Ken Burns Classroom

Dust Bowl Blues: Analyzing the Songs of Woody Guthrie

Lesson Overview:

Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Guthrie is arguably the most influential American folk musician of the first half of the 20th century. He is best known for his folk ballads, traditional and children’s songs, and improvised works, often incorporating political commentary. Woody Guthrie is closely identified with the Dust Bowl and Great Depression of the 1930s. His songs from that time period earned him the nickname “Dust Bowl Troubadour.”

During the ten years of the Great Depression, California’s population grew more than 20 percent. Half of the newcomers came from cities, not farms; one in six were professionals or white-collar workers. Of the 315,000 who arrived from Oklahoma, Texas, and neighboring states, only 16,000 were from the Dust Bowl itself. But regardless of where they actually came from, regardless of their skills, their education, and their individual reasons for seeking a new life in a new place, to most Californians—and to the nation at large—they were all the same.

And they all had the same name—“Okies.”

In this activity, students will analyze the lyrics of Woody Guthrie songs, identifying not only their message but also their effect on audiences in the 1930s and today.

Lesson Objectives:

The student will:

  • Analyze how musical artists provided commentary on social and political issues of the day.
  • Analyze the lyrics of Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads, identifying their message and effects on the subjects of his songs and his listeners.
  • Analyze how a modern audience would have received Woody Guthrie’s music.

Lesson Procedure Opening Activity:

  1. Remind students that music is an art form and as such is an expression of what an artist feels and cares about. During times of conflict in American history, many musicians let their music reflect their sentiments—anti-slavery songs like “John Brown’s Body,” Temperance songs like “The Wife’s Lament,” and anti-establishment and anti-war songs of the 1960s such as “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield and “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye.
  2. Have students think about the music they listen to now. What kind of music do they like? What are some of their reasons?
  3. Ask students how the musical artists they listen to have made them aware of the social and political issues of today. Ask them to identify and describe one or two songs they listen to where the artist is expressing his or her feelings about a certain political or social issue. What role do the lyrics play? What role does the music play? What is the message and why is it important?
  4. Ask students about the technology available for delivering this music and compare this with the music delivery systems of their grandparents or great-grandparents. How do the new delivery systems compare in making the music known to large audiences?

Song Analysis:

In this activity, students will analyze the lyrics of Woody Guthrie songs identifying their messages and effect on audiences in the 1930s and today.

  1. Divide the class into groups of 2 or 3 students.
  2. Distribute the “Song Analysis Tool” handout to all students and review the directions.
  3. Direct students to the Woody Guthrie Dust Bowl Ballads webpage at
  4. Assign each group one of the songs on the list of Dust Bowl Ballads.
  5. Provide time for students to review the song and complete their song analysis tool.
  6. Have each group formulate their analysis presentations and present them to the class. Presentations can be a poster or digital presentation, a celebrity interview, music video- documentary, or, for those students musically inclined, a performance of Woody Guthrie’s songs in an oral presentation, providing commentary and analysis of the music.

Assessment Suggestions:

Evaluate students’ song analysis presentations on their construction, including historical accuracy, spelling and grammar, aesthetic aspects of the presentation, etc. A sample rubric that can be used as is or adapted to meet the teacher’s needs is included at the end of the lesson.


  • Have students analyze songs from other time periods in history: wartime protest and patriotic songs, political campaign songs, commentary on major social events or eras, etc. Presentations should include the audio recording of the song, background on the songwriter/performer, overview of the historical period when the song was written, analysis of the song and lyrics, commentary on the song’s impact on its audience. Students can present these in a poster or digital presentation format, a celebrity interview, music video-documentary, or for those students musically inclined, a performance of the songs in an oral presentation, providing commentary and analysis of the music.
  • Have students conduct a music analysis of a contemporary performer of their choosing who writes and/or performs music that “speaks” to his or her audience. Students can follow the main activity format above and formulate a presentation.
  • Have students write songs or poems that reflect their views on social or political issues of their generation. They can either prerecord the music or perform it live in class. Students should develop a presentation that asks the audience of class members their reaction to the song/poem and the meaning it holds for them. Students can link an audio file to the school’s or class’s website or blog site.

Related Academic Standards:

This lesson meets the following standards set by the Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) (


  • Standard 18: Understands the rise of the American labor movement and how political issues reflected social and economic changes
  • Standard 22: Understands how the United States changed between the post- World War I years and the eve of the Great Depression
  • Standard 23: Understands the causes of the Great Depression and how it affected American society

Historical Understanding:

  • Standard 2, Level III (Grades 7–8), Benchmark 1: Understands that specific individuals and the values those individuals held had an impact on history
  • Standard 2, Level III (Grades 7–8), Benchmark 2: Analyzes the influence specific ideas and beliefs had on a period of history
  • Standard 2, Level IV, Benchmark 1: Analyzes the values held by specific people who influenced history and the role their values played in influencing history
  • Standard 2, Level IV, Benchmark 2: Analyzes the influences specific ideas and beliefs had on a period of history and specifies how events might have been different in the absence of those ideas and beliefs


  • Standard 7: Understands the relationship between music and history and culture

Language Arts:

  • Standard 4: Gathers and uses information for research purposes.
  • Standard 6: Uses skills and strategies to read a variety of literary texts
  • Standard 10: Understands the characteristics and components of the media

About The Authors

Greg Timmons

Greg Timmons has been a social studies teacher for over 30 years. He has written lessons for several PBS productions including The NewsHour, FRONTLINE, and various Ken Burns’s productions including The War, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea Baseball, Prohibition and The Dust Bowl.” He resides in Montana and Washington state.

Handout: Song Analysis Tool

Instructions: Access your chosen song (or one you were assigned) on the Woody Guthrie Dust Bowl Ballads website: Read through the lyrics and discuss the questions below with members of your group. Then formulate a presentation of your song analysis for other members of the class, covering all the points from your analysis tool.

Listening to the Song
What are your general feelings about the song lyrics? Generate a list of adjectives.


What people, places and events are mentioned in the song?  


What does the song mean to you?  


What message do you think Woody Guthrie was trying to convey?  


Analyzing the Song
What qualities in the lyrics of Guthrie’s songs convey his life experiences?  


How do you think these life experiences lend credibility to his songs?  


Why do you think he wrote the song and performed it?  


Linking the Song to History
What does the song tell you about life and experiences during this period in history?  


Does Woody Guthrie’s song have relevance today? Explain.  


Compare how a contemporary musical artist with whom you’re familiar reflects the feelings and events of today with the way Woody Guthrie’s songs reflected the feelings and events of his time period.  


Handout: Music Analysis Rubric

CATEGORY 4 3 2 1
Description Makes a complete detailed description the song and the circumstances surrounding its creation. Makes a detailed description of most of the song and circumstances surrounding its creation. Makes a detailed description of some of the song and the circumstances surrounding its creation. Descriptions are detailed or
Analysis Accurately describes how the lyrics the artist’s life experiences and they lend credibility the songs the artist preformed. Accurately describes how a of the lyrics the artist’s life experiences and how they lend credibility to the songs the artist performed. Describes some dominant elements and principles used by the artist, but
difficulty describing how they lend credibility to the songs the artist preformed.
Has trouble identifying how the lyrics convey the artist’s life experiences.
Interpretation Identifies the in the song and articulate his/her feelings about its meaning. Identifies the literal meaning of the song. Relates how the makes him/her feel personally. Finds it difficult to interpret the of the song.
Relevance Explains the song’s context in history relevance to today makes an in depth comparison to a contemporary artist. Explains the context in history its relevance to today and makes comparison to a contemporary musical artist. Explains the song’s context in history is weak on explaining its relevance to today and makes no comparison to a contemporary musical artist. Finds it difficult to find the song’s context in history or relevance to today.
Spelling and Grammar Presentation has no misspellings or grammatical errors. Presentation has 2 misspellings, but no grammatical errors. Presentation has grammatical errors and a few misspellings. Presentation has more than 4 grammatical and/or spelling errors.