Dave Powell

Part Two: Dusty Old Dust (1931-37)

Woody left Oklahoma to join his father in Pampa, Texas. Charley took up with a new wife named Bettie Jean McPherson, who had been trained as a nurse—but of “a rather curious sort,” as Woody’s biographer, Joe Klein, put it. Bettie Jean was “a kind of mystic masseuse” who “claimed expertise in chiropractic, phrenology, palmistry, Gypsy Dream Book, tarot cards, coffee grounds, tea leaves, Ouija board, and crystal ball.” She had studied “the occult” with “four different spiritualist mediums and two yogis, knew the nineteen points of Rosicrucianism, and could quote more than three hundred healing and gifted scriptures from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.” But her “pride and joy,” according to Klein, was the practice of “Electro-Magnetic Healing,” which Klein said she “had invented and named because it sounded modern, and you had to keep up with the times.” Electro-Magnetic Healing “involved the laying on of hands and a lot of fast talk, which varied according to the patient’s malady and gullibility.”[1] Charley was the perfect patient.

As he was recovering, Charley was convinced by his brother, Jeff Davis Guthrie, whom Woody knew as Uncle Jeff, to chart an expedition to the Chisos Mountains in Mexico in search of a silver claim that, according to family legend, had been made by Jeff and Charley’s father, Jerry P. Guthrie.[1] The trip, which is also dramatized in Nick Hayes’ semi-biographical account of Woody’s life, Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl Ballads, would have a profound impact on Woody’s emerging artistic sensibility.[2] The mountains seemed far removed from the pain and heartache of the boom-and-bust cycles of life back in Texas and Oklahoma.

Back in Pampa Woody met Mary Jennings, the sister of his friend Matt Jennings, and they married in 1933. Woody and Matt had formed a band called the Corncob Trio with another friend, Cluster Baker, and the trio found itself playing for crowds around town.[3] His experiences playing with Matt and Cluster served as a kind of musical awakening for Woody, helping him hone the act that would one day make him famous and tapping into his love of performing. In addition to finding music as an outlet for his creativity, Woody also took up drawing and painting. He wrote a collection of songs under the pseudonym Alonzo Zilch. He also spent a lot of time at the local library, soaking up knowledge and putting the lie to the reputation he would later take on as an uneducated Okie.[4] Woody was always closer to being the “prairie Shakespeare” he was seen as in New York in the 1940s than the straggling, semi-articulate country bumpkin who sang songs because it was easier to communicate that way. 

On April 14, 1935, a huge “wall of blackness” appeared just to the north of town in Pampa, extending, as Klein has written, “as far as the eye could see to the east and west.”[5] It was the start of an unprecedented environmental disaster that would exact a permanent toll on the social, cultural, and political life of millions of Americans. At first the townspeople celebrated the “Great Dust Storm” as an amusing anomaly, but the atmosphere quickly changed as they realized it had not rained in four years and the wind wasn’t about to die down. A reporter from Washington visited and dubbed the area around the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles the “Dust Bowl,” a name that would survive in history books. In fact, the great mountains of dust would inspire Woody’s creativity as he later wrote songs like “Talking Dust Bowl Blues,” “Dust Pneumonia Blues,” and “Dusty Old Dust,” known best by its tagline: “So long, it’s been good to know you.” In chapter 6 of his book, Hayes dramatizes a meeting between Woody and his father, Charley, in Oklahoma around this time.[6] Charley explains the shortcomings of the boom and bust cycle of capitalism, mesmerizing Woody with his tale of woe while also slowly pushing his son away. Eventually Charley went back to Texas and Woody did too, for a time—before one day, after only about a month back at home with Mary and his family, he decided he had to leave.[7]

Continue to Part Three

[1] Klein, p. 50-51.

[1] Klein, pp. 51-54.

[2] Nick Hayes, Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl Ballads. London: Random House, 2016.

[3] Klein, pp. 54-59.

[4] Hayes, Chapter 4.

[5] Klein, p. 70.

[6] Hayes, Chapter 6.

[7] Rob Tepper, “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh.” Dust Bowl Productions, 2011. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/34589384.

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