John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath: Voice and Vision

Woody Guthrie

The Dust Bowl Balladeer

For the Educator

In identifying popular figures who have had far-reaching impact on America’s public consciousness and the shaping of perspectives of public vision, Woody Guthrie would be a contender for a top billing. Song renditions of this “Dust Bowl Balladeer” are considered counterparts of John Steinbeck’s powerful narrative and prose in The Grapes of Wrath and of Dorothea Lange’s compelling photography in documenting the scarring imprint of the disasters of the 1930s on American life and the backbone of courage growing out of those disasters.

At first glance, Woody Guthrie’s guitar-accompanied folk lyrics would not seem to be in the league, as it now is, to be archived in the Library of Congress and recently celebrated in Smithsonian Magazine, or the seminal source for derivatives shaped by folk artists such as Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan, or which continue to be treasured throughout America by a large contingency of the population - even integrated into some university curricula. To gain insight into the magnetic draw of Woody Guthrie, and to enrich a study of the text of The Grapes of Wrath by introducing the perspective of this “Prophet Singer”, consider assigning students the following activities.

For the Student

  • Join with one or two classmates to explore–and record in your notes - your perceptions of (a) the basic nature of “folk music”, and (b) basic characteristics of “folk singers.” Include in your response one or two (or more) specific examples of contemporary songs and contemporary performers whom you think belong in the “folk” category and a brief explanation of why you think the songs and singers qualify for this category.

  • After sharing the above perceptions in open class discussion, compare ideas about “folk” music and “folk” performers as defined in the class discussion with the following Woody Guthrie definition, and if possible, watch a Web vignette of a Woody Guthrie performance.

    A folk song is what's wrong and how to fix it or it could be
    who's hungry and where their mouth is or
    who's out of work and where the job is or
    who's broke and where the money is or
    who's carrying a gun and where the peace is.

    Enter in your notes a few paragraphs in which you sum up your perceptions of specific aspects that Woody Guthrie is advocating are “ingredients” of a “folk” song, and (b) the tone quality and rhythm of the statement and what linguistic elements of the construction build this tone quality and rhythm.

  • Woody Guthrie grew up in Okemah, Oklahoma. His family was hit hard by the Great Depression. He left home at the age of 16 and “took to the road”. He also spent time in California during the 1930s– and had witnessed the desperation and appalling plight of the migrant families from the American Great Plains states who had come West looking for employment.

    From the beginning, Guthrie had been a champion of the underdog – the poverty stricken, the displaced, the “forgotten man”. It was a natural sequence then, with his Oklahoma background and dedication to the cause of the “hungry”, “out of work”, and “broke” that he would be drawn to John Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath.

    Woody Guthrie wrote a large collection of “Dust Bowl” songs, among them – and perhaps the best known and celebrated, “Tom Joad”, a direct take-off from Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The lyrics recount the basic “story” of the Joad family as it is told in the text, but it is the last few stanzas that draw the most compelling parallel, not only with Steinbeck’s text but with the theme that recurs throughout a large bank of Woody Guthrie’s lyrics. It is as though Woody Guthrie, at that juncture of his song, had become Tom Joad.

    Study the following excerpt from the lyrics of Guthrie’s “Tom Joad” carefully, then enter an explanation of specific ways Guthrie’s lyrics resonate specific elements of the text of The Grapes of Wrath. Identify two or three passages or record two or three quotes out of the text that support your explanation.

    An excerpt from Woody Guthrie’s ballad “Tom Joad”

    Ever'body might be just one big soul,
    Well it looks that a-way to me.
    Everywhere that you look, in the day or night,
    That's where I'm a-gonna be, Ma,
    That's where I'm a-gonna be.

    Wherever little children are hungry and cry,
    Wherever people ain't free.
    Wherever men are fightin' for their rights,
    That's where I'm a-gonna be, Ma.
    That's where I'm a-gonna be.

  • Woody Guthrie’s “Tom Joad” and many other Guthrie folk songs are referred to as “ballads”. What are some of the basic characteristics of the ballad form? A few terms to explore in thinking that question through are: “narrative”; “compression”, “direct address”; “rhetorical parallelism”; “colloquial”. In what specific ways do the lyrics of Guthrie’s “Tom Joad” reflect these qualities? Record your responses in your notes.

  • Consider working with a collaborative partner to write the lyrics of an original ballad based on some aspect of the Steinbeck text. Give attention to crafting your ballad in “authentic” ballad form. Also, consider developing an original music score to accompany your lyrics – or, as Woody Guthrie often did, “borrow” a familiar tune from the public domain to use as the music score for your original lyrics.

    Consider performing your ballad in Woody Guthrie’s “style” – part singing, part “talking” the lyrics. Note that the cadence of Woody Guthrie’s use of “words” – his “talking” voice was considered poetic and to be as musical as his singing voice.

Next: Hollywood and Radio in the 1930s



Jayne Karsten
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources

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