Saturday, September 10, 2011

Show 54 - The 1930 Drought



In the spring of 1930, a horrible drought began in nearly every Southern state. It was particular tough for those dependent on agricultural work. As supply of crops dwindled, prices dropped with the Depression. People were starving. Mississippi and Arkansas were particular hard hit, so it’s no surprise that there are a few great blues songs about it. Charley Patton recorded Dry Well Blues that year at sessions for Paramount in Grafton Wisconsin focusing on the suffering of folks in his then hometown of Lula, Mississippi:

Way down in Lula, I was living at ease
Way down in Lula, hard living has done hit
Lord, your drought come and caught us, and parched up all the trees
Aw, she stays over in Lula, bid the old town goodbye
Stays in Lula, bidding you the town goodbye
Well it would come to know the day, oh, the Lula well was gone dry
Lord, there are citizens around Lula, all was doing very well
Citizens around Lula, all was doing very well
Now they're in hard luck together??, 'cause rain don't pour nowhere
I ain't got no money and I sure ain't got no home
I ain't got no money and I sure ain't got no home
Hot weather done come in, parched all the cotton and corn
Boy, they tell me the country, Lord, it will make you cry
Lord, country, Lord, it'll make you cry
Most anybody, Lord, hasn't any water nearby
Lord, the Lula women, Lord, putting Lula men down
Lula men, oh, putting Lula men down
Lord, you oughta been there, Lord, the women all leaving town
Also along on those sessions in Grafton were Son House, Willie Brown and pianist Louise Johnson. The story goes that Louise Johnson started out as Charley Patton’s girl, but by the end of the trip from Mississippi to Wisconsin, she was Son House’s girl. If Son House took Patton’s girl, he also seemed to take his theme. He recorded Dry Spell Blues in two parts due to technical limitations on recording length. Unlike Patton’s local focus, Son House shows the universality of the suffering from drought:

Part I:
The dry spell blues have fallen, drug me from door to door
Dry spell blues have fallen, drug me from door to door
The dry spell blues have put everybody on the killing floor
Now the people down South soon won't have no home
Lord, the people down South, soon won't have no home
'Cause this dry spell has parched all this cotton and corn
Hard luck's on everybody, ain't missing but a few
Hard luck's on everybody, ain't missing but a few
Now it’s been dry, oh, ain’t got even a dew
Lord, I fold my arms and I walked away
Lord, I fold my arms and I walked away
Just like I tell you, somebody's got to pray
Pork chops forty-five cents a pound, cotton is only ten
Pork chops forty-five cents a pound, cotton is only ten
I can't keep no women, no not one of them
 So dry old boll weevil turn up his toes and die
So dry old boll weevil turn up his toes and die
No ain't nothing to do, but bootleg moonshine and rye
Part II
It has been so dry, you can make a powderhouse out of the world
Well, it has been so dry, you can make a powderhouse out of the world
And holler money men, like a rattlesnake in his quirl
I done throwed up my hands, Lord, and solemnly swore
I done throwed up my hands, Lord, and solemnly swore
It ain't no need of me changing towns, it's the drought everywhere I go
It's a dry old spell everywhere I’ve been
Oh, it's a dry old spell everywhere I’ve been
I believe to my soul this whole world is bound to end
Well, I stood in my backyard, wrung my hands and screamed
I stood in my backyard, I wrung my hands and screamed
Well, I couldn't see nothing, couldn't see nothing green
Oh, Lord, have mercy if you please
Oh, Lord, have mercy if you please
Let your rain come down and give our poor hearts ease
These blues, these blues is worthwhile to be heard
Oh, these blues, worthwhile to be heard
Lord, it’s even likely bound to rain somewhere

Son House probably wrote that song specifically for the recording session in 1930. He never played it when he returned to music in the 1960s and it’s possible his only performance of it may have been at that studio session.

St. Louis musician Spider Carter recorded a number with the same title as Son House’s song in 1930 singing about the hard times resulting from the drought. Dry Spell Blues:

Dry spell is on, many a man ain’t got no homeDry spell is on, many a man ain’t got no homeThey have caused poor me to wander and roam
I woke up this morning just about half past fourI woke up this morning just about half past fourAll I could feel was my love knocking on my door
Hard times are driving me madHard times are driving me madThey are the worst off feeling that I’ve ever had
It’s so dry down home, most can’t plant cotton and cornIt’s so dry down home, most can’t plant potatoes and cornAnd don’t I miss it, since the dry spell’s been on
Everywhere that I went was nothing but bad newsEverywhere that I went was nothing but bad newsThat’s why I’m singing these lonesome dry spell blues
The great spiritual singer and slide guitar player Blind Willie Johnson also recorded about rain in 1930. He might not have been singing about the drought specifically, but it’s about God’s gift of rain. Willie B. Richardson is the female vocalist.The title is Rain Don’t Fall on Me, but the lyrics sound close to “rain done fell on me:”
Oh the rain, that old rain, that old rain done fell on me
Oh the rain, that old rain, oh the rain, that old rain
that old rain, that old rain done fell on me
Oh the rain, that old rain, oh the rain, that old rain
that old rain, that old rain done fell on me
Don’t you know promise it’s true
It was sent from heaven to you
it was sent to the beloved son of God
Oh the rain, that old rain, that old rain done fell on me
Oh the rain, that old rain, oh the rain, that old rain
that old rain, that old rain done fell on me
It’s for you, it’s for you and your children too
Oh the rain, that old rain, that old rain done fell on me
Oh the rain, that old rain, oh the rain, that old rain
That old rain, that old rain done fell on me
The main reason that the 1930 drought doesn't get much historical attention is that the dust bowl droughts of the mid-1930s overshadow it. Woody Guthrie was the greatest chronicler of that drought in song. He recorded a blues number Dust Bowl Blues:
I just blowed in, and I got them dust bowl blues
I just blowed in, and I got them dust bowl blues
I just blowed in, and I'll blow back out again
I guess you've heard about every kind of blues
I guess you've heard about every kind of blues
But when the dust gets high, you can't even see the sky
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 that road with a bottle in my hand
I spent ten years down in that old dust bowl
I spent ten years down in that old dust bowl
When you get that dust pneumonia, boy, it's time to go
 
I had a gal and she was young and sweet
I had a gal and she was young and sweet
But a dust storm buried her--sixteen hundred feet
 
She was a good gal, long, tall and stout
Yes, she was a good gal, long, tall and stout
I had to get a steam shovel just to dig my darling out
These dusty blues are the dustiest ones I know
These dusty blues are the dustiest ones I know
Buried head over heels in the black old dust, I had to pack up and go
And I just blowed in and I'll soon blow out again

Further reading: Luigi Monge's essay on Son House's Dry Spell Blues in the David Evans book Ramblin' On My Mind and Nan Woodruff's book As Rare as Rain about the drought and federal assistance programs providing relief.

Songs:
Dry Well Blues - Charley Patton
Dry Spell Blues Parts 1 and 2 - Son House
Dry Spell Blues - Spider Carter
Rain Don't Fall on Me - Blind Willie Johnson
Dust Bowl Blues - Woody Guthrie

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