Chapter 23

In their flight to start a new life, the migrant people have their days filled with job search, travel and the challenges of folks on the go. When they would settle for the night, they “looked humbly for pleasure on the roads.”

They listened to folktales, stories and legends: “The storytellers spoke in great words because their tales were great, and the listeners became great thru them.”

There is the story of this Injun Indian that stood on a ridge, arms spread out, immobile, within reach of soldiers’ guns. No one wanted to shoot him, he looked so grand. When finally he is shot, by the captain’s order, he is torn to pieces, just like a cock pheasant. I like the way Steinbeck describes what happens when you destroy something so beautiful. They were bloody and twisted “an’ you spoiled somepin better’s n you…you spoiled somepin in yaself, an’ you can’t never fix it up”.

They sometimes chose pleasure over food and went to see movies. Back to the camp, they would tell the story to others, answering the whys, calming outraged folks so they could continue narrating the story, interpreting the facts and giving their opinions.

If they had some money, they could get drunk and find some comfort: “The hard edges gone, and the warmth. Then there was no loneliness, for a man could people his brains with friends, and he could find his enemies and destroy them…And hunger did not skulk about… ”

At night, they played music. Harmonicas are so easy to learn, you do not even have to learn how to play, it comes naturally to you. Guitars and fiddles require more learning. And with the deep strings of the guitar, the sharp chords of the harmonica and the skirl and squeal of the fiddle, they could improvise some dancing.

Playing Guitar

They played reels and danced or watched others dancing, square dancing, clapping with their hands and tapping out the tune: “Chicken Reel”, and now “As I walked through the streets of Laredo”, and they played folk songs and story songs.

Elmer Rich could have played in one of the camps. In 1936, Eleanor Roosevelt pinned a red ribbon on his shirt following a fiddle contest!

And eager to be saved from their sins and to never sin again, they cried, kneeled and whimpered on the ground, as the preacher prayed for their souls.

“The migrant people  looked humbly for pleasure on the road. “

Published in: on February 21, 2010 at 12:07 am  Comments (1)  
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  1. Elmer’s family has some interesting great depression connections. The family played music for a couple festivals at the first New Deal resettlement community – Arthurdale, West Virginia. Elmer’s uncle and father were the fiddlers with 16 year old Elmer and his brothers playing backup. Eleanor Roosevelt was in attendance, and one of the sessions (1936) was recorded by Charles Seeger (the recordings are at the Library of Congress). Mike Seeger learned some of the tunes from his father’s copy of the aluminum disks and performed at least one of them with his band, The New Lost City Ramblers.

    At the Arthurdale music festival Eleanor Roosevelt pinned a red ribbon on Elmer for his second place prize in the fiddle contest (his father, Harry, won first place). Elmer has turned ninety now and continues to play regularly and win contests. The Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, WV released a CD in 2009 titled “Tunes from Sanford and Pap” of Elmer playing the tunes he learned from his family.

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