Written by 10,000 Maniacs lead singer Natalie Merchant, the song details a poverty-stricken single mother's struggle to care for her three children. The title refers to the severe dust storms of the 1930's that destroyed Midwestern farmland in the US and forced thousands of families to abandon their farms and migrate to other states.
Merchant was inspired by a line from President George Bush's 1989 inaugural address, known as the "thousand points of light" speech, that encouraged US citizens to be proactive in their communities and help their fellow Americans. He spoke of the positive change as "a new wind blowing," but Merchant turned the idea on its head in relation to the destructive Dust Bowl winds that not only destroyed land, but livelihood and spirit. She explained in a 2014 interview with The Diane Rehm Show: "And so I sang, 'there's a new wind blowing, they say, and it's gonna be a cold, cold one. So brace yourselves, my darlings, cause it won't bring anything much our way, but more Dust Bowl days.'"
When Merchant, who was single and without children when she wrote this, first became a mother in 2003, she found herself connecting with the song on a deeper level: "The mother's staying up all night with a feverish child, and I've had to do that myself, now that I'm a mother. So, although I don't live hand to mouth, I do know what it's like to have to care for a child who's sick. So now, when I sing those songs, and some of the newer songs, I think my level of understanding of life is deeper because of age and experience."