Songs About Los Angeles: “The New Year’s Flood” by Woody Guthrie

April 23, 2009 at 10:00 am in Entertainment, History, Music

guthrieWhen legendary folk musician Woody Guthrie got around to adding a song about Los Angeles to his musical legacy, it wouldn’t be any sort of rousing celebratory anthem along the lines of “This Land Is Your Land.” Instead he gave us “The New Year’s Flood,” a solemn ballad fittingly about a disaster that on January 1, 1934, devastated communities along the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and perhaps took the lives of untold “Dust Bowl refugees” like himself.

Well, not quite like him. While California proved a veritable cornucopia to Guthrie, whose popularity soared with a show he broadcast from the old KVFD-AM radio station in the mid-Wilshire area after moving to Glendale in 1937, the Golden State of the mid-1930s was much stingier to the hundreds of thousands of Guthrie’s beloved “okies” who fled drought-devastated areas of the south and southwest, drawn west to a mythical place shamelessly promoted as a land of boundless wealth and opportunity. While farms were certainly in need of laborers, the sheer deluge of workers drove wages steadily downward, forcing people to scratch out desperate existences living in cars, tents, or in shacks they built out of whatever materials they could find, wherever they could find: such as the foothills along the base of the San Gabriels that towered over agriculturally rich valleys.

Kind friend do you remember,
On that fatal New Year’s night?
The lights of old Los Angeles,
Was a-flickering oh so bright.
A cloudburst hit the mountains,
It swept away our homes.
And a hundred souls was taken
In that fatal New Year’s flood.

In November of 1933, what became known as the Pickens Canyon Fire had denuded some 7,000 acres of mountainside north of the Crescenta Valley. Shortly thereafter the area was beset by weeks of steady rains, and on December 31 showers that had begun to fall intensified to a downpour that dropped a record 7.31 inches in 24 hours (in pale comparison Los Angeles’ total rainfall this year so far is around 9 inches). By midnight when the city was ringing in 1934, the San Gabriels began wringing out massive flows of mud, rocks and trees down dozens of steep narrow canyons, which reached the basin floor as 20-foot walls of debris-choked torrents.

The little towns of Montrose,
Glendale and Burbank, too.
From Flintridge to Tujunga,
Along that mountain blue.
They all were struck like lightning,
Down that mountain rolled.
The wild Los Angeles River,
In that fatal New Year’s flood.

In all, reports have it at more than 200 homes being buried and another 400 rendered uninhabitable. Also buried were hundreds of vehicles in the narrow valley between the San Gabriel and Verdugo mountains. Among the dead were five people killed at a New Year’s Eve party in a Montrose home that was totally buried; 10 bodies were extricated from a debris flow in La Crescenta; and 25 men, women, and children were drowned at the Red Cross headquarters at the American Legion Hall at Montrose Boulevard and La Crescenta when a wall of water tore open the building. The Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office collected 40 bodies and noted 75 people missing by January 4, 1934. Three years after the disaster, 45 persons remained unaccounted for.

montroseMontrose: In this view, the photographer is standing where Mayfield Ave used to be, looking down toward the intersection of Rosemont and Montrose. The flood had spread out at this point, creating a wide moonscape where houses and streets had been the night before.
Photo and caption: Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley.

From Guthrie’s point of view that’s not all who was unaccounted for. During the improvised introduction that he recorded with the song, he seems to dispute the official death toll:

“In 1934 on New Year’s night was one of the worst that ever hit at anywhere and anytime and it killed over one hundred people – and that many was reported; I guess there was a hundred more than there was reported.”

Guthrie may have made such an assumption based on reports that abounded of homeless people living up in the mountains that were feared swept away, and such claims remain unsubstantiated rumors. But what’s undeniable is that for a flood with a force and ferocity great enough to hurl “iceberg-sized boulders” out of the mountains and into the streets and send a field of silt and debris purportedly surging as far as 12 miles into the ocean beyond the mouth of the Los Angeles River, any transient encampments, “okie” or otherwise, would have vanished without a trace. Washed away, clean.

“The New Year’s Flood”
By Woody Guthrie

Well, I got one here that I wrote up, uh [pauses]. When all of these okies got to California, it was a sort of a natural thing for them to drift down to all the river bottoms, along all the mountain streams and all the creeks.

I know that I’ve been in a lot of okie camps in California where a hard-working man didn’t make a dollar every two weeks. And all he depended on was maybe the fish he could catch along some of the rivers or some of the creeks.

So along these rivers and creeks that all these okies was camped around, why there was a lot of things happened that sort of go down as a black mark somewhere another in history because these mountain streams and all these rivers had a habit of having cloudbursts – big rains and cloudbursts — and they’d hit up on the mountains and they’d flood all them rivers and they’d flood all them creeks. And in fifteen minutes time – a lot of times – it’d wash away five- or six-hundred families of people and totally take everything that they had in the world.

In 1934 on New Year’s night was one of the worst that ever hit at anywhere and anytime and it killed over one hundred people – and that many was reported; I guess there was a hundred more than there was reported. But then they had all the morgues and all the funeral homes and all the church houses full of people that was drowned in this storm. And it rolled great big boulders down all the streets of Montrose, California; Tujunga, California; and all down the streets of Glendale, California; northern Burbank, California — and Los Angeles, California, the same thing.

And I’ve got a song here that I made up about that [strums guitar]. The name of this is “The New Year’s Flood.”

Kind friend do you remember,
On that fatal New Year’s night?
The lights of old Los Angeles,
Was a-flickering oh so bright.
A cloudburst hit the mountains,
It swept away our homes.
And a hundred souls was taken
In that fatal New Year’s flood.

‘Twas in the early spring time,
Of Nineteen Thirty Four.
The waters filled the canyons,
Through the city poured.
Our little tots was sleeping,
And the town was bright and gay.
We could not see the sorrow,
Of that dawning New Year’s Day.

The little towns of Montrose,
Glendale and Burbank, too.
From Flintridge to Tujunga,
Along that mountain blue.
They all were struck like lightning,
Down that mountain rolled.
The wild Los Angeles River,
In that fatal New Year’s flood.

The news it rocked the nation,
As of that story told.
A million hearts was grieving,
For the dear ones that they loved
This world will long remember,
The dear ones that we loved
That crossed that golden river,
In that fatal New Year’s flood.

foothillPhoto: Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley.

— • —

Further information:

1) Why there’s no audio file, dammit.

Hampered by its obsurity, I could not locate a public-domain version available of a recording of “The New Year’s Flood.” In fact I couldn’t even find a transcription of the lyrics and did the job myself after finding and purchasing the single off an album called “The Library of Congress Recordings” from Amazon available at the following webpage: “The New Year’s Flood,” by Woody Guthrie. Reading at the Library of Congress website that the Woody Guthrie Foundation is all about protecting  copyright of all their namesake’s content, I wrote the foundation asking for permission so I could post a version of the MP3 file I purchased. But my email went unanswered.  As such, regardless of any “fair use” arguments, I’ve elected to follow my moral compass and not bootleg anything. So if you wanna hear the actual song, go buy it. Or come see me and I’ll play it for you.

2) No sources were harmed in the making of this post.

3) There’s a bigger picture here.

This is just one of the awesome series conceived by Julia Frey. For the latest list check out: LA Metblogs Series: Songs About Los Angeles.

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