1000 Words, 1000 Years

( – promoted by buhdydharma )

It’s been awhile since my last entry in my series on the New Deal.  I’ve dipped into the motherlode of picture archives – the FSA pix from the Library of Congress, and got lost amongst the rich legacy therein for a time.  Starting with Dorothea Lange, with some 4000 entries.  This picture of hers is one of the most iconic from the period:

A picture’s worth a thousand words, right?  And everyone thinks they know what this picture’s about.  But consider the caption that goes with:

Migrant agricultural worker’s family. Seven hungry children. Mother aged thirty-two. Destitute in pea picker’s camp, Nipomo, California, because of the failure of the early pea crop. These people had just sold their tent in order to buy food. Of the twenty-five hundred people in this camp most of them were destitute.

Permanently changed my understanding of the picture.  Throughout the diary, text in italics is direct quotes from the photographers notes

Cross-posted from Daily Kos

So, despite the power of the image, the caption frames and deepens it.  Certainly true in the case of the Migrant Mother.  Here’s another picture to consider (not from Lange):

It’s on the far end of the spectrum of pictures that really need a caption to make any sense.  Definitely some kind of whirlpool or vortex.  I guess one can see all kinds of symbolism in it.  Ultimately, a bit curious, but otherwise not particularly interesting.  You’d likely not guess the actual story that goes with, and it’s probably more chilling than anything likely to be imagined by the typical viewer.

That’s the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, 1959.  The Knox Coal Company didn’t like those pesky government regulations that tie the hands of business.  Illegally dug their mine under the river.  It caved, and the river flowed in to flood the mine.  A bunch of miners died; others, trapped in air pockets, were eventually rescued.

Which is to say:  There’s pictures that aren’t worth a thousand words.  Aren’t worth much without their captions.  There’s more pictures from Lange to follow, because this diary is in large measure a tribute to her great work.  You’ve got to be compassionate to get the kind of pictures she took.  But also tough, to withstand getting to this place with so many people, year after year.  (I’ve been a fan for decades.)  But first, a picture of her at work.

Some of the best pictures of the WWII Japanese internments were from Lange, too, who documented it for the unapologetic Office of War Information.  Anyhow, here’s a few more of her pictures, with captions, from the Depression-era Farm Security Administration (FSA).  Her captions/notes are italicized.

1936 drought refugee from Polk, Missouri. Awaiting the opening of orange picking season at Porterville, California.

Not as destitute as some.  The kid’s clothes are fresh and new.  But still, being homeless and waiting in some roadside camp far from home for seasonal harvest work paints a different picture of what’s to come than what one might surmise.  This next one looks not so good.  Let’s see what the caption adds.

Flood refugee family near Memphis, Texas. These people, with all their earthly belongings, are bound for the lower Rio Grande Valley, where they hope to pick cotton. They are from Arkansas.

Walking from Arkansas to Texas might not be a big deal.  But all the way to Brownsville?  Another story entirely.  There’s an older kid there, pulling a baby carriage, barefoot on the pavement.  Photograph taken in May, so it wasn’t gruesomely hot yet.  One’s heart just breaks at all the suffering that went on.  It wasn’t just the Dust Bowl and droughts either.  There was a revolution going on throughout the country (the world really) as tractors took over from draft animals and plows.  No more forty acres and a mule.

This guy wrenches the heart, too, but in an entirely different way.  Lange musta done a great job of seeming unthreatening, enabling people of all stripes to open up to her.  I’ve commented in earlier diaries in the series how hard it’s been to get to issues of race at the time.

A tractor pioneer of the Mississippi Delta. In 1927 he had 160 colored tenant families working his land, in 1936 he won thirty Farmall tractors and employs thirty families on day labor basis. He says, “Now I can make money. Hours are nothing to us. You can’t industrialize farming. We in Mississippi know how to treat our niggers”.

Migratory boy, aged eleven, and his grandmother work side by side picking hops. Started work at five a.m. Photograph made at noon. Temperature 105 degrees. Oregon, Polk County, near Independence.

This one’s been often used as a stand-in for Steinbeck’s fictional Tom Joad.  The caption tells us little – just that the refugee farmer from Missouri isn’t actually an Okie:

This one hints at something.  Farmhouses usually have all kinds of “stuff” around them, so this one’s abandoned, most likely.  The land’s obviously still under cultivation.  The caption explains the dynamic that turned more people off the land than did the Dust Bowl, which was concentrated mainly on the sparsely populated high plains:

Abandoned tenant house seen across tractored fields. Hall County, Texas. Many tenants who have filled the land on the family-farm basis are made landless, forced by the machine into the towns, or reduced to day labor on the farms. Large numbers who have gone to the towns have fallen on relief, or even have sought refuge in distant parts. Not only is their security gone, but the opportunity even to rise to ownership is diminished, for profitable operation of mechanized farms requires more land and more capital equipment per farm.

There’s a different, iconic picture, but it doesn’t happen to bear the caption.  Tells the same story.  (It’s one of the opening pix in the video/slide show below, so I won’t post it here.)

There are cases where the caption’s barely necessary at all.  This caption you could have made up from what’s in the picture:

The sheriff of McAlester, Oklahoma, sitting in front of the jail. He has been sheriff for thirty years.

I could post Lange’s pictures all day.  Hundreds of ’em, with all kinds of interesting captions, which was really just something to touch on in this diary.  It’s too many pictures to string along in a diary.  But, I’ve been wanting to put together some YTs for awhile.  


Some of you know that I post songs in jotter’s diaries most mornings.  It’s pretty much a tradition by now.  I’ve been up to my ears in music lately, due to an ongoing project to digitize all my cassettes and vinyl before the machines to play them on die.  I keep coming upon songs not found on YT, and wanting to share them.  (Who’d have thought there’s anything left that’s not found its way there by now!)

This long forgotten song turned up on a cassette.  I tracked down the artist and got permission to do some video editing.  I made a slide show, which is, amongst other things, a way to get a lot more pictures into a diary than would otherwise be possible.  The sequencing adds something, too.  The title, We Have Fed You All for a Thousand Years, is from an old IWW poem, first published in 1908, author unknown.

It’s my first time out, so suggestions are welcome.  I’m not happy with the titles (I used Adobe Premiere), the letters look like hell.  Maybe part of the YT compression after uploading?  Suggestions on that front especially welcome.  But be a little kind since it’s my first effort, OK?

Thanks to Mat Callahan for permission to use the song.  Here’s the lyrics:

We have fed you all for a thousand years

And you hail us still unfed,

Though there’s never a dollar of all your wealth

But marks the workers’ dead.

We have yielded our best to give you rest

And you lie on crimson wool.

Then if blood be the price of all your wealth,

Good God! We have paid it in full!

There is never a mine blown skyward now

But we’re buried alive for you.

There’s never a wreck drifts shoreward now

But we are its ghastly crew.

Go reckon our dead by the forges red

And the factories where we spin.

If blood be the price of your cursed wealth,

Good God! We have paid it in!

We have fed you all a thousand years-

For that was our doom, you know,

From the days when you chained us in your fields

To the strike a week ago.

You have taken our lives, and our babies and wives,

And we’re told it’s your legal share,

But if blood be the price of your lawful wealth,

Good God! We bought it fair!

Previous entries in the series:


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    • LoE on April 8, 2009 at 15:31

    Meant to cross-post the same day.  Oh well.  There was a lot of effort went into the video.  Likely worth another look, even for those who have seen it before.

  1. thank you very much for another installment…….

  2. My grandfather used to tell us that on our farm in Iowa in 1932, they were stuck with that entire year’s corn crop because the price at local co-ops went to zero.  He may have exaggerated a bit, but effectively it was true:  

    Corn in Iowa was selling at just 7 cents to 8 cents per bushel. Prices in other Midwestern states also dropped below 10 cents per bushel. Corn in storage was worth less than the cost of storage, leading to frantic efforts to export it even in the face of high world tariff barriers. Surplus crops that couldn’t be otherwise disposed of were just tossed out on the ground to rot.

    The despair must have been unimagineable.

    But his farm is still in our family today.  I don’t know how he did it, but from his stories I would say he and his family largely abandoned the market economy and lived off the land for several years.

    Thanks for the diary.

    • TomP on April 9, 2009 at 01:05


  3. You don`t need any help it seems.

    I love getting lost in the Library of Congress also.

    Many of the pictures are reminders of some of the things I also did. I was a migrant picker in the tobacco fields, tomatoes, & apples.

    Living in old abandoned farm homes.

    Pouring steel at BHP, as third ladle man, in Australia.

    Working in factories from making lampshades in Montreal,

    to car & truck radiators at Blackstone Ind. in Ontario,

    To aircraft parts in Torrance Ca.

    I remember all those times in black & white.

    Although I may not have been through the widespread depression of the times pictured, the personal circumstances I lived through, were no less.

    I fear that not enough people will see these images you compiled & are not going to be ready for widespread deprivation that could befall the majority of people, if things do get, only a little worse.

    It might not take much to tip the scales from the ‘now’ to the ‘then’.

    A very nice presentation.

    I`ve missed them.

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