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Woody Guthrie – A House of Earth

Woody Guthrie

Graphic, bizarre, sex outdoors as a representation of fertility rites, a house literally made of earth, a people who have nothing yet are in harmony with nature – sounds suspiciously like a 60’s hippy rebirth book along the lines of Carlos Castaneda. But Woody Guthrie’s “House of Earth” was written in 1947, and features lives of fifteen years earlier – the hard scrabble existence of Texas farmers in the Dustbowl of the 30s, doing everything they can to survive.

Despite folk hero Guthrie’s outpouring of songs, ballads, works for children, this is his only fully realised prose fiction (two other books, “Bound for Glory” and “Seeds of Man,” are more part fictional memoirs) – and when it was finished he showed it to only one other person, Library of Congress folklorist Alan Lomax, who encouraged him to publish. It was quite simply the best material I’d ever seen written about that section of the country,” Lomax wrote. Guthrie locked it in a cupboard and turned to other things.

Woody Guthrie 3The work was only tracked down last year, edited and brought to publication by Douglas Brinkley, with a sheen of glamour provided by Guthrie fan Johnny Depp, who has provided an introduction and enthusiastic publicity, alongside Bob Dylan, who announced he was blown away, “surprised by the genius” of the work. (Dylan’s Song To Woody – “Hey hey Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song” both gave me a twenty year ear worm and originally lead me to the artist, who Dylan both admired and was heavily influenced by himself).

The novel is a story of an ordinary couple, and their dream of a better life. Tike and his wife Ella May Hamilton, living in the cap rock country of West Texas, “that big high, crooked cliff of limestone, sandrock, marble and flint, that runs between and is the line that divides the lower west Texas plains from the upper north Panhandle plains.

Attaining a government leaflet on the building of adobe shacks (the “House of Earth” of the title), Tike becomes a convert and starts spreading the word to the other impoverished residents of the region. Building with adobe creates a stronger, insulated and weatherproof structure, in contrast with the flimsy shacks put together with wooden boards and nails which most people lived and suffered in. But the central irony is that while the land they are living on is owned not by them, but by the greedy and uncaring property owners, they cannot truly be either at home or in control.

Woody Guthrie and his guitarThese ideas of progressive activism, and stories of the common folk fighting against The Man is a common theme of Woody Guthrie, and the language he employs in his songs is reflected in the “homespun lyricism” of the prose, although the narrative drive is apparently rather static and is clearly not the author’s main interest. It’s a setting that he himself has lived through though, which lends an authenticity to the descriptions of the sheer drudge of existence, alongside an unmatchable evocation of the land. In the end, the novel promises to be more than a historical curiosity, and of interest to fan and general reader alike.

Published by Fourth Estate on 5 Feb 2013.

About Genevieve