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The nationwide economic collapse known as the Great Depression touched the lives of every American, but it hit American farmers especially hard. In the 1930s, low crop prices forced tens of thousands of farmers to declare bankruptcy and leave their land. To make matters worse, the southern Great Plains suffered a catastrophic drought, followed by relentless dust storms, and countless families watched their farms literally dry up and blow away.

To escape poverty and unemployment, the survivors of this disaster—now known as the Dust Bowl—joined millions of other farm families in a great migration west to California, where agricultural work still could be found. California was no paradise, however, and the state soon became overcrowded. Many dislocated farmers were forced to live outdoors, where they risked death by starvation, exposure, or disease. The U.S. government responded quickly to the crisis, and established a system of migratory labor camps to provide safe, clean havens for homeless families.

In addition to serving as a refuge, however, the camp system also became the catalyst of a great cultural exchange. As they gathered in the camps, migrant families from the Appalachian mountains, the deep South, and the desert Southwest all shared their musical traditions, as well as writing raw, original songs based on the hard times they endured during the migration. This rich new mixture of regional styles influenced many of the country and blues performers of the mid-20th century and helped form the foundation for much of the popular music we hear today.

Mary Sullivan, a farmer from Texas, wrote "Sunny California" about the hardships she endured during the long, dangerous journey west, and was recorded singing her song in a government camp in California. As you listen to the song, think about the different emotions that Sullivan communicates in her song and in her performance. You might also ask yourself if this very personal song reminds you of any music that you listen to now.

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For more background information on this period, visit these presentations.

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