Ken Burns seeks first-person Dust Bowl stories

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Just saw a promo on OETA: Documentary-maker Ken Burns is planning a series on the Dust Bowl, in the same vein as his works on the Civil War, jazz, and baseball, and he's looking for help from Oklahomans:

Hello,

I'm asking Oklahomans to help me with a new public television series I'm now working on: The Dust Bowl.

Like our earlier films on World War II, Jazz, Baseball, and The Civil War, we think the Dust Bowl is an important event in all of American history.

We're in the early stages of our research, but we know that Oklahoma will be a major part of the Dust Bowl story we want to tell.

We're looking for first-person stories of Oklahomans who lived through those hard, hard times, especially out in the Panhandle, where the Dust Bowl was the worst.

We hope to find people who can share their experiences with us - or their photographs, diaries, or home movies from the 1930s, to help us tell this important story.

If you or someone you know can help in this research project, please contact OETA at 1-800-846-7665

Or Send a Note to:

OETA Dustbowl Stories
P.O. Box 14190
Oklahoma City, OK 73113

All we need at this stage is a short, written note explaining how you could serve as a resource. Or, please call OETA with a brief description of your Dust Bowl experience. We'll take it from there.

Thank you for helping in this important project.

Ken Burns
Florentine Films

I don' t have any Dust Bowl stories in my family, but I have a couple of suggestions:

Run ads in California's Central Valley, places like Bakersfield and Fresno, where many Okies wound up and where their descendants still live.

Include western swing and its precursors (old-time fiddle music, Texas blues) in the soundtrack. Woody Guthrie may have been writing folk songs to tell the story of the masses, but the masses were at the neighbor's house, rolling up the rug, pushing back the chairs and tables, and dancing to the kind of music that Bob Wills, Milton Brown, Hank Penny, and Spade Cooley would forge into western swing.

In particular, Cindy Walker wrote a song called "Dusty Skies," which the Texas Playboys recorded in 1941. I don't remember where I read this, but it's said that Tommy Duncan choked up the first time he sang it, recalling the dust storms that devastated his family's farm in Texas. In his Guardian obituary of Cindy Walker, Tony Russell wrote of "Dusty Skies":

As delivered by Wills' vocalist Tommy Duncan, it is among the most affecting of country epitaphs, as true a memorial of its time and place as the Dust Bowl Ballads of Woody Guthrie.

(A side note: If you want to find good biographical sketches of western swing musicians, check the archives of British newspapers like the Independent, the Telegraph, and the Guardian.)

Here are the lyrics:

Dusty skies
I can't see nothing in sight
Good old Dan you'll have to guide me right
If we lose our way the cattle will stray
And we'll lose them all tonight
Cause all of the grass and water's gone
We'll have to keep movin' on

Sand blowin' I just can't breathe in this air
Thought it would soon be clear and fair
But dust storms played hell
With land and folks as well
Got to be moving somewhere

Hate to leave the old ranch so bare
But I've got to be moving somewhere

So get along dogies
We're moving off of this range
Never thought as how I'd make a change
But the blue skies have failed
So we're on our last trail
Underneath these dusty skies
This ain't tears in my eyes
Just sand from these dusty skies

After the jump, a video of the song. (The video is a bit odd, but it's Tommy Duncan's 1941 version on the audio.)

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1 Comments

John P. Lock said:

I was born in Elmer, Oklahoma Oct. 29, 1929,when I was 2 months old we moved to the Porter High community 4 miles south and one mile east of Altus where I lived until December 1940 we move to Claremore after the dust bowl was over. So I had a front row seat of all the years of the dust bowl.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on July 5, 2009 10:29 PM.

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