Ken Burns Classroom

Dust Bowl Blues: Migrants’ Journey to California

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 explore the music of Woody Guthrie by viewing key video segments on the migrants’ journey to California and the challenges and prejudice they faced. They will complete a graphic organizer handout, and discuss the activity questions in small groups.

Lesson Objectives:

The student will:

  • Analyze how musical artists provided commentary on social and political issues of the day.
  • Describe the life of migrants who traveled to California in the 1930s.
  • Compare and contrast the “Okies” of the 1930s with similar social groups of today.

Lesson Procedure Opening Activity:

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.

Have students think about the music they listen to now. What kind of music do they like? What are some of their reasons?

Ask students how the musical artists they listen to have made them aware of current social or political issues. 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?

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?

Video Viewing Activity:

This viewing activity will give students an understanding of the events that motivated Woody Guthrie to write and sing songs about the desperate conditions of the Dust Bowl migrants who traveled across the country to find a new life in California and other western states.

  1. Distribute the “Video Notes/Graphic Organizer handout to all students.
  2. Have students review the two video segments and take notes on just the content questions in the graphic organizer, either in class or as homework.
  3. Have students meet in small groups and review the discussion questions on their graphic organizers. Then review all discussion questions with the entire class either in groups or as a full class.

Assessment Suggestions:

  • Evaluate students on the thoroughness in completing video notes and participation in class discussions.

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: Video Notes/Graphic Organizer

Instructions: View the two video segments and take notes on graphic organizer below. After you’ve completed your notes, review the discussion questions included for each segment and be ready to discuss those in class. (The two video segments are from Episode 2: “Reaping the Whirlwind.”) You may wish to view the segments more than once in order to more completely answer the discussion questions and take notes on the segment.

Video Segment 1: “Okies

Examine the first video segment’s opening shot of the billboard “It’s the American Way.” Explain your thoughts on the values stated on the billboard:

Freedom of Religion and Speech
Private Enterprise
Representative Democracy

The migrants come to California.

Describe the demographic composition of the people who migrated to California during the Great Depression

Briefly describe what life was like for migrant workers who traveled west to work in the crop fields of California.

Living Conditions
Working Conditions
Advantages and/or Disadvantages

Discussion Questions:

  • After viewing the scenes of migrants along the road and listening to Woody Guthrie’s description of them, do you feel the values displayed in the opening scene apply to them? Explain.
  • Why do you think most Californians felt the people who migrated to escape the problems of the Depression and the Dust Bowl were all the same?

Video Segment 2: “Woody Guthrie

What similarities did Woody Guthrie have with many of the other new arrivals from the Dust Bowl who settled in California?
What was the message he sang in his songs?
What effect do you think his songs had on people from the Dust Bowl region?
What effect do you think his songs had on people who were from California and other western states?

Discussion Questions:

  • Why do you think Woody Guthrie picked up the cause of the migrant workers in his music and performances?
  • How do you think his songs and performances reflect the values of Freedom of Religion, Opportunity, Private Enterprise, and Representative Democracy, shown at the beginning of the first video segment?
  • How did the technology of the day (radio and records) give Woody Guthrie an advantage in getting his message out to the public?
  • How would today’s information delivery systems (mass media and the Internet) have helped Woody Guthrie get his message out to the public? What do you think would be the public’s reaction today to Guthrie’s music?