We’ve had such unpredictable and newsworthy weather the past couple years—from record droughts to widespread tornados to epic floods to ice storms—that it got me thinking about books and music where extreme weather plays a role. Here are a few favorites.
“I Wish It Would Rain”
I had an India-born and -educated Economics professor who one class got off on a tangent about John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. He began by recommending it as the best book written by an American; by the end of that class, he had made it required reading and promised a test on it. It is a great book and I’m glad he made us read it. I’m an Okie, by birth anyway, and I have ancestors who lived through the dust bowl horrors of the 1930s. Steinbeck’s Joad family got out of Oklahoma and headed for a promised paradise out west. The non-fiction book The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan, grippingly tells the story of the High Plains farmers who tried to tough it out on the barren plains as the dry, choking dust kept coming.
The Oklahoma troubadour Woody Guthrie’s first album, Dust Bowl Ballads, from 1940, is the musical story of the Oklahoma/Texas panhandle drought brought to us by a native son who felt the farmers’ pain. “Dust Bowl Refugee” leads it off: “It’s a hard, old, dusty highway/For a dust bowl refugee.”
“Water, Water Everywhere…”
The Perfect Storm, Sebastian Junger’s 1997 tale of a once-in-a-blue moon weather event in the Atlantic Ocean is a page-turner. It’s a little heavy on nautical terms, but they don’t often get in the way of the many life-and-death struggles of swordfishermen caught 500 miles off the Eastern coast.
The notorious line “It was a dark and stormy night…” should be mentioned, too. It starts the 1830 novel Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, whose purple prose inspired the annual bad writing contest, The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. I haven’t read it, but I always get a kick out of reading submissions to the contest. Lastly, I’ll mention my favorite childhood book, Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss (1940). The book contains the most memorable line from all of my childhood reading: “I meant what I said and I said what I meant…an elephant’s faithful, one hundred per cent!” Horton is an inspiring example for mailmen, endurance athletes and irresponsible-mother proxies everywhere, sticking with his task through rain, sleet and snow.
Two great songs commemorate the Mississippi River flood of 1927. “High Water Everywhere” was written in 1930 by Charley Patton, one of several Delta bluesmen who experienced the Mississippi River flood of 1927. He captured it best. Forty-four years after Charley Patton, Randy Newman wrote “Louisiana 1927” about the flood with an unmatched mix of humorous lyrics and beautiful music.
“It’s Gettin’ Hot in Here”
I recently read three books about the Badwater Ultramarathon Race across Death Valley, a mid-summer 134-mile run from the lowest point in the US, at Badwater, to Whitney Portal, just below the highest point in the continental US, the peak of Mount Whitney. In the dead of winter, I enjoy reading about running through Death Valley, just like my wife enjoys summertime reading about polar explorations. The grittiest of the three was Richard Benyo’s The Death Valley 300. Benyo and a pal made the first trek from Badwater to the top of Mt. Whitney and back, years before Badwater officially became a race. His account puts you right there—which isn’t always a good thing. Also enjoyable was To the Edge by Kirk Johnson, a reporter who trained for and completed the grueling race. Scott Ludwig competed in the 2003 Badwater Race and assembles his and other runners’ accounts of the experience in A Few Degrees from Hell. The writing is a bit pedestrian (pun intended).
For some fine fiction that takes place in hot and humid climes, read Graham Greene’s novels set in Congo, Mexico, Haiti and elsewhere. Favorites are A Burnt-Out Case and The Power and the Glory. To cool yourself off, get hold of Barry Lopez’s fascinating study of life at the Arctic Circle, Arctic Dreams.
“Too Darn Hot,” the Cole Porter standard from the 1948 musical Kiss Me Kate, paints a picture: “I’d like to sup with my baby tonight, play the pup with my baby tonight—but I ain’t up for my baby tonight ‘cause it’s too darn hot.”
I’ll close with a couple of classic songs extolling the joys of extreme weather.
“Moonlight in Vermont” was written by John Blackburn & Karl Suessdorf in 1945. Many singers have recorded this popular song about the snowy landscape of Vermont. It’s a beauty, but it’s notable for being an early and rare example of a popular song written in free verse—and in haiku, no less!
“Hot Fun in the Summertime” by Sly and the Family Stone (1969) is, in my opinion, the best pop single ever recorded. I don’t really know why but I don’t need to know why. Its message is simple: Hey, it’s hot, but we’re having a great time! Wanna join us? This song not only had fabulous harmonies, but great vocal trade-offs, and the perfect summer rhythm and feel.
Any books or songs about extreme weather we missed? Let me know in the comments!