By Mike McCoy, Executive Director, Kern County Museum
More than a million Americans were forced to move off small family farms in the American Southeast in the 1930s because of prolonged drought and bad farming practices, better known as the Dust Bowl. Mostly from Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas, these agricultural migrants came to the West Coast seeking seasonal farm labor and relief from the loss of their livelihoods. Many passed through Kern County and many of these migrants made Central California their new home. And they brought their music with them.
One staple in the farm labor camps and rough dance halls that sprung up in the Central Valley was the country music of Oklahoma and Texas. Small combos toured the valley towns bringing some light and levity to otherwise tough living conditions. As the “Okies” settled in for more permanent work on Kern County’s farms and in the oil fields, the music moved into better dance halls and small honky-tonk taverns.
Soon, places like The Lucky Spot, The Beardsley Ball Room, The Pumpkin Center Barn, Tex’s Barrel House, and the famous Blackboard, were jumping on Friday and Saturday night with new hard driving country music that was original and different from the commercial sound being produced in Nashville and Los Angeles. Coming in from the farms, ranches, and the Westside oil patch, the hard-working men and women liked their music loud, their beer cold, and settled any trouble right on the spot.
The Kern County Museum is opening a special permanent exhibit that celebrates the era of the 1950s and 60s when the Bakersfield Sound was in its heyday. Names like Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Cousin Herb Henson, Red Simpson, and Bill Woods are remembered with their musical instruments, sequined costumes, record albums, and short biographies. Funded with a grant from the State of California’s Museum Fund and several local donors, the new exhibit welcomes visitors from around the world who are die-hard fans of country music or soon-to-be new fans. The museum already welcomes more than 80,000 visitors a year, and the new exhibit promises to be a hit. Come see and learn about the story of hard-working people who knew how to take out a little time to play.