Library of Congress


The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Presentations and Activities > Timeline
Timeline Home Page
Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1945
The Dust Bowl
Songs of the Okies - Radio Script

Charles Todd and Robert Sonkin, both of the Department of Public Speaking at the city college of New York, toured the Farm Security Administration migrant camps of California in 1940 and 1941 expressly to record the words and music of the migrant workers. Supported by the Archives of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress, Todd and Sonkin sought to both promote and preserve the musical traditions of this transplanted subculture.

After completing their field research and making recordings of the music they heard, Todd and Sonkin wrote scripts for a radio program called "The Songs of the Okies." In the excerpts that follow, Sonkin describes a migrant camp that he and Todd visited to make recordings. Examples of the music collected by Todd and Sonkin were played for the audience throughout the radio program. Why do you think that Saturday night "Amateur Night" was so popular in the camps? Why was music such an important part of life in the camps? Why might it be important to preserve group's musical tradition and songs?

View the entire document from Voices from the Dust Bowl, 1940-1941. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.


Ladies and gentlemen, we present at this time the second in a series of programs devoted to the songs and ballads of the Okies, and featuring original recording made in California by Charles Todd and Robert Sonkin of the Department of Public Speaking at the College of the City of New York. These recordings were sponsored by the Library of Congress as part of its extensive program for the cultural documentation of America.

Today our commentator is Mr.. Robert Sonkin... Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Sonkin.


The fiddle tune which you have just heard is called the Waggoner, and the musicians were a pair of young men, refugees from the Dust-bowl of the great Southwest. Some call them migrants. Others, out in California especially, call them Okies and Arkies. . . . Once they and their music were part of a picture that included barn-raisings, quilting bees, play-parties, and camp-meetin's - today they belong to a city of tents and "low cost labor homes," grant-checks, and cooperative stores on the flat fringes of the Mohave Desert.

Last week Mr. Todd played for you some of the songs of the migration - - songs that told the story of this new westward trek in the words and music of the Okie themselves. Today, we're going to play some more songs for you -- songs that these folks grought with them from the bottom lands and mountains of the old Southwest which for many years has been one of the great treasure houses of American folk-music.

Now probably the best way to hear some of these songs is to drop in at one of the government's big migratory labor camps as Mr. Todd and I did, on a Saturday night, around, say, eight o'clock in the evening. There are big doings out in these camps on Saturday nights, when the amateur programs go on. Up at the Visalia camp these Okies call this amateur entertainment the Literary Program -- thought there's nothing literary about it. It's just a night when everybody who wants to sing or play can get a chance to do it.

Here's the picture as we saw it while we set up the recording machine on the stage of the bid social hall at Visali. Nearly a thousand people were there. The front rows were packed tight with little tow-headed Okie children. There were some mothers with nursing babies in their arms. Many of the men were standing in little groups around the exits, slightly self-conscious in clean shirts, and taking final puffs on brown paper "roll your own" cigarettes. The thermometer read over 90 and the desert coolers -- big fans blowing through wet burlap -- were going full blast.

top of page

View the entire document from Voices from the Dust Bowl, 1940-1941. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.