Voices from the Dust Bowl: the Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection, 1940-1941
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.):