THE DUST BOWL A FILM BY KEN BURNS takes the form of two compact discs, with about 4 hours total running time. The presentation is about 40% still black and white photographs, about 30% black and white movies, and about 30% color interviews with present-day historians and with children of Dust Bowl survivers. The presentation is fact-based, and avoids journalistic fluff. In contrast, another disc on the same topic, "SURVIVING THE DUST BOWL" consists mainly of journalistic fluff and avoids facts relating to history, agriculture, and business.
THE DUST BOWL A FILM BY KEN BURNS is excellent in every way. I describe here only disc one. Disc one discloses the cause of the Dust Bowl. I was very pleased to see that the disc took care to describe the MULTIPLE CAUSES of the disaster known as the Dust Bowl. These include: (1) Naturally-occurring changes in the climate in the Oklahoma area, that is, from wet to dry; (2) The fact the dry climate lasted an unexpectedly long time; (3) The fact that charlatans tricked settlers to move to Oklahoma, with promises that the area had was excellent for agriculture and was a well-forested area where in fact, the area was bare of trees; (4) The fact that Oklahoma farmers switched from an old-fashioned plow that prevented soil from blowing away to a new-style plow that encouraged soil to blow away; (5) The fact that initial harvests of wheat were abundant, stimulated farmers to plow up even more land; (6) The fact that The Great Depression resulted in loss of customers, and forced wheat prices to a tiny fraction of the usual price; (7) Also, we learn that another contributor to the Dust Bowl was World War I, which cut off wheat supplies from Russia, and a consequent increase in wheat prices, and resulted in a huge increase in plowing up the land in Oklahoma. Regarding the second disc, I will only disclose that we learn that Dust Bowl refugees settling in California were treated like second-rate citizens. I recommend buying the very excellent book, CHILDREN OF THE DUST BOWL, which does a great job at explaining the life of Dust Bowl victims and the lives of settlers in California.
Disc One begins with rumbling sounds, and sounds of wind. We see several seconds of motion-picture footage of mountains of black clouds, sand rushing over bare ground, and a mother lifting a child and racing indoors to get away from a dust storm. Then, come color videos of old people (children of Dust Bowl survivors) making remarks such as, "It would blister your face, it woud put your eyes out . . . steady blow of dirt." Another old lady says, "It carried with it a feeling of. I don't known the word for it exactly . . . of being unreal but almost being evil." A middle aged narrator reads: "It was a decade long natural tragecy of Biblical proportions. Pillars of dust choked out the midday sun."
At 5 minutes into Disc One, we see video of a lady sweeping piles of sand out of her house, and the narrator says, "But it is also a story of historic perseverance." At 10 minutes, we see a map showing the midwest states in the U.S. (Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, etc.). We learn about the short grasses forming, "tangled roots 5 feet below the ground forming dense sod that could withstand the region's periodic draughts," and we learn the fact the the digging up of all of these tangled roots (of buffalo grass) contributed to the weakening of the soil, and to the loss of billions of tons of topsoil during the Dust Bowl. The narrator tells us that, "homesteaders can next, swarming onto the once considered unsuitable for crops because it had less than 20 inches of rain per year, unscrupulous promoters that promised that the very act of farming would increase the precipitation." The narrator continues, "the severe drought of the 1890s proved them wrong." (Here, we learn that long before the Dust Bowl, Oklahoma was already prone to severe droughts.) Then, we learn about Congress opening up new land, and that desperate Europeans settled there. The narrator tells us that the Oklahoma panhandle was the riskiest agricultural land in the US. At 13-minutes into Disc One, the narrator makes clear that a common expression in Oklahoma was, "IF IT RAINS." The narrator adds that if it did not rain, then people would be known as, "NEXT YEAR PEOPLE" because of their continuing hope that the rain situation would be better the next year.
We learn that World War I cut off Russia's wheat, and so the price of wheat in America increased, where the result was a boom in ploughing up the land in Oklahoma and in planting wheat. At 20 minutes into Disc One, we learn about a modern plow (the disc plow) that made farming more efficient but that promoted loss of topsoil to the wind. The video shows lines of tractors plowing up the land, and the narrator tells us that, "tractors were going all night long with headlights."
We learn that the earlier-used plow was a "LISTER" which dug a deep furrow that caught and held the soil, preventing it from blowing away. We learn that the lister was replaced with a new type of plow called a "ONE-WAY" which ripped up the soil allowing its easy dispersion by the wind. All along, we see videos of rows of modern tractors engaged in something called, "THE GREAT PLOW-UP."
At 27 minutes the narrator reads: "On October 29, 1929, a day that would be remembered as BLACK TUESDAY . . . " The disc shows still photographs of New York City at the start of the Great Depression, and the disc shows that there was not any corresponding disaster in Oklahoma. Regarding Oklahoma, on old lady named Imogen Glover in a color-video interview recollects, "We had the best crop we ever had in 1929." Then, we learn that as the Great Depression continued, wheat dropped from a dollar to 17 cents a bushel, and Oklahoma farmers responded by plowing up more land (thereby getting more wheat to sell, but also enhancing more blowing away of the top soil).
The narrator reads, "But when the bumper crop of 1931 was harvested, there was nobody to buy it . . . prices had collapsed to 25 cents per bushel, less than half of what it cost the farmers to grow it." We see still photographs of piles of grain stacked in a farm field. The narrator tells us again, the the people were, "NEXT YEAR PEOPLE." Then, at 34 minutes into Disc One, we learn that on JANUARY 21, 1932 came the first of many severe dust storms, with 10,000-foot high dust storms and 60mpg winds.
We see many videos of low visibility areas, closeup videos of scurrying chickens, and still photos of farmers next to barbed wire fences. We see a charming photo of two boys collecting a huge bucket of cow chips, for use as fuel. At 45 minutes into Disc One, we see still photographs of cracked earth in barren farmfields, and we learn taht there were 14 dust storms in1932, and 38 dust storms in 1933, and we see a video of a MONSTER DUST STORM that was a "boiling wall of dirt coming at you."
At 48 minutes into Disc One, we see a video of a 1930s automobile driving through a cloud of dust, and at 50 minutes starts a detailed account of STATIC ELECTRICITY caused by dust storms. At 52 minutes, we see the first of many photographs of DEAD CATTLE killed by dust suffocation. At 55 minutes, comes the first of many accounts of SUICIDES. At 56 minutes comes a fascinating three minute video account of thousands of jack rabbits and the killing of them by "RABBIT DRIVES" where hundreds of people clubbed them to death. At one hour into Disc One, we learn of a massive 350 MILLION TON DUST STORM of May 1934, which transported Oklahoma's soil to Chicago, Cleveland, New York City, and Washington DC. At 64 minutes, we hear the first of the idea of trying new ploughing techniques to prevent topsoil loss, and we learn of Roosevelt's goal of exploring these new ploughing techniques.
At 66 minutes into Disc One, we learn about New Deal jobs, which mitigated some of the poverty in Oklahoma. We learn that the US government paid a million dollars to buy one million cattle to kill them and bury them. At 72 minutes ("ta-ta-dahhhhh!") we see Dorothea Lange's most famous photograph. At 76-80 minutes, we learn more about SUICIDES. The narrator reads, "In 1935, the number of black blizzards doubled in no man's land." At 82-95 minutes come accounts of "DUST PNEUMONIA," which killed many children. We see photographs of sick children and photos of funerals for children. At 1 hour, 47 minutes, we learn of the firs tuse of the term "DUST BOWL" and that this was in a newspaper article. The article was by Robert Geiger and it appeared in a story about Guymon, Oklahoma. At 1 hour and 48 mintues, we learn about the goal of leaving Oklahoma to California, and we learn about Woodie Guthrie. But the exodus to California is covered in Disc Two. In Disc One, the music is gentle banjo and mandolin music without any singing. In Disc Two, we hear Woodie Guthrie singing.