Proud to Be an Okie: Cultural Politics, Country Music, and Migration to Southern California

Proud to Be an Okie: Cultural Politics, Country Music, and Migration to Southern California

Proud to Be an Okie: Cultural Politics, Country Music, and Migration to Southern California

Proud to Be an Okie: Cultural Politics, Country Music, and Migration to Southern California

Synopsis

Proud to Be an Okie brings to life the influential country music scene that flourished in and around Los Angeles from the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s to the early 1970s. The first work to fully illuminate the political and cultural aspects of this intriguing story, the book takes us from Woody Guthrie's radical hillbilly show on Depression-era radio to Merle Haggard's "Okie from Muskogee" in the late 1960s. It explores how these migrant musicians and their audiences came to gain a sense of identity through music and mass media, to embrace the New Deal, and to celebrate African American and Mexican American musical influences before turning toward a more conservative outlook. What emerges is a clear picture of how important Southern California was to country music and how country music helped shape the politics and culture of Southern California and of the nation.

Excerpt

Sometimes the germs of a new social movement are found in the most unusual of places. Los Angeles in the late 1930s was one of those places. Twice a day on radio station kfvd, singer-guitarist Woody Guthrie joined vocalist Maxine “Lefty Lou” Crissman for a program that featured “old-time hill country songs.” Both transplants from the Dust Bowl, a region of the southern Great Plains that had sent hundreds of thousands of displaced “Okies” to California, the two started out by singing nostalgically about their home states. Before long, they began criticizing the Los Angeles Police Department for its harassment of Dust Bowlers at the California state line. Advertising headache pills and appropriating music and mannerisms from national country music acts such as Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, the Woody and Lefty Lou show soon was netting more than a thousand fan letters a month, more than any other program kfvd carried.

Although the show proved a moderate commercial success, Guthrie began to stretch the program’s format in new and uncharted directions. Aligning himself with the left wing of the Democratic Party, he introduced social commentary into his largely commercial “hillbilly” repertoire and began to use his radio post to criticize racists, the wealthy, foreign and domestic fascists, and the corruption that pervaded machine politics in Los Angeles. He later wrote that he hoped to politicize his working-class listeners “no matter what tongue or color.” Guthrie’s primary cause, however, was the plight of his fellow migrants, whom he called “Dust Bowl refugees” in an effort to stress their kinship with other persecuted groups fleeing the Third Reich and Fascist Spain. Remade by his experience in California, the onetime country music artist went on to become a founding architect of the American protest-music movement and an inspiration to progressiveleaning artists Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Bruce Springsteen and self-styled . . .

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