This remarkable song was written and sung by Mrs. Mary Sullivan. It was recorded in the Shafter FSA Camp in 1941 by collectors Robert Sonkin and Charles Todd. The song tells of an incredible odyssey Mrs. Sullivan lived through in her journey from Texas to California. It includes floods, homesickness and gratitude for government assistance. The narrative, I think, rivals the great ballads of Woody Guthrie. But this is not a story about others, this is her story. Of all the Dust Bowl material I have heard this is certainly one of the most moving.
Mary Sullivan was my grandmother (my mother’s mother). Story songs like this are treasured in my memory because they were such a big part of every family get-together in my youth. My grandmother often sang for us the songs that her mother and grandmother had sung, songs that date back to Colonial America and beyond.
But, as a child, my favorites of all the songs my grandmother sang were the ones with a “wild west” theme. Most of these songs originated in Texas or were about Texas and its cowboys. For the children, and possibly the adults too, listening to these songs was like watching a movie. We were mesmerized as my grandmother sang about hardships and tragedies and were often moved to tears by some disastrous twist in the plot. The side effect of all this is that these songs were recorded in our memories, generation after generation, and were thus preserved for future generations, at least within my own family. I was stunned when I learned that most of them had also been recorded by Mr. Sonkin and Mr. Todd in 1941 for the Library of Congress. My grandmother told me about these men but I never dreamed these recordings still existed.
I would like people to know how “Sunny California” has evolved over the years and what it sounds like today after being sung by three more generations. As a matter of fact, I still sing these songs to MY grandchildren and it amazes me that they still enjoy them. “Sunny California” is in the process of being recorded in its present form, the way it was sung and played just prior to my grandmother’s death. It will never be a modern hit but, thanks to websites like yours, my family can share this legacy with others who are still interested in the people of the Dust Bowl era.
I came across this site after hearing your grandmother’s powerful song on the American Folklife Center’s website, and was so interested to hear you are singing your grandmother’s songs and sharing them still in the family. I am with the Folklore Society of Greater Washington (DC), and I would dearly love to hear them and know others would as well. I know this is a three-years-old website, but if you get this message and would be interested in possibly sharing how these songs have changed over the years, and what ones are still in your family, I would love to hear from you. Thank you, Heather (firstname.lastname@example.org)