My one grandmother was so important to me, but weren’t there supposed to be two? What would it have been like for my dad, to lose his mother at age six? These were questions from childhood that I hadn’t revisited in many, many years. Then, watching the Ken Burns documentary on the Dust Bowl, I heard the expression for the first time: Dust Pneumonia.
I did the math. It would have been 1936. Western Oklahoma. People’s lungs filling up with fine topsoil. Was my missing grandmother a casualty of the Dust Bowl? I’ll never really know the answer to that question, but suddenly the history had become personal. And then, just as I was diving into it, my own mother died.
I’m a songwriter. Every artist knows how times of emotional disequilibrium can unleash the muse. Reading Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time, the stories of Dust Bowl survivors began leaping off the pages and into new songs. As a native Okie, I relished the opportunity to write in my true, almost forgotten vernacular. I knew these people. I knew the culture, and I knew the landscape. “Write what you know.”
I began playing the songs for audiences at the Reston-Herndon Folk Club, a community to which I am much beholden. I asked musician friends to accompany and help me record. I asked other singer-songwriters I greatly respect to record the songs-and in some cases to help refine them. Every answer came back “Yes!”
Actually, the answer often came back “Yes, but this needs to be on a stage.” I never set out to write a musical, but everyone insisted I had done so. So perhaps the most important “Yes” came from Bill Davis, a veteran of decades of community theater in Northern Virginia, who agreed to direct the show. Bill has helped pull the “story” out of the “history” and has whipped this large gaggle of musicians and singers into a credible acting troupe.
So, I give you Rain Follows the Plow. I realize that for some people the term “folk opera” is a double damnation, but early audiences have roared their approval. And while a historical/ecological tragedy sounds grim, the show is unexpectedly entertaining. As one audience member said, “I never had such a good time listening to such sad songs.”
Stephen R. Coffee is a serial career changer, singer-songwriter, and accidental playwright. Born in Oklahoma, based in Northern Virginia, he is most often seen performing as one third of the Harley String Band. In 2016, he was nominated for a Wammie as Songwriter of the Year, largely on the basis of the buzz around Rain Follows the Plow, his folk opera based on the Dust Bowl. The song “Indian Joe” from that work drew honors in the Great American Song Contest and the Woody Guthrie Song Contest.
Rain Follows the Plow
July 8 — July 23, 2016
Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H Street, NE
Washington, DC 20002
Show details and tickets