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Ken Burns brings “The Dust Bowl” to life

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns will debut footage from his new documentary, “The Dust Bowl,” on Friday in Oklahoma City.
by Ken Raymond Published: April 10, 2012

/articleid/3664910/1/pictures/1691228">Photo - Filmmaker Ken Burns is producing a four-hour documentary, “The Dust Bowl,” for PBS. Photo by JAKE LANDIS, PBS
Filmmaker Ken Burns is producing a four-hour documentary, “The Dust Bowl,” for PBS. Photo by JAKE LANDIS, PBS

“A young itinerant singer found himself in Pampa, Texas, in the midst of Black Sunday ... and everybody all around him, God-fearing Christians all, were certain that this was the end of the world,” Burns said. “And so he looked up and wrote down a song called ‘So Long, It's Been Good to Know Yuh.' His name was Woody Guthrie.”

Burns and his producing partner, Dayton Duncan, knew little about the Dust Bowl before they read Timothy Egan's compelling book, “The Worst Hard Time.”

(In an equally compelling review of the book, The New York Times said: “Racing at 50 miles an hour, the Dust Bowl storms of the 1930s blasted paint off buildings; soil crushed trees, dented cars and drifted into 50-foot dunes. Tsunamis of grasshoppers devoured anything that drought, hail and tornadoes had spared. ... Families couldn't huddle together for warmth or love: the static electricity would knock them down. Children died of dust pneumonia, and livestock suffocated on dirt, their insides packed with soil. Women hung wet sheets in windows, taped doors and stuffed cracks with rags. None of this really worked. Housecleaning, in this era, was performed with a shovel.”)

The book piqued their interest, and Burns and Dayton resolved to collect oral histories from the survivors and put them together into a film.

The documentary includes interviews with 26 survivors and the written accounts of two women who lived through the Dust Bowl years.

“Unlike any other story that we've told,” Burns said, “this is almost completely a bottom-up story, told by the folks who experienced it, their own memories. That's what makes this particularly special for us.”

Burns' other films have won 12 Emmy Awards and two Oscar nominations.

His work includes “The Civil War,” “Baseball, The Tenth Inning,” “The War,” “Jazz” and “The West,” among others.

He was heralded in The Baltimore Sun newspaper as “not only the greatest documentarian of the day, but also the most influential filmmaker period.”

The late historian Stephen Ambrose said, “More Americans get their history from Ken Burns than any other source.”

by Ken Raymond
Book Editor
Ken Raymond is the book editor. He joined The Oklahoman in 1999. He has won dozens of state, regional and national writing awards. Three times he has been named the state's "overall best" writer by the Society of Professional Journalists. In...
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If you go

The nationwide promotional tour for the documentary will begin in Oklahoma City on Friday. Ken Burns will host a Q&A with local film and history students during the day. Excerpts from “The Dust Bowl” will be screened for the public at 7 p.m. at the Oklahoma History Center. The screening is free, but advance registration is required. For more information, call 522-0765.


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