"This is definitely a story song about my family that all came out to California from Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl," explains songwriter Randy Sharp. "A biography of the Sharp family. It’s two generations ago, but there’s remnants of that mentality, and there’s a lot of Sharps still in California that are descendants of those people. And my parents still talk about it, they were children during a lot of that. But the desperate times… we tried to tell a story of both how desperate it was, and how these people lost everything, and tried to get to California because there was supposed to be work here. And they got here and discovered that there were already thousands of families needing work. And at the same time they were drawn out here by the attraction of the place, how beautiful it was, the snow capped Sierra Nevadas, and the big lush San Joaquin Valley, which is the central valley in California, and all of the green and the alfalfa and the citrus farmland. It was kind of a paradise. It’s slipped a lot since then. So Jack Routh and I spent a long time trying to tell both those stories of the paradise, and the fact that it was just an incredibly difficult life once they got here. We were just trying to paint a picture of these two things; the beauty of the place coupled with the difficulty of the work." (Read more in our interview with Randy Sharp
The San Joaquin Valley is located in central California, south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in Stockton. A mostly rural valley, urban cities such as Fresno, Bakersfield, Stockton, Modesto, and Merced are encompassed within its region.
Between 1930 and 1940, the southwestern Great Plains region of the United States suffered a severe drought. Combined with dry land farming and overgrazing by cattle, the drought brought the arid region to its knees. The area's naturally strong winds continuously and unremittingly blew billowing clouds of dust over the region, darkening the skies for days. When it was over, 19 states in the heartland of the US had become a vast dust bowl. So, their prospects of making a living nonexistent, farm families fled west to a future of migrant labor.
In his 1939 book The Grapes of Wrath, author John Steinbeck described the flight of families from the Dust Bowl: "And then the dispossessed were drawn west - from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico; from Nevada and Arkansas, families, tribes, dusted out, tractored out. Car-loads, caravans, homeless and hungry; twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless - restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do - to lift, to push, to pick, to cut - anything, any burden to bear, for food. The kids are hungry. We got no place to live. Like ants scurrying for work, for food, and most of all for land." In all, 400,000 people left the Great Plains, victims of the combined action of severe drought and poor soil conservation practices.
The Dust Bowl got its name after Black Sunday, April 14, 1935. More and more dust storms had been blowing up in the years leading up to that day. In 1932, 14 dust storms were recorded on the Plains. In 1933, there were 38 storms. By 1934, it was estimated that 100 million acres of farmland had lost all or most of the topsoil to the winds. By April 1935, there had been weeks of dust storms, but the cloud that appeared on the horizon that Sunday was the worst. Winds were clocked at 60 mph. Then it hit.
"The impact is like a shovelful of fine sand flung against the face," Avis D. Carlson wrote in a New Republic article. "People caught in their own yards grope for the doorstep. Cars come to a standstill, for no light in the world can penetrate that swirling murk... We live with the dust, eat it, sleep with it, watch it strip us of possessions and the hope of possessions. It is becoming real."
The day after Black Sunday, an Associated Press reporter used the term "Dust Bowl" for the first time. "Three little words achingly familiar on the Western farmer's tongue, rule life in the dust bowl of the continent – if it rains." The term stuck and was used by radio reporters and writers, in private letters and public speeches. (Bill Ganzel of the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.)
Cyclic winds rolled up two miles high, stretched out a hundred miles and moved faster than 50 miles an hour. These storms destroyed vast areas of the Great Plains farmland. The methods of fighting the dust were as many and varied as were the means of finding a way to get something to eat and wear. Every possible crack was plugged, sheets were placed over windows and blankets were hung behind doors. Often the places were so tightly plugged against the dust (which still managed to get in) that the houses became extremely hot and stuffy.
The clouds appeared on the horizons with a thunderous roar. Turbulent dust clouds rolled in generally from the North and dumped a fine silt over the land. Men, women and children stayed in their houses and tied handkerchiefs over their noses and mouths. When they dared to leave, they added goggles to protect their eyes. Houses were shut tight, cloth was wedged in the cracks of the doors and windows but still the fine silt forced its way into houses, schools and businesses. During the storms, the air indoors was "swept" with wet gunny sacks. Sponges were used as makeshift "dust masks" and damp sheets were tied over the beds. (The Dust Bowl, Men, Dirt and Depression by Paul Bonnifield.)