With a fiddle humming in the background, punctuated by the occasional twang of a dulcimer, Grant Maloy Smith described the worst duster to ever tear through the Great Plains.
“It seemed like a beautiful Sunday afternoon, and then it came out of the northwest,” Maloy Smith said, a guitar slung around his body and cowboy hat on his head. “It raged across Kansas and Missouri, Oklahoma and eastern Texas like a freight train across the Great Plains — except a freight train that was hundreds of miles wide and a thousand feet tall.”
By the time the dust settled, 300 million tons of topsoil had been stripped from once-fertile agricultural fields. Families, having lost their homes, farms and livelihood, packed up and fled west in the midst of the Great Depression.
It would be known as Black Sunday — coincidentally, if not ironically — a Palm Sunday in April 1935.
“It was the biggest black roller, or dust storm, there ever was,” Maloy Smith said. He then plucked his guitar and belted out a song about the storm that drove so many from Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas west — many to Kern County.
Most kids learn about the Dust Bowl through their textbooks. A group of 120 Bakersfield High School history students learned about it through Maloy Smith, who performed a concert on campus Wednesday checkered with history, humor and the artist’s original Depression-inspired songs.
The significance of those lessons takes on a greater meaning in Bakersfield for this reason: When students learn about the Dust Bowl, they’re learning their own history and the forces that helped shape their hometown.
Musician Grant Maloy Smith visited Bakersfield this week and stopped into Bakersfield High School to teach the kids a thing or two about the D…
“It’s important for the young people growing up here. People of my generation know some of this stuff, but the younger generation doesn’t know it unless we tell them. It’s important for us to keep them informed about how important where they live really is, and how it fits into the history of the whole country,” Maloy Smith said after his performance.
Kern County, after all, has a rich Dust Bowl history.
When thousands of families fled the Great Plains, they packed up their cars and settled along the Kern River. When Dorothea Lange photographed now-iconic images of the devastating conditions Okies, Arkies and Texans were living in upon arrival — makeshift lean-tos and tents — she came to California's Central Coast and to Bakersfield. Even John Steinbeck’s seminal novel about the devastating weather event, “The Grapes of Wrath,” was set at the federal Sunset Camp for migrants in Arvin.
But some history students, who began their lessons on the 1930s this week, didn’t know any of that.
“You mention Bakersfield in your songs, but you’re not from Bakersfield,” a student said to Maloy Smith, a Florida Panhandle native. “So why’d you think to mention Bakersfield?”
Because Bakersfield is a critical part of the Dust Bowl story, Maloy Smith told him. He was swept up by the history of the era and wrote one song, he told them, and then it turned into a whole album.
He became inspired by how the Dust Bowl transplanted the folk genre from the Midwest and into California, helping nationalize the style. Maloy Smith’s song, “I Come From America,” is a tribute to the iconic Dust Bowl-era folk singer Woody Guthrie’s popular “This Land is Your Land,” he said.
Ken Hooper, a U.S. history teacher who helped organize Maloy Smith’s visit, said that by the time every BHS student finishes their lessons, they’ll be versed in Kern County’s connection to the major historical event.
Teachers, he said, will connect students to local history, showing them photos of East Bakersfield High, the downtown fire station and many of the buildings at Hart Park — all constructed in the 1930s with funding through the New Deal, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s legislation to put down-and-out Americans back to work through public projects.
The concert, Hooper said, helps keep the lesson going while providing the kids some entertainment.
“I didn’t know (the Dust Bowl) really involved Bakersfield,” Victor Sanchez, a BHS junior, said after the performance. “Now that I know, I’m grateful to those who had come here for work.”