Terry Morrow: Documentarian Ken Burns stirs up 'Dust Bowl' for PBS

Filmmaker Ken Burns put years into researching 'The Dust Bowl' which will air on PBS Sunday and Monday.

Photo by Matt Sayles

Filmmaker Ken Burns put years into researching "The Dust Bowl" which will air on PBS Sunday and Monday.

For documentarian Ken Burns, the Dust Bowl should be more than just a tragic piece of American history.

"Conventional wisdom and shorthand history seem to always relegate the story of the Dust Bowl to just a handful of storms and an inevitable connection to John Steinbeck's 'The Grapes of Wrath'," he told journalists recently.

"We quickly discovered, however, a much more complex, tragic, and interesting story that continues ... to resonate today."

"The Dust Bowl" (8 p.m. Sunday and Monday, PBS) is a massive documentary that examines the environmental crisis of the 1930s that changed life in the Great Plains and Midwest. Archival footage, interviews and environmental experts talk of the Dust Bowl and how it changed lives.

Sans natural anchors to keep the soil in place, the American drought of the 1930s dried and eventually turned to dust, which blew away with the harsh winds.

The wind storms' harshness blackened the clouds, carrying the dirt to New York and Washington, D.C. Much of the dust ended up in the Atlantic.

Burns calls the event "the greatest man-made ecological disaster in American history" and a 10-year "apocalypse" earmarked by hundreds of black blizzards that killed crops and cattle and children.

Burns worked on the project on and off for decades. The result is a two-part, four-hour "Dust Bowl," one of the most probing oral histories highlighting the stories of more than two-dozen survivors.

Burns walked away from the project with an appreciation of the humanity involved in such a crisis.

As one interviewee told Burns, "You're going to conquer nature or you're going to ignore it, and you can't do either.'

"This requirement to listen to nature, I think, is at the heart of, if there's a message, what the film is about. I mean, I think it's really just about these people and what happened."

As a tale to be shared and passed on about endurance, "the Dust Bowl just remains as a good story," Burn says, "and you can find it in these lessons, and fortunately we don't have to hit you over the head with it."

Other highlights for the week of Nov. 18-24. All times Eastern. Listings subject to change. Check local listings:


n "American Music Awards" (live 8 p.m. ABC). The 40th anniversary of the awards show includes performances from Carrie Underwood, Pink, Taylor Swift and Pitbull. Winners are determined by fan votes in categories of pop/ rock, country, electronic dance music and others.


n "The Voice" (8 p.m. NBC). The Top 10 singers perform.

n "Dancing with the Stars: All Stars" (8 p.m. ABC). A week before the finale, the last remaining contestants vie for votes in a rush.

n "Hawaii 5-0" (10 p.m. CBS). McGarrett has his own holiday trials: He tries to reunite his mother and his sister.


n "James Bond movie marathon" (noon, SyFy). It begins with "For Your Eyes Only" and will also include "Thunderball" (which will air 3 a.m. Friday).

n "My Brother The Serial Killer" (9 p.m., Investigation Discovery). This fact-based film tells the story of serial killer Glen Rogers through the eyes of his siblings.


n "Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade" (9 a.m. NBC). The annual event glides through Manhattan live, with dozens of elaborate floats, marching bands and celebrities.

n "Bad25" (9:30 p.m. ABC). Spike Lee put together this track-by-track tribute to Michael Jackson's iconic album "Bad." Producer Quincy Jones and Martin Scorsese are interviewed about how it was made and the impact it left on music.


n "Jingle and Bell's Christmas Star" (7 p.m. Hallmark Channel). A dog displaced by a move learns an important message about how to celebrate the holidays properly.

n "Frosty The Snowman" (8 p.m. CBS). A must-see for families: The classic holiday special starring the late Jimmy Durante as the narrator of the tale.


n "Dungeons and Dragons: The Book of Vile Darkness" (9 p.m. SyFy). A warrior risks his life to fighting dragons and other supernatural creatures in order to save his father.

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