What happened to Okies after "The Grapes of Wrath"

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The Dust Bowl

What Happened to Okies After "The Grapes of Wrath"

by Hugh Pickens

Contents

The Grapes of Wrath

Many years ago, the weather in Oklahoma went haywire, the rain stopped, dust storms blew away the top soil, crops failed, farmers couldn’t pay their mortgages, and Okies fled to the promised land of California in a migration that has been compared to the biblical story of Exodus. "Unlike God, 1930s California growers did not keep their promises," says Marty Fulgate. "They blanketed Oklahoma with flyers promising a land of milk, honey and good jobs — a scam. But thousands of disposed tenant farmers believed it. They’d pull up stakes, arrive in California and find a few hundred jobs at starvation wages — take it or leave it. Sad history. And, if you know a little history, you know what the [migrants] are in for. They are on a road to nowhere. You know it, but you’re still swept up in the journey."

"The Grapes of Wrath" is an American realist novel written by John Steinbeck and published in 1939 that focuses on a poor family of tenant farmers driven from their Oklahoma home by drought, economic hardship, and changes in the agricultural industry. The book won the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and it was cited prominently when Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in 1962. At the time of publication, Steinbeck's novel "was a phenomenon on the scale of a national event. It was publicly banned and burned by citizens, it was debated on national talk radio; but above all, it was read." According to The New York Times it was the best-selling book of 1939 and 430,000 copies had been printed by February 1940. It won the Pulitzer Prize and, by unanimous vote, the National Book Award. A celebrated Hollywood film version, starring Henry Fonda and directed by John Ford, was made in 1940.

Part of the book's impact stemmed from its passionate depiction of the plight of the poor, and in fact, many of Steinbeck's contemporaries attacked his social and political views. Bryan Cordyack writes that Steinbeck was attacked as a propagandist and a socialist from both the left and the right of the political spectrum. The most fervent of these attacks came from the Associated Farmers of California; they were displeased with the book's depiction of California farmers' attitudes and conduct toward the migrants. They denounced the book as a 'pack of lies' and labeled it 'communist propaganda'. Some accused Steinbeck of exaggerating camp conditions to make a political point. But Steinbeck had visited the camps well before publication of the novel and argued their inhumane nature destroyed the settlers' spirit.

The Impact of Okie Migration on California

Okies were actually part of a huge demographic migration of people from the Southwestern United States to California during the first half of the 20th century in search of better jobs and a better life. Interestingly enough, only about half of the Depression-era Okies hailed from rural areas with the rest coming from towns and cities. Many, dubbed "defense Okies," were white-collar and industrial workers who went to work in defense industries and shipyards after the start of World War Two. About half of the Okies settled in Los Angeles, the Bay Area and San Diego and never picked a single crop.

Historian James N. Gregory writes in "American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California" that the Okie migration has had a profound and long term impact on the music, politics, and character of California. According to Gregory the experiences of the more than one million Oklahomans, Arkansans, Texans, and Missourians who sought opportunities in California created an "Okie subculture" in California that has grown into an essential feature of the state's landscape.

Gregory describes how Okies brought with them an allegiance to evangelical Protestantism, "plain-folk American" values, and a love of country music. "In their neighborhoods, often called 'Little Oklahomas,' they created a community of churches and saloons, of church-goers and good-old-boys, mixing stern-minded religious thinking with hard-drinking irreverence."

The legacy of the Dust Bowl migration can be measured in political terms where throughout California and especially in the San Joaquin Valley, Okies implanted their own populist conservatism becoming among the earliest and most fervent supporters of California Governor Ronald Reagan's brand of Republican politics.

Okies also made their mark on California through their music. Woody Guthrie, known as the "Dust Bowl Troubadour," sang the rural Oklahoma oral tradition in songs he made famous like “Oklahoma Hills," "Hard Travelin’,” “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You,” and especially “This Land is Your Land.” Many of his songs are about his experiences in the Dust Bowl era during the Great Depression when Guthrie traveled with migrant workers from Oklahoma to California and learned their traditional folk and blues songs. Then there was Gene Autry, "Oklahoma's singing cowboy," Bob Wills, and Buck Owens - musicians whose music also reflects the special concerns of Southwesterners who came to dominate the country music industry in California.

"Proud to be an Okie from Muskogee"

But the musician most identified with the resurgence of Okie pride in the 1960s was Merle Haggard, whose parents, James Francis and Flossie Mae, moved to California from their home in Checotah, Oklahoma, during the Great Depression after their barn burned in 1934. They settled with their children in an apartment in Bakersfield, where Haggard's father started working for the Santa Fe Railroad before dying of a brain hemorrhage in 1945 leaving young Merle fatherless, an event that deeply affected Haggard during his childhood, and the rest of his life.

Haggard's quintessential statement about his Oklahoma heritage is "Okie from Muskogee" recorded in 1969 after Haggard passed through Muskogee during a tour. His band bus was headed north out of Texas on U.S. 69 on the way to a gig and they stopped briefly in Checotah where Haggard visited an uncle. Just outside of town they saw a sign that said 'Muskogee 20 miles'. "I bet they don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee," Haggard said, reaching for his guitar. The rest of the song wrote itself. "You wouldn't expect him to write that he was proud to be an Okie from Checotah, would you?" says Haggard's road manager Biff Adams. "It doesn't fit.

Written by Haggard and Roy Edward Burris during the height of the Vietnam War, "Okie from Muskogee" grew from the two trading one-liners about small-town life, where conservative values were the norm and outsiders with ideals contrary to those ways were unwelcome. In the song Haggard reflects on how proud he is to hail from Middle America, where its residents were patriotic, and didn't smoke marijuana, take LSD, wear beads and sandals, burn draft cards or challenge authority. "Back then, the term "Okie' was a put-down, like hick or redneck," says Jim East, a reporter for the Tulsa World who grew up in Muskogee. "Merle Haggard changed that, I'll say that for him."

While viewed as a satire of small-town America and its reaction to the anti-war protests and counterculture seen in America's larger cities, Bill Janovitz writes that the song also "convincingly (gives) voice to a proud, strait-laced truck-driver type. ... (I)n the end, he identifies with the narrator. He does not position the protagonist as angry, reactionary, or judgmental; it is more that the guy, a self-confessed 'square,' is confused by such changes and with a chuckle comes to the conclusion that he and his ilk have the right sort of life for themselves."

Critic Kurt Wolff writes that Haggard always considered what became a redneck anthem to be a spoof, and that today fans — even the hippies that are derided in the lyrics — have taken a liking to the song and find humor in some of the lyrics. "We wrote it to be satirical originally," says Haggard. "But then people latched onto it, and it really turned into this song that looked into the mindset of people so opposite of who and where we were. My dad's people. He's from Muskogee."

The song had a special meaning to Californian Okies who shared Haggard's Southwestern heritage. In crafting the song's powerful refrain "I'm proud to be an Okie from Muskogee," Haggard touched a chord with many who came to California in the 1930s and 1940s says Gregory and coincided with and contributed to a rebirth in Okie pride. "It would become a slogan for California Okies, part of a new way of thinking about themselves, a new stage in their relationship with California."

The Okie Spirit

According to Gregory, persistence and determination are what defined Okie character. "Learned in school, in church, from parents and friends, courage and determination were the forte of these plain people. Struggle, they assured themselves, was what they and their ancestors did best. Persistance was more than the key to success - there could be no dignity, manhood, or self-esteem without it. No other theme was expressed as frequently or as passionately as the need to never let up, never quit, to always 'keep on going on.'"

In the end the Okie spirit and determination triumphed for the migrants who had arrived in California with nothing. According to Charlotte Allen, Okies ultimately found a better standard of living. "Many of them quickly moved out of farm work into better-paying jobs in the oil industry and, when World War II broke out, in the burgeoning Southern California defense plants. By 1950, most Okies had secured comfortable working-class and lower-middle-class lifestyles, and some had downright prospered."

Gerald W. Hassam writes in his book "The Other California: The Great Central Valley in Life and Letters," that Okies clawed their way west during the Depression, but matured and stabilized and today have assumed a fair share of the economic and political power in California, especially in the Great Central Valley. Jim Young, chancellor of Bakersfield State College, says second-generation Okie migrants in California have reintroduced pride in the term Okie. "I'm proud of my folks," says Young, "and everyone else who came out here and were called Okies, and who made new lives for themselves."

It has been said that some Oklahomans who stayed and lived through the Dust Bowl see the Okie migrants as being quitters who fled Oklahoma and Will Rogers once remarked jokingly that the Okies moving from Oklahoma to California increased the average intelligence of both states. But most Oklahoma natives are as proud of their Okies who made good in California as are the Okies themselves. In the latter half of the 20th century, there has been increasing evidence demonstrating that the pejorative meaning of the term Okie is disappearing and many former and present Okies now apply the label as a badge of honor and symbol of the Okie survivor attitude.

A Personal Note

Some Okies returned to Oklahoma after they got back on their feet and conditions improved in Oklahoma. My great-grandfather William Pickens, was born after the Civil War in Wolfe City, Texas and crossed over to Southeastern Oklahoma by covered wagon soon after Oklahoma became a state. There William raised a family and I am named after his oldest son, my grandfather Hugh Pickens. Hugh Pickens was born in 1900 and lived almost all his life in the town of Boswell, Oklahoma in Choctaw County. Hugh owned a farm where he and my grandmother Ruth raised a family of two boys, my father Dale and Uncle Gene Ray, and their two sisters, my Aunt Lelda and Aunt Shirley.

I was visiting my Aunt Shirley not long ago when I was surprised to learn that my grandfather had gone to California to work - something that I had never known before. "Your grandfather went to California by himself and worked there for several years during the Great Depression," said Shirley. "He went out to San Diego and worked in a shipyard after World War Two started." I responded with astonishment to this unknown chapter in my family's history as Aunt Shirley continued. "Things were very hard on our farm in Boswell during the 1930's. We didn't have any money at all and survived on the food we could grow ourselves."

"Your grandfather saw a chance to go out to California and earn money that he sent back to us on the farm. He managed to support us while we stayed in Boswell and he saved enough from his job in the shipyard for the family to get a fresh start when he came back home," said my aunt. "He loved Oklahoma and he always knew he would return home to this land where he belonged."

References

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