Leaving the Dust Bowl
Our house poked between the sand dunes
like a half-buried shrimp boat.
Sand leaned against the tops of fences.
We turned our plates on the dinner table
and covered the baby’s crib with a wet sheet
at night to keep her
Dust pneumonia was as common
as rash and bankrupt farms.
It’s time to leave, Mother,
I said. We gave our land
to the bank. We gave our mule
to Jordon, who took on the burden
of trying to feed it.
Don’t worry, Mother. California
is like a big green harbor
waiting for us. Mother nodded. We tied on
the beds and furniture and cooking pans
and threw in the kids
out of sentimental reasons
and pointed the car
Copyright © 2004 Bob Bradshaw
And I will establish my covenant with you, neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth.
Following the Civil War and encouraged by the Homestead Act of 1862 people came west for their stake and during the wet years the Great Plains of America were fertile and crops thrived. A professor from the University of Nebraska in the 1860’s, Charles Dana Wilbur, had this to say of the agriculture boom:
God speed the plow…. By this wonderful provision, which is only man’s mastery over nature, the clouds are dispensing copious rains … [the plow] is the instrument which separates civilization from savagery; and converts a desert into a farm or garden…. To be more concise, Rain follows the plow.
In 1930, ignoring Wilbur’s theory all together, a drought descended across the prairies and plains. It would last close to 10 years and would lay waste to the Midwest and leave homeless over 500,000 people. By 1933 dust storms had begun stripping the land of it’s top soil and within a year the storms had gotten so bad that the enormous dust clouds had reached north to Chicago and dirt fell like snow over the city. Then on April 14th, 1935, a day called Black Sunday, the dust turned day into night. 2.5 million people left during those years. Even God went west after that.
Tommy Collins was born into this world Leonard Sipes on Sept. 28th, 1930. He would spend his childhood in Oklahoma and there learned how to sing and play guitar eventually working his way onto KLPR outside of Oklahoma City. Following high school graduation and a stint in the Marines he hitched a ride with Wanda Jackson’s family out to Bakersfield, California. Yes, that Wanda Jackson, and not to be confused with Tommy’s later wife Wanda Collins who also sang. The Jackson’s didn’t take to Bakersfield and left, but Tommy stayed behind. He become friends with a local DJ and singer originally from Missouri named Ferlin Huskey. Ferlin, after hearing Tommy’s songs convinced his record label, Capitol, to give the boy a shot. Ferlin also gave him his new name, after of course, the drink.
Tommy went into the studio in June of 1953 with a band consisting of, Ferlin, Lewis Tally, Fuzzy Owen, Bill Woods and Buck Owens with Ken Nelson producing. Now, with the exception of Buck, these are names no longer widely known, however for all you country junkies out there crack open the liner notes to your albums made during the ’50’s and ’60’s and see how many times you see those names. All were pivotal in creating what we call the Bakersfield Sound. In 1957 Tommy quit the music business to become a preacher, which he then quit in 1963 to become a country singer. He continued to know how to pick ’em though and in his first session back with Capitol he was backed by Joe Maphis, Glen Campbell, Billy Strange, Roy Nichols and Merle Haggard. He would go on to record with over the years Buddy Harman, Floyd Cramer, Lloyd Green, Grady Martin, Bob Moore ,Charlie McCoy. I know, it’s super boring to read biblical lists of forgotten or, and let’s be honest, never known names. But, like some theological professor would remind you halfway through the begats and begottens, it’s important.
Tommy Collins is a touchstone. Someone who was at the beginning of something and although maybe he didn’t turn out to be the best among them or the one we’d remember, he was the flint against the rock. It was his particularly hard nasal voice and sequined suits the others perfected. It was his cornfield humor that would pop up in slapstick songs and a t.v. show. There’s a crooked line from the Oklahoma dust bowls to the streets of Bakersfield, but Tommy Collins walked it as straight as he could. All we had to do was follow. He died in March of 2000. He was 70. His music remains great.