Oklahoma poster

The great American musical fiction

| The other night I was casting about for something to watch on TV and came upon a performance of Oklahoma! from London's Royal National Theatre starring Hugh Jackman who is always watchable.

Serendipitously, I had just finished reading The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan (available for your Kindle), leadd "The untold story of those who survived the great American Dust Bowl." That certainly cast a different light on the great American musical Oklahoma! by Rodgers & Hammerstein.

Oklahoma! is set in Oklahoma Territory at the turn of the 20th century, just before the territory became the 46th state in 1907. Encouraged by the Homestead Act, unscrupulous real estate developers, unwitting newspaper editors who publicized the rosy vision they promoted, and the allure of dreaming big, people flocked to the state — ranchers to raise herds of cattle on the prairie grass and farmers to stake out their homesteads.

According to the eponymous song performed at the wedding of Curly and Laura everything is going to be great:

Brand new state - gonna treat you great!
Gonna bring you barley, carrots and pertaters,
Pasture for the cattle, spinich and termaters,
Flowers on the prarie where the June bugs zoom,
Plen'y of air and plen'y of room,
Plen'y of room to swing a rope!
Plen'y of heart and plen'y of hope.

And for a time life in Oklahoma was hard but promising. Settlers learned to tap the Ogallala aquifer for what seemed a limitless supply of water. Encouraged by a boom in wheat prices, farmers plowed under more and more acres of prairie grass to plant wheat. Soon the "sodbusters" had plowed under most of the prairie grasses. And during years when the rains came, it was good. 

Ooook-lahoma, where the wind comes sweepin' down the plain
And the wavin' wheat can sure smell sweet
When the wind comes right behind the rain.
Oklahoma, Ev'ry night my honey lamb and I
Sit alone and talk and watch a hawk
Makin' lazy circles in the sky.

But the rains didn't always come. Several years of drought brought an end to dreams of "wavin' wheat" and brought dried up stubble in the fields instead. Then, when the "wind [came] sweepin' down the plain" it picked up the topsoil, previously held in place by prairie grasses, and carried it in suffocating clouds and dumped dust by the ton, as far away as the National Mall in Washington DC. Although people tried to seal all the cracks in their houses, which were often pits dug into the ground, so much dust accumulated that it had to be shoveled away. People and cattle alike suffered from "dust pneumonia" as their lungs filled with dust. And when the drought and dust didn't kill the plants and animals, grasshoppers in swarms of Biblical proportions descended and ate every bit of plant matter until not a sprig remained.

In about two decades, the Great Prairie had become a wasteland; more than four million acres of farmland were barren and abandoned.  What had once been miles and miles of waist-high grass was now hard, barren earth without topsoil, incapable of growing anything. Neither the farmers nor the cowmen could succeed.

California enacted a no-Okies law
California enacted a no-Okies law

By the time Oklahoma! opened on Broadway in 1943, only the hardiest, perhaps most desperate, settlers in the actual Oklahoma were still hanging on. They may have come with "plen'y of heart and plen'y of hope" but the hardship of the dust bowl and the depression pretty much extinguished it. Most had fled to other states where they were not always welcomed with open arms.

When he took office, Franklin Roosevelt first set about saving the banking system and then turned his attention to farming and the plains states where  80 million acres had been stripped of topsoil. The government bought up crops and animals to drive market prices higher, distributing the surplus to the needy. Contour plowing  was introduced to prevent the wind from peeling off the topsoil, and millions of trees were planted as windbreaks. But by then it was too late for the generations that had settled the Plains.

We know we belong to the land
And the land we belong to is grand!
And when we say
Yeeow! Aye-yip-aye-yo-ee-ay!
We're only sayin'
You're doin' fine, Oklahoma!
Oklahoma O.K.
Curly and Laura

"Doin' fine" — not so much! While audiences applauded the singing and dancing and thrilled over the budding romance of Curly and Laura in Oklahoma!, that Oklahoma no longer existed, if it ever did. There was no happy ending for the real Oklahoma.

 

Last updated on May 4, 2016

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