Archive for category Migrant Workers

Boxcar Homes in The Grapes of Wrath

Boxcar Homes: The Novel and the Play

A Textual Comparison

Near the climax of the the play, the Fourth Narrator (played by Nicole Torres) in Frank Galati’s The Grapes of Wrath describes boxcar homes that migrant farm workers lived in. Nicole asked me for more information about these boxcar homes. I checked the text of Steinbeck’s novel against that of Galati’s play, and discovered that the wording is nearly identical. Chapter 28 begins as follows:

THE boxcars, twelve of them, stood end to end on a little flat beside the stream. There were two rows of six each, the wheels removed. Up to the big sliding doors slatted planks ran for cat-walks. They made good houses, water-tight and draftless, room for twenty-four families, one family in each end of each car. No windows, but the wide doors stood open. In some of the cars a canvas hung down in the center of the car, while in others only the position of the door made the boundary.

The Joads had one end of an end car. Some previous occu­pant had fitted up an oil can with a stovepipe, had made a hole in the wall for the stovepipe. Even with the wide door open, it was dark in the ends of the car. Ma hung the tarpau­lin across the middle of the car.

“It’s nice,” she said. “It’s almost nicer than anything we had ‘cept the gov’ment camp.”

The Fourth Narrator from Galati’s script narrates as follows:

The boxcars, twelve of them, stood end to end on a little flat beside the stream. There were two rows of six each, the wheels removed. Up the big sliding doors slatted planks ran for cat-walks. They made good houses, water-tight and draftless, room for twenty-four families, one family in each end of each car. No windows, but the wide doors stood open. (The rusted side of a boxcar is revealed. The trough of water is open. Pa is standing in the open doorway. Ma and Uncle John are seated nearby. The fourth narrator moves out of sight.)

MA.  It’s nice. It’s almost nicer than anything we had.

Boxcar Homes: Photographs

The Library of Congress American Memory Collection America from the Great Depression to WWII: Black and White Photographs from the FSA-OWI, 1935-1945, shows some of the boxcar homes in photographs from the period. Some served as overnight stopping points, while others became temporary and even permanent residences.

Just Passing Through: Boxcar Interior

African-American male asleep on slatted floor of an empty boxcar.

Photo by Jack Delano. July 1940. Migratory agricultural worker asleep in boxcar. Camden, North Carolina. Library of Congress Reproduction No. LC-USF34-040809-D (b&w film neg.)

 Settling in to Temporary Boxcar Homes: Exterior Shots

Boxcar home with wooden plank to boxcar doors with pots, pans and supplies stored on boxcar wall. Children peer out of boxcar doorway.

Photo by Russell Lee. February 1937. Boxcar home of flood refugees near Cache, Illinois. About fourteen were living in this car. Library of Congress Reproduction No. LC-USF34-010249-E (b&w film nitrate neg.)

Boxcar exterior on ridge, along railroad tracks.

Photo by Marion Post Wolcott. September 1938. Old boxcars often converted into homes along highway between Charleston and Gauley Bridge, West Virginia. Library of Congress Reproduction No. LC-USF33-030258-M5 (b&w film nitrate neg.)

The Long Haul: “Permanent” Boxcar Housing

Boxcar home with children at door. Land cleared surrounding boxcar which has a screen door built in and other supplies stored nearby.

Photo by Arthur Rothstein. June 1939. Boxcar home for sugar beet workers. Treasure County, Montana. Library of Congress Reproduction No. LC-USF34-027559-D (b&w film neg.)

Boxcar homes with covered entrance way, windows, surrounding fences, yard and trees.

Photo by Russell Lee. November 1940. Home of married couple working on Earl Fruit Company ranch. Kern County, California. These houses have been made from boxcars. Library of Congress Reproduction No. LC-USF34-038026-D (b&w film neg.)

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The Government Camp song, sung by Mary Campbell and Margaret Treat, both 12 years old. Shafter FSA Camp, 1941.

Music of Government Camps

Farm Security Administration (FSA) Camps, like Weedpatch Camp in John Steinbeck’s the Grapes of Wrath were a far cry from the makeshift road side camps that so many were forced to live in while looking for work. While camps were often low on supplies, and government funding eventually ran out, music helped to bring joy to hard daily life.

Here is an example from the Library of Congress’ American Memory: Voices from the Dust Bowl – The Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection, 1940-1941.

The Government Camp song, sung by Mary Campbell and Margaret Treat, both 12 years old. Shafter FSA Camp, 1941.

When they were not working or looking for work, or tending to the civil and domestic operations of the camp, the migrants found time to engage in recreational activities. Singing and making music took place both in private living quarters and in public spaces. The music performed by the migrants came from a number of different sources. The majority of pieces belong to the Anglo-Celtic ballad tradition. Songs such as “Barbara Allen“, “The Brown Girl“, “Nine Little Devils“, “Father Rumble“, “Lloyd Bateman “, “Pretty Molly “, and “Little Mohee” all reflect this tradition. Gospel and popular music are other sources from which migrants took their inspiration. The minstrel stage, tin pan alley, early country, and cowboy music were all popular music sources that fed the performers’ repertoires. The works of the Carter Family, Jimmy Rodgers, and Gene Autry were particular favorites of the migrants. Although all the music in this collection gives us a sense of the informants’ cultural milieu, those pieces that document the migrant experience are especially poignant. Songs like Jack Bryant’s “Sunny Cal” and Mary Sullivan’s ballads “A Traveler’s Line” and “Sunny California” all speak of hardship, disappointment, and a deeply cherished wish to return home.

Men in recreation hall Men in recreation hall at Tulare FSA Camp, Visalia, California, 1940. Photo by Arthur Rothstein, Farm Security Administration.

In addition to songs and instrumental music, the migrants enjoyed dancing and play-party activities (singing games accompanied by dance-like movements). Included in this online presentation are square dance calls, such as “Soldier’s Joy” and “Sally Goodin“, and play-party rhymes like “Skip to My Lou” and “Old Joe Clark.” Newsletters produced by camp residents provided additional details about camp social life and recreational activities.

- Excerpted from The Migrant Experience. Library of Congress. American Memory: Voices from the Dust Bowl – The Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection, 1940-1941.

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Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” or “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two.”

Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother.

Photo by Dorothea Lange: Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California

Photo by Dorothea Lange. Library of Congress Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-fsa-8b29516 (digital file from original neg.)

“Destitute peapickers in California; a 32 year old mother of seven children. February 1936.” (retouched version)

This is one of the “Migrant Mother” photos posted in the link provided by Vince on the Grapes of Wrath Facebook group page. It is such an iconic image, as so many of Dorothea Lange’s are, that I thought I would feature it on the blog.

Thanks Vince!

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