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Extended Interview: Ken Burns and the American Dust Bowl

A car is chased by a "black blizzard" in the Texas Panhandle, March 1936. Courtesy of PBS: Arthur Rothstein; The Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

This interview originally aired on 'Patt Morrison'

When it comes to documentary filmmaking, there are two eras: BKB and AKB. That would be “before” and “after” Ken Burns.

Burns revolutionized the form through his attention to detail, his use of music, and his sweeping pans that gave motion to still photographs (hence the Ken Burns effect in Apple’s iPhoto slideshow toolkit).

Burns has a special penchant for Americana — his first documentary was on the Brooklyn Bridge and subsequently he has covered the Civil War, jazz, baseball, and the country’s National Park system.

Burns’s latest documentary, "The Dust Bowl" premieres November 18th and 19th on PBS. Burns combines interviews with 26 survivors of the era, with rare photographs and film to chronicle 'the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history.'

Interview Highlights


Ken Burns on the message of 'The Dust Bowl':

“I think it is a parable of folly and perseverance at the same time, of tragedy, of extraordinary human hope, of endurance, and also these environmental cautionary messages that we continue to sort of ignore as we blithely, you know, warm the planet and we carry on as if these are problems that won’t fully hit us in our lifetime. But if you saw pictures last year of the dust storm that rolled through Phoenix, or a Texas town, you know this is possible to happen all over again. And this is what anybody who studies history knows, that unless we learn the lessons of the past, we end up condemned to repeat it.”

Burns on the perseverance of Dust Bowl-era landowners:

“...we also watch the extraordinary perseverance of those who just struggled through it. As a historian said, they called themselves ‘next year people.’ If it rained, they’d be able to put in the crop, if it didn’t, then they were next year people waiting for times to get better they just didn’t for a decade long apocalypse.

Burns on 'Okie' dust bowl migrants as second class citizens in California:

“They’re in little Okie-villes, jungles as they were called, along the side of the road near the orchards, at a bend in the road, horribly unsanitary conditions, and there were signs at movie theaters that directed Okies and the n-word up to the balcony. They were looked on as second class, kind of white trash, that didn’t deserve to be disrupting the harmony of an already fragile life for many people there. “

Burns on his other projects:

“It’s…our avid enthusiasm for what we do and telling the greatest story I know on earth, which is the history of the United States. And while they may seem diverse in subject, they’re all asking one deceptively simple question, Who are we? Who are these strange and complicated people who like to call themselves Americans? What can an investigation of the past tell us about not only where we’ve been, but where we are, and where we might be going?”



Ken Burns, director and producer of documentary films including “Prohibition” and "The National Parks: America's Best Idea;" his new documentary “The Dust Bowl” premieres in November

Interview Outtakes: