- Lyrics to “Lost” Song from The Grapes of Wrath Found in Archive
In the spring of 2012, while researching Steinbeck’s references to the Oklahoma State Penitentiary at McAlester in The Grapes of Wrath, I came across Steinbeck’s mention in Chapter 17 of “The McAlester Blues”—a song sung around the campfire by a guitar player in the roadside camp on the Joads’ way to California. I hadn’t heard the song before, but I naively imagined that in the age of Google and online databases it would be easy enough to track down. The only references I could find to the song, though, were on a Cornell University web page which made it sound as if the song had been “lost” or that perhaps Steinbeck had simply made it up (Pond).
Fortunately, after my initial disappointment, it occurred to me to contact the National Archives Unit in San Bruno, California. I emailed them to make an appointment to search for the song among the thousands of items Tom Collins had documented in his reports to the FSA (Farm Security Administration) in the 1930s. Archivist Anna Naruta quickly sent me an email informing me that the portion of Tom Collins’s files related to music was held in the Jean Gray Hargrove Music Library at the University of California, Berkeley.
I contacted the Hargrove Music Library, and John Shepard, the head librarian there, informed me by email that their finding aids for the California Folk Music Project didn’t include any listings for “McAlester Blues.” He suggested that I check out a song entitled “McAllister” on the Library of Congress’s website, but that song wasn’t a blues song, and was about the execution of a prisoner in Ireland. I couldn’t rule the song out completely; however, it didn’t seem to be a song for which the migrant troubadour would have had to make it up to the olds folks by immediately playing “Jesus Calls Me to His Side” (TGOW 219). [End Page 141]
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I asked Mr. Shepard to pull Carton 5, file 201 of the WPA California Folk Music Project records, labeled “Migratory Labor Camp, Arvin, California, Songs collected by Tom Collins, camp manager (1936)” for me to examine. Mr. Shepard responded by telling me that the folder contained multiple carbon copies of a 19-page typescript of song lyrics and a single 49-page typescript with the same lyrics and additional information. He said the typescript also included lyrics for additional songs not found in the carbon copies.
Mr. Shepard attached scans of the lyrics for what Tom Collins had transcribed as “McAllister (Oklahoma) Blues,” and added the note, “I can only guess that Mr. Collins didn’t know how the name of the town in Oklahoma was spelled, and that he probably didn’t think to check with his informant.” 1
I subsequently checked the contents of the folder personally, and found that it contained the lyrics of all of the songs Steinbeck mentions the guitar player as singing around the campfire: “Ten Cent Cotton and Forty Cent Meat,” “Why Do You Cut Your Hair, Girls?,” “I’m Leaving Old Texas” and the aforementioned hymn. There was also a notation that recordings of the songs were on glass disks in the Music Library at Stanford University. [End Page 142]
Unfortunately, the trail for the complete song ended there. I am, nevertheless, indebted to Nate Sloan, a doctoral candidate in Music at Stanford, who searched for the recording but was unable to track it down.
Here are the lyrics as recorded by Tom Collins:
The McAllister (Oklahoma) Blues
Don’t look so downhearted there buddyBecause you don’t get any mailThese blondes soon forget you are living,They can’t use a daddy in jail.
You are young and believe what they tell youAbout sticking through to the end,But the one that won’t bold [sic—should be “bolt”]While you are pulling a joltIs one...