Voices from the Dust Bowl: the Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection, 1940-1941
Voices from the Dust Bowl, 1940-1941, is a multi-format ethnographic field collection that contains audio recordings, photographs, manuscript materials, publications, and ephemera generated during two documentation trips to migrant worker camps in California. Documented are dance tunes, cowboy songs, traditional ballads, square dance and play party calls, camp council meeting conversations, and storytelling sessions of Dust Bowl refugees who inhabited the camps.
These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.
- The Migrant Experience
- Voices from the Thirties: An Introduction to the WPA Life Histories Collection
These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection, although they may not be all-encompassing.
- Emergence of Modern America, 1890-1930
- The Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1945
Related Collections and Exhibits
These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.
- American Life Histories, 1936-1940
- Built in America: 1933-Present
- California Gold: Folk Music from the Thirties
- FSA/OWI Photographs, 1938-1944
- Hispano Music and Culture of the Northern Rio Grande
Recommended additional sources of information.
- The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress
- Folklife and Fieldwork: A Layman's Introduction to Field Techniques
- Folklife Sourcebook: A Directory of Folklife Resources in the United States
- A Teacher's Guide to Folklife Resources for K-12
Specific guidance for searching this collection.
Search for items using the keyword search, or by selecting from lists of Song Text, Audio Titles, Photographs, and Performers and Interviewees. Note that not all of the recordings have transcribed song texts.
For field notes describing migrant camps in detail, see Research Materials.
For related materials including a scrapbook, newspaper, camp newsletters, and a radio script about the migrant performers, go to Publications and Ephemera.
Several items in the collection contain ethnic stereotyping typical of the period. Teachers may wish to hold context-setting conversations about racism, stereotyping, and discrimination in Depression-era America when using this collection with students.
For help with general search strategies, go to Finding Items in American Memory.
The ethnographic materials in Voices from the Dust Bowl, 1940-1941 can launch studies into U.S. social, agricultural, labor, and economic history. The songs, notes, clippings, and photographs of the collection add a human face to investigations of migration, farm labor, and social welfare programs during the Great Depression and the World War I eras.
1) Agricultural History
Students can research the agricultural conditions that led to the Dust Bowl using The Migrant Experience and other sources from their school libraries. This collection provides songs and recordings about dust storms in various locations. Searching on dust storms, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, and California will result in selections such as:
Using their research, have students prepare a chart that lists causes of the dust storms, reasons for migration by Dust Bowl residents, and conditions for the migrants.
2) The New Deal
Students can use this collection to study the Roosevelt administration, the Depression, and the New Deal. Set the stage by having students review the telegram from Eleanor Roosevelt's secretary requesting that Charles Todd attend dinner at the White House. Then have students read the article entitled FDR hears Todd Records.
Using library research and Web resources, have students answer questions including:
- What was the New Deal? Why was the New Deal created?
- What was the Farm Security Administration?
- Why would the Roosevelts have been interested in Todd's recordings?
Helpful Web resources might include:
- descriptions of the Farm Security Administration in Voices from the Dust Bowl and Photographs from the FSA-OWI, collections at the Library of Congress;
- the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum (external link) biographies of President Roosevelt (external link) and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt (external link);
- and the New Deal Network (external link) site.
3) Relief Camps for Migrant Workers
Students can investigate camp conditions for migrant workers by searching on words such as migrant, camp, government camp, and labor. Ask students to find two entries from the collection that provide differing views of camp life. Searches might result in selections such as:
- the field notes for Arvin Camp, Arvin California, July 28, 1940;
- the song text for I'd Rather Not Be on Relief and Sunny Cal;
- the interviews with Mr. J.W. Becker and Mrs. J.W. Becker about conditions in private and government camps;
- the article by Charles Todd entitled Trampling Out the Vintage: Farm Security Camps Provide the Imperial Valley Migrants with a Home and a Hope. (Common Sense, July 1939).
Based on their research, have student teams take opposite sides and debate the question, "Was it a good idea for the government to sponsor relief camps for migrant workers through the Resettlement Administration? Why or why not?"
4) Organized Labor
Using this collection, students can begin investigating efforts to organize migrant farm labor. First have students search the full text of the collection for labor-related items. By using search words like join, picket, camp, earn, pay, union, and labor, students may find selections such as the song Roll Out the Pickets and the related recording.
Students can review one or more of the labor-related articles found in Charles Todd's Scrapbook (Note: For legible quality, you must click on the small image of the article in order to display a larger version.):
- Farmers Push War on Unions
- Associated Farmers Declaration of Law and Order
- Put Roof Over Our Heads Homeless Strikers Demand
- 'Evictee City' to House Ventura Lemon Strikers
Although Voices from the Dust Bowl, 1940-1941 was amassed over a short period of time and focused on people in a unique set of circumstances, there are themes that reoccur in history such as migration, the economics of agriculture, and labor movements.
1) Chronological Thinking
Students can compare the migration of Dust Bowl farmers with other migrations in the U.S. Have students use this collection and other sources to construct a time line of migration surges in North America from 1800 to 1900. Ask students to illustrate their timeline with lyrics, photographs, or other historical records of migration. They might include pioneers on the Oregon Trail, the Trail of Tears (forced migration of Native Americans), the 1849 California Gold Rush, and The Great Migration of African-Americans to the North during World War I.
Other Web resources that might help students prepare and illustrate their time line include National History Day materials on the topic of Migration in History.
2) Historical Comprehension
Ask students to browse the collection song titles and audio titles to identify familiar songs and common song themes. Students might discover old familiar songs such as She'll Be Coming Around The Mountain, Skip to My Lou, and Sweet Betsy from Pike. Students might also identify common song themes such as love, death, work, and home.
Ask students to imagine that they are migrant workers at a camp in California. In that role, have each student write a letter home to Oklahoma describing the songs they sing at camp, and why familiar songs and songs about common themes are important to the migrant workers.
3) Historical Analysis and Interpretation
Have students review The Migrant Experience and then use a map of the United States to locate the southern Great Plains states affected by drought storms. Next, have students visit the Federal Emergency Management Agency FEMA for Kids web site. Using the Disaster Area page and a map, have students identify potential natural disasters in their local area. As a class, discuss and prepare a Disaster Supply Kit for Dust Bowl farmers of the 1930's and 1940's. Then have students prepare Disaster Supply Kits for their home.
4) Historical Issue Analysis and Decision Making
Ask students to read Charles Todd's letter dated September 10, 1985. In this letter, Todd writes to a Library of Congress curator describing the Voices of the Dust Bowl collection that he has in storage. After students have worked with the collection on other projects, ask them to take the role of the curator and write back to Todd. They should answer questions such as:
- Does the Library of Congress want this collection? Why or why not?
- What is the historical significance of this collection?
5) Historical Research Capabilities
As a class, review the description of an Ethnographic Field Collection. Using the Folksong Questionnaire Part III, have students prepare a family Ethnographic Field Collection. The collection should contain family songs, interviews, and other written or photographic material that documents family traditions.
Arts & Humanities
Voices from the Dust Bowl, 1940-1941 offers many opportunities to learn about American social history while developing language arts skills. Stories told through songs and other materials in the collection can launch literature, writing, and speaking activities.
Voices from the Dust Bowl provides unique insight into John Steinbeck's classic The Grapes of Wrath. A note on the photograph to the right indicates that "Many thought of [Mrs. Pipkin] as a prototype of 'Ma Joad' in The Grapes of Wrath." Conversely, notes about the Todd and Sonkin Collecting Expedition reveal that a pamphlet written by John Steinbeck inspired Charles Todd to investigate migrant camps.
Tell students that they are set designers for a stage adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath. Have students write a set description for the camp scenes in the novel. Then have students compare their scene description with field notes about Arvin Camp, Arvin California. These field notes describe the camp on which The Grapes of Wrath was based.
Have students research the contemporary response to the publication of The Grapes of Wrath. Using their school library or resources found in Charles Todd's Scrapbook, ask students to consider why some journalists sought to discredit the novel. (See image 10 in the notebook; for a legible copy, click on the small image of the article entitled "Grapes of Wrath") Would this book be banned today from libraries?
2) Role Playing
Have students listen to the five-minute recording of Mr. and Mrs. J.W. Becker describing the conditions under which people lived in private and government camps. (You may wish to have students listen several times.) Assign roles to students such as:
- New Arrival at Camp, Came from a Private Camp
- New Arrival at Camp, No Money
- Camp Resident with Contagious Illness
- Overseer Trying to Help New Arrivals
- Camp Doctor
- Woman in the Welfare Unit
Have students write and perform or improvise a vignette about camp life based on the information in these interviews.