Playing by ear, migrants molded valley culture

09/16/2008 3:50 AM

09/16/2008 3:54 AM

Men toting guitars, harmonicas and anything that "could make a noise" often filed into the building at the center of the Shafter labor camp where Glynda Campbell's family spent its first years in California.

She mustered up her courage one day and joined them, belting out a rendition of "Yes, Jesus Loves Me." Her tune won her a watermelon she could hardly carry.

Campbell, 75, was a little girl that day -- she can't remember how old. Over the years, she'd learn many more of the gospel and country songs Oklahoma families like hers brought to the San Joaquin Valley when they fled the Dust Bowl.

"People would just get together," said Campbell, who lives south of Ceres. "None of them played a note; it was all by ear."

It didn't take long for the laborers' music to leave the fields and find a home on the radio, reshaping California's cultural scene.

Woody Guthrie, a migrant himself, released his "Dust Bowl Ballads" in 1940. His songs from that album focused on the migration, just as John Steinbeck did in "The Grapes of Wrath."

"These dusty blues are the dustiest ones I know," Guthrie sang on "Dust Bowl Blues." "Buried head over heels in the black old dust, / I had to pack up and go. / An' I just blowed in, an' I'll soon blow out again."

Country bands found audiences in places such as the Riverbank Club House and The Blackboard in Bakersfield. Modesto radio icon Chester Smith provided air time on his programs, too, after the migrants started to build permanent lives in California.

Gospel songs, meanwhile, flourished in the evangelical churches that sprouted up wherever the migrants' settled.

Herb Henry, a Ceres pastor whose parents were part of the Dust Bowl migration, saw a theme in the spirit and lyrics of the "Okies' " songs.

"Life was hard, and they didn't see any way out of it," said Henry, 61, who continues to perform with the Herb Henry Family.

"It was just hard labor. When they got to heaven, they wanted their family to be there," Henry said.

He cited Albert E. Brumley's "I'll Fly Away" as an example. Brumley, an Oklahoman, wrote it after a hot day picking cotton.

The lyrics read: "I'll fly away/ When the shadows of this life have grown / I'll fly away/ Like a bird from prison bars has flown/ I'll fly away."

Kent Whitt, a Modestan who spent a teenage summer playing drums for a band made up of Dust Bowl migrants, heard a similar tone in country songs.

"When people sing, you think of them being happy, but at the same time, people can be very unhappy and sing because it helps them escape how they feel," said Whitt, 67.

Campbell remembers the camp songs as upbeat, especially when an expert guitar picker came along. To her, the songs mixed feelings of relief from escaping the Dust Bowl with disappointment over the obstacles the migrants often found in California.

"They just kind of accepted what it was," she said. "We were happy we got there and we were eating because they certainly were not in Oklahoma. The sad part was they got here, and it wasn't what it was built up to be."

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.

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