Quarantine Thoughts: Chuck Prophet Looks to The Dust Bowl for Inspiration, a Path Forward

The San Francisco musician says leadership and resilience will get us through the current pandemic.

Not long ago, I was on the road in Austin where my band and I played four shows — among the only concerts that weren’t cancelled when the city fathers pulled the plug on SXSW. Once I got home to San Francisco, as per an order from the mayor, I began sheltering in place: the quarantine had begun.

I’m used to scraping by. The reality is that most musicians have other gigs. We work as bartenders, Uber drivers, copy editors, house painters, whatever we can do to cobble together a living. We’re no different than anybody else. It’s just that musicians are more clever with social media. So I predict a lot of Internet panhandling in the days, weeks, and — gulp! — months ahead. What really keeps me up at night is worrying about the entire ecosystem collapsing.

I feel like these online streaming concerts are kind of depressing. It’s like a cat staring at a bird through the window. That cat will never get to hold that bird in its mouth. There’s something unsatisfying about it. But, who knows? I could get sucked into doing one. For now, however, I’m kind of dragging my feet.

I’m looking for a real path forward. How many Facebook Live concerts can we do? It makes people feel good, I suppose. But that passes and then what? For answers and inspiration, I decided to check out of the 24-hour news cycle and brush up on some history, courtesy of Ken Burns. 

Pulling back the camera I can see how the saga of the Dust Bowl might help us to see the bigger picture. The Dust Bowl was about all of us. It was about ecosystems and economies and how they can collapse. It’s hard for me to imagine that in the middle of a dust storm in 1935 they cleared a path to my grandparents’ door in Aurora, Kansas so a doctor could deliver my mother. 

By 1935, the year my mother was born, property values had fallen by 90 percent. Her family had trouble making the rent, which incidentally was $5 a month. Her people headed for California and we — and she — are still here today. She’s one tough cookie.

From where I stand, this virus seems but a minor inconvenience compared to the epic dust storms that washed over the Great Plains. Pause for a minute and ponder this: the air itself could kill you. People fell ill with dust pneumonia. And it hit children the hardest; they couldn’t even go outside. Dust pneumonia gutted communities. God was tormenting them. The dust found its way into everything, like a snake found its way into the Garden of Eden. It destroyed people. Got in their heads. Got in their beds. It was a monster.

Our leaders could learn a lot from watching this heartbreaking, yet strangely inspiring Ken Burns production. Franklin Delano Roosevelt led the country through this man-made disaster. He responded with all the scientific research at his command. And rallied communities to come together. He gave incentives to businesses and started conservation programs. The Federal Security Administration provided emergency relief and helped farmers relocate to other places where the soil would be more productive. It was about education. It’s really an incredible success story. If you’re looking for models on leadership, look no further than FDR.

If people were to watch this instead of the 24-hour news cycle, it might make them rethink their convictions about humans and how our actions affect this big blue ball of a planet we are all just guests on. The photographs are incredible! Looking at the images on my screen I can’t help but think: there’s always a path for art. The Dorothea Lange photos alone are worth the price of admission — which, incidentally, is free if you have Amazon Prime.

And, as an added bonus, the program features plenty of tunes from Woody Guthrie — an American hero armed with little more than an acoustic guitar and a harmonica. Guthrie invented a new way to blast out a righteous message, marrying politics and folk music, and singing about the end of the world with “So Long It’s Been Good to Know You.”

Quarantine Thoughts is an ongoing personal essay series focused on how the coronavirus, shelter-in-place mandates and the resultant economic fallout is impacting locals. Read our last essay from a former bartender here.

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