Ballad of Tom Joad." At 12 verses and nearly seven minutes, the musical tale of the book's protagonist was too long for the 78 rpm records of the day, so Guthrie split it in half. Part two went on the record's flip side.

Not long after the song's release in July 1940, Guthrie received a letter from John Steinbeck, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning novel had been published the year before.

"You little bastard," it began. "How could you say in a few verses what it took me an entire novel to say?"

At least that's the way Arlo Guthrie tells the story, and he ought to know. The son of Woody Guthrie still has the letter.

Arlo has a lot of stories about his father. So many, in fact, that in honor of what would have been Woody's 100th birthday he put together a show comprised entirely of his father's songs. The two-year tour -- a succession of tours, actually -- began in July 2012 and ends in mid-May.

That makes Arlo's April 9 show at Bakersfield's Fox Theater one of the very last in a lengthy and close-to-the-heart undertaking.

"You're catching us at the best time," Arlo Guthrie said in a phone interview Tuesday. "We finally know what we're doing."

That side benefit goes nicely with another bit of fortuitous timing: Cal State Bakersfield is in the midst of a 75th-year commemoration of the publication of Steinbeck's book. CSUB's School of Arts & Humanities sought out Guthrie specifically for this communitywide celebration, and the university is a co-sponsor of the show.

"The Ballad of Tom Joad" first appeared on Woody's 1940 album, "Dust Bowl Ballads," which he recorded in New York a short time after leaving California. He had met Steinbeck at the Weedpatch Labor Camp and the men hit it off.

"We made up with the Steinbecks," Arlo noted, alluding to Steinbeck's faux outrage. Proof: Arlo's youngest daughter, Sarah Lee Guthrie, is married to one of Steinbeck's grand-nephews, Johnny Irion. They're a husband-and-wife folk-rock team that has performed often with Arlo.

The Woody Guthrie tour

The "Grapes of Wrath" connection is apropos for the show.

"One of the things that people here might be interested to know is that my father was really moved by John Steinbeck," Arlo said. "'Grapes of Wrath' was an important story. Even though it was fiction, it was fact for him. Sometimes you have to tell a story for things to come to life."

Woody's own story has been well chronicled: At least eight biographies of the man are in print, and several volumes of Woody's writing are out there, too, including a recently discovered novel completed in 1947, "House of Earth."

Arlo recommends "Ramblin' Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie," by Ed Cray, who also wrote "Chief Justice," the definitive biography of Bakersfield's Earl Warren.

Cray's biography of Woody, Arlo said, "follows his life like a calendar of events -- where he wrote the songs he wrote and what day he wrote them ... It's a detailed account of what he really did. And what he did was, he gave these people a voice. What John Steinbeck did in the literary world, he did with music. And music is a lot more spontaneous, easier than reading a book.

"He reached these people who were so hard hit by Depression and drought, people who were just wiped out by natural disasters and man-made ones, a one-two punch that some folks never got over.

"They weren't just broke, they were dispirited, and he rekindled that sense of humor. He helped them believe they weren't just pieces of dust floating around. They were somebody."

A taste of migrant life

Several years ago Arlo Guthrie and Tom Steinbeck, the writer and eldest son of John Steinbeck, went back to the migrant labor camps where their famous fathers had been separately photographed decades before. They wanted to re-create their poses in photographs shot in the same settings, at the same angles.

Guthrie can't remember which camp it was, but it was quite possibly the Weedpatch Camp, because both fathers had visited there, and Weedpatch was the setting for both the book and film, "The Grapes of Wrath."

"As we pull up, there's some folks standing out there. They see these big cars coming with all the cameras -- and they're fleeing! And I got out and said, 'No, no, we're not the government.' And I'm trying to explain in my Spanish, which isn't too good. I showed them the pictures, and tell 'em, 'That's my papa, and he was here then.' Well, word went around and all these people came back, and they've got us signing pictures and everything.

"After we were done they brought us -- I had never seen anything like this -- they brought us a totally different fruit. The best, biggest, juiciest grapes I had ever tasted. Here are these hard- working people living under these conditions, fine people, treating us to this wonderful thing. And we ate those grapes for weeks.

"I've been in the fanciest, most uppity places in New York and they don't have anything on those folks."

While he's out this way, Arlo hopes to pay a visit his father's first wife, Mary Jennings, with whom Woody had three children. The family matriarch, 97, is "holding on by a slim thread" somewhere between Bakersfield and Los Angeles.

ROBERT PRICE is executive editor of The Bakersfield Californian. He sits on the CSUB committee organizing events for the 75th anniversary of "The Grapes of Wrath."

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