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  • Surviving the Dust Bowl
  • John Shelton Lawrence
Surviving the Dust Bowl (1998/2007). Written and produced by Chana Gazit. Distributed by WGBH-PBS;; 55 minutes.

Beginning in 1931 one hundred million acres of the southern Great Plains transformed itself into the Dust Bowl. Its coverage stretched over sections of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado. In longevity, ecological damage, economic loss, human suffering, and displacement of people the Dust Bowl ranks with or perhaps above Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf’s BP oil spill, and the Fukushima Daichi reactor disaster. Ignorant of the Plains drought cycles and driving the steel disk harrows that slashed the Homestead prairie grasses, farmers of the teens and twenties bared their pulverized soil to hot, fierce winds that came in the thirties. In 1935, my childhood home of Amarillo clocked 908 hours of the Black Blizzards. For some survivors the nightmare of dust brought a sense of guilt and collective responsibility that is rare in American history.

Like the droughts that keep returning to the Southwest, Surviving the Dust Bowl (STDB) has had several incarnations since first public broadcast in 1998, followed by release on a modest videocassette. Then came Timothy Egan’s National Book Award title The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of [End Page 62] those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl (2006); it included interviews with some of the film’s principals, affording a timely opportunity for a 2007 DVD with additional disk-based resources such as a teacher’s guide and a transcript. As of this writing, STDB videostreams from the PBS website, which dispenses the DVD contents as well as additional interviews. It also links to the documentary Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern (1995), which reprises the upper Midwest farm crisis of the 1980s. In sum, STDB has grown into HD quality video with highly instructive supplements in the form of additional interviews and bibliographies. And because humanly caused climate change has become a focus of political differentiation between Democrats (who believe in it) and Republicans (who see it as enviro-fanatic conspiracy), STDB has an even greater relevance now than it did in 1998.

The film uses familiar documentary ingredients: trusted commentator for an introduction (here David McCullough), still photographs and movie clips, period posters, interviews with a historian and several surviving participants. The heart and distinctive contribution of STDB is the time it grants to survivor’s voices. They are a needed corrective to the most popular literary and film image of the Dust Bowl from John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1939; 20th C Fox film released in 1940), which narrated escape and relocation. This theme was reinforced by Woodie Guthrie’s “Dusty Old Dust” with its refrain “So long, it’s been good to know you/This dusty old dust is a-gettin’ my home/And I’ve got to be drifting along.” Those who stayed experienced years of personal economic destruction (compounded by the Great Depression), hunger, the loss of farm animals, schools, banks, churches, and in some cases entire towns. There were deaths of family members with symptoms of pneumonia, and the saddening vision of parents crying in desperation about their misery in the unrelenting dust that filled houses, yards, and mounded up in dunes along fence rows. One of the film’s bizarre clips records club bearing men and boys of Dalhart, TX in their Sunday suits, herding forage-seeking wild rabbits into pens where they are clubbed to death. A still photo shows a crow’s nest near Amarillo that had been constructed with scraps of barbwire. The landscape had been too denuded for traditional materials.

The voices of survivors chosen for this program are superb. They reflect the distinctive regional language patterns and vividly evoke their moments of fear and hope in the Dust Bowl. Melt White of Dalhart, a cowboy, has a cello-resonant voice that would charm an audience in speaking the conditions of the Alternate Minimum Tax code. In terms of film history, Melt provides a living link to Pare Lorentz’s documentary The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) in that his father Bam was hired to plow for a...


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