The Story Behind The Song – Daddy Killed the Calf

Daddy Killed the Calf was written by Shannon Slaughter (with a little bit of help from Mike Bentley and Dale Felts). A recording of this song can be found on the latest self-released CD from Shannon and Heather Slaughter & County Clare’s One More Road.

Shannon Slaughter has an interesting story to tell …………….

“As a U.S. history teacher I’m always on the lookout for great stories for songs. Well, my father-in-law Terry Sanders and I were watching the PBS documentary about the Dust Bowl last fall. One segment involved a woman that had witnessed her father killing the family new born calf, not for meat (though I’m sure they butchered it), but to keep the calf from drinking the cow’s milk. He wanted to make sure his children had milk to drink.

I looked over at Terry and said, ‘I’m gonna write a song called Daddy Killed the Calf.’  He laughed, but I immediately got out my laptop and starting jotting down a few facts (geographic center of the Dust Bowl was Boise City, Oklahoma… etc) and started thinking of a potential melody, rhyme scheme and story. I finished the first verse and chorus in about an hour, and got stumped.

I called Mike Bentley of Cumberland Gap Connection and asked him if he wanted to help finish it. He agreed and pretty much wrote the second verse by the following morning. I began to piece the song together and figure out where we wanted to put the harmony lines on it, but I still couldn’t close the song.

I called on my main song writing buddy, Dale Felts, and he brought the last two lines to the song, which were the clinchers.

You never should say never, what you will do or don’t;
desperate needs cause dreadful deeds see if you will or won’t.

Those two lines changed the tense of the song, but they really worked well and brought closure to the song.

I used this song as an analysis assignment the other day with my history class, as we were covering the Depression and Dust Bowl and they agreed that the last two lines were the most powerful of the song.

Kudos to Dale and Mike for helping me on this one. I couldn’t have finished it the way it needed to sound without those two guys. Heather helped me with a cool melody and deciding what instrument should kick it off and where the breaks should go. We wrote it and none of the guys in the band had heard it when we recorded it.

We went into the studio at Wes Easter’s in Cana, Virginia, and worked it up really quick and cut it. I was especially proud to be able to use my brand new distressed Gary Cotten guitar on this song and it sounds great!!”

Hard ground to hoe during the Dust Bowl period in the 1930sThe Dust Bowl period, which happened in the 1930s, was a period of wind storms causing major ecological and agricultural damage to the American and Canadian prairies. The phenomenon was caused by severe drought combined with a failure to apply dry-land farming methods to prevent soil erosion after a period of extensive deep plowing and severe drought.

It caused extensive hardship for farmers and their families across the region.

Black Sunday dust storm April 14, 1935 - AP photoThe “Black Sunday” black blizzards of April 14, 1935, were witnessed by Associated Press reporter Robert E. Geiger who happened to be in Boise City, Oklahoma, that day; the term Dust Bowl was coined by Edward Stanley, Kansas City news editor of the Associated Press, while rewriting Geiger’s news story.



Daddy Killed the Calf 

Shannon Slaughter / Dale Felts / Mike Bentley © 2012
Publishers — Elite Circuit Music / Livy’s Dream Publishing

Boise City Oklahoma 1934
Black cloud of swirling sand gonna rob the land to give no more
Hundred acre waves of dust breaking cross the plains
Nowhere to go no one but God knows when it’ll rain

Blue flames on the barbed wire, dancing all around,
We could only watch, as our corn crops lay buried in the ground,
Black rollers kept a coming on, each and every day
High and dry, nothing left to try; the farm was blowing away

My Daddy was a good plowhand, Mama kept us fed
Barn and plow, draft bull and cow, on a little farming stead

The bull walked miles with Daddy, pulling on the share
The cow gave birth, and it wasn’t worth another mouth for him to care
We were starving, dying, suffering, needing milk and mighty bad
No time to cry, it was live or die, so Daddy killed the calf
Daddy killed the calf

My Daddy fought the Dust Bowl, lost and headed west
Did what he could, we understood, tried to give us all the best
You never should say never, what you will do or don’t
Desperate needs cause dreadful deeds; see if you will or won’t

We were starving, dying, suffering, needing milk and mighty bad
No time to cry, it was live or die, so Daddy killed the calf (repeat)

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.