by Laura Hutson
Ken Burns' The Dust Bowl is a two-part, four-hour documentary about the greatest man-made environmental catastrophe in American history and the effects it had on the people who survived it. It premieres on PBS Nov. 18-19, but producers Dayton Duncan and Julie Dunfey were at Tennessee State Museum earlier this week with a sneak peek.
The most exciting part of the night was the producers' announcement that the next film they'd be working on with Burns is a history of country music, which would require many return visits to town because, as Duncan said, "We hear Nashville's pretty important to it." The six clips from The Dust Bowl were all captivating, the destruction caused by trying to control nature was staggering, and the message was resoundingly clear: Always take the longview.
Below, read up on four things that you may not know about the Dust Bowl, and tune in to NPT at either 7 or 9 p.m. on Sunday for the first episode of this important film.
1. Kinetic energy from all the dust swirling around in the air caused intense static electricity. People would refrain from touching each other, and dragged chains behind their cars to ground them and offset the static. One interviewee talks about feeling her hair stand on end, which was incredibly spooky and gave a visceral element to the story.
2. To treat "dust pneumonia," parents gave their kids turpentine and kerosene in corn syrup. They also dressed them in goggles and wrapped wet cloths around their faces, which made them look like eccentric hipster aliens — see photograph below.
3. People thought all that dust was God's vengeance, for real. End-times Bible verses were printed on the front pages of daily newspapers.
4. The story relies largely on oral history, and just in time — out of the 26 people they interviewed for the film, five have already died. An unexpected result of telling the story through first-person accounts is that, naturally, the documentary deals with the childhood memories of its storytellers, and the whole thing is colored with that youthful perception. One of the doc's best scenes is when a pair of brothers — Dale and Floyd Coen — recollect memories of their baby sister. As they tell the story, these two elderly men turn into little boys before your eyes.