Cultivating Disaster: A Tale in Song of the Dust Bowl

A scramble for land, money, and resources ends in ecological disaster and snatches away everything people have worked for. Does this sound like the situation threatening us today? It has happened before, in the Great Plains in the early twentieth century, when land ecologically unfit for farming was plowed under, culminating in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

This is the tale expressed, through song and through the story of orain4 400x267 Cultivating Disaster: A Tale in Song of the Dust Bowlne homesteader family, in Rain Follows the Plow: A Dust Opera, by Stephen Coffee. The musical has just finished its run at the Washington, DC Fringe Festival, where it was among the Best of the Fringe winners. Through strumming guitars and a wonderful variety of voices, the play captures the transcendent hope and calamitous ruin of the people of Oklahoma as nature’s fury wrecked their dreams.

As the play opens, Ruth, the homesteader mother, captures the feel of untrammeled nature before the dust storms invade:

But the sky, the impossible sky
this ever-changing dome
it truly is our home
and the earth, the bountiful earth
the endless horizon
it’s all here
the air so clear
the stars so near

It is this vast, gorgeous landscape that was loosened and overturned, plowed under, made ripe for destruction when drought and winds struck. The saying “Rain Follows the Plow” referred to the mistaken notion—which seems bizarre in hindsight—that plowing land for farming would naturally be followed by rain to nurture the crops. That the reverse occurred shows the folly in the belief that humans can control nature.

rain1 400x267 Cultivating Disaster: A Tale in Song of the Dust BowlBesides the homesteaders, the land takes on a life of its own in the form of the lost native peoples. Woody, the play’s presiding bard—not coincidentally named after Woody Guthrie—points out that the settlers remember the natives with a certain admiration, and perhaps even guilt. All that remains is the lonely figure Indian Joe, the last of his people, a kind of fading, almost spiritual presence.

Also present in tragic form are the native fauna, the coyotes, jackrabbits, and grasshoppers, photos of which flicker in the play’s background, along with scenes of settler life in their lonely, primitive houses. Yet the old and new inhabitants did not mix well. The play tells, in song, how the homesteaders destabilized nature, killing coyotes which in turn led to an explosion of jackrabbits that needed to be culled in mass killings.

jack rabbit running in a pack
thick as fleas on a hound dog’s back
cut your wheat for a mid-day snack . . .

fight you for your shortening bread
round em up and knock ‘em in the head

This invasion, and the bloodletting that followed, were early signs of how humans had upset the balance of nature, and of the price to be paid.

Jackrabbit slaughter and grasshopper invasions proved only a harbinger of the devastation to come, drought and then waves of dust storm after dust storm, lastingr nearly a decade. Timothy Egan, in his classic The Last Hard Times, describes a “dirty, swirling thing in the sky” that “rolled, like a mobile hill of crud, and it was black.” It stung the eyes and lungs and, even when it had gone, left behind a new disease, dust pneumonia. As Rain Follows the Plow describes one storm,

It come down from the purple majesty
looking for the amber waves
scooping up the barren earth like
souls from the grave

The climax was a massive storm, Black Sunday, on April 14, 1935, that hit Oklahoma from north to south and down into Texas, carrying so far east that a layer of black dust was left on President Franklin Roosevelt’s desk. Coffee’s lyrics convey Black Sunday’s apocalyptic proportions: “it was just like in the Bible / Mama cried the World is ending,” until the sky descended.

rain2 400x267 Cultivating Disaster: A Tale in Song of the Dust BowlThis might have been the climax, but the Dust Bowl would continue until 1940, when rain and normality returned. By that time a third of Oklahoma’s population had left, and hundreds or thousands were dead, with damaged lungs a continuing reminder for decades. Contemplating the wretched landscape, stunned by the funeral of a young boy, the surviving homesteaders sing a hymn:

Blessed are the dead that the rain falls on
the row they hoed was dry as it was long
now the clouds have shed their blood
and the furrows run with mud
just as our loved ones have passed on

The conclusion mirrors the end to Glacier: A Climate Change Ballet, another DC Fringe performance enacting environmental disaster. Both leave behind mournfulness, although perhaps with new hope of a wiser, more peaceful time ahead.

The play’s connection to climate change is no coincidence. As Coffee told me in an interview, “the way I read it, the Dust Bowl is a template for ecological disaster.” He sees it as “a classic tragedy of commons,” spurred on by “ignorance, denial, greed, technological changes, modernization, globalization, all these changes came to bear on this ecosystem and it was destroyed.”

Caroline Ferrante, who plays Ruth, adds that, “not far from our lifetime we had a similar story,” to climate change. “History does repeat itself.” If people get fatigued or alienated by the science of climate change, art and music offer another approach. “My goal was to humanize the Dust Bowl,” says Coffee, to show “this is what people were thinking, how they were feeling.”

Ferrante adds that “when you communicate through the arts, you can do it under radar.” Contrarily, “if people feel they’re being preached to, often you get a very small window. But through the arts you get a larger window. . . The attention span widens.”

Ferrante feels particularly honored to participate in this production since Coffee is such a strong writer about women, and because part of her family was dirt farmers in Kansas who told stories about the Dust Bowl. Ferrante’s character, Ruth, acts as a fragile vehicle of hope, almost a fertility figure, amid the devastation. “I don’t believe many songwriters would write a piece like this and make a female character the centerpiece,” she says.

It was women who inspired the music in the first place. Coffee began writing the song cycle that would become Rain Follows the Plow in 2013 out of deep personal grief at the death of his mother. Art became a means of dealing with loss. Shortly before her death, Coffee’s mother had given him a copy of The Worst Hard Time and of Ken Burns’ documentary The Dust Bowl, allowing him to a personal exploration of this tragic period. In addition, Coffee had long been aware that his grandmother died in the Dust Bowl. History and the personal merged and poured out. “If you’re an artist, you know sometimes emotional blows will move you,” he says. “I just channeled that energy into this songwriting.”

The project began with one song, “Black Sunday,” and grew from there. Coffee had never written anything like an extended song cycle and did not plan this one, much less making it into a play. He was surprised when he was told, “you know you’re writing a musical.” (Oddly, Coffee has never seen Oklahoma, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s far more optimistic portrait of the state earlier in its history.) Other collaborators sprang up, including the director Bill Davis, who shepherded him through the process of making the work into a play.

Despite its success so far, Coffee does not consider Rain Follows the Plow finished. He hopes to further develop it and to “take it to bigger stages,” particularly in Oklahoma. He has no plans for how to do so, but serendipity has aided him; “I’ve gotten so far by collaborating with people, letting them make the most of these songs.” Now he hopes that art, luck, and the help of friends will converge to move Rain Follows the Plow to new venues, a kindly wind spreading the play, and the songs, to the four corners, and especially to the Great Plains region, the source.

All Photos by Jean Van Devanter White