Introduction written by Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp
Woody Guthrie: House Of Earth, 2012
On Sunday, April 14, 1935—Palm Sunday—the itinerant sign painter and folksinger Woody Guthrie thought the apocalypse was knockin’ on the door of Pampa, Texas. An immense dust cloud—one that had emanated from the Dakotas—swept grimly across the Panhandle, like the Black Hills on wheels, blotting out sky and sun. As the dust storm approached the town, the bright afternoon was eclipsed by an ominous darkness. Fear engulfed the community. Had its doom arrived? No one in Pampa was safe from this beast. Huddled around a lone lightbulb in a shabby. makeshift wooden house with family and friends, Guthrie, a Christian believer, prayed for survival. The de-mented winds fingered their way through the loose-fitting windows, cracked walls, and wooden doors of the house. The people in Guthrie’s tight quarters held wet rags over their mouths, desperate to keep the swirling dust from as-phyxiating them. Breathing even shallowly and irregularly was an exercise in forbearance. Guthrie, eyes shut tight, face firm, kept coughing and spitting mud.
What Guthrie experienced in Pampa, a vortex in the Dust Bowl, he said, was like “the Red Sea closing in on the Israel children.” According to Guthrie, for three hours that April afternoon a terrified Pampan couldn’t see a “dime in his pocket, t he shirt on your back, or the meal on your table, not a dadgum thing.” When the dust storm finally passed, locals shoveled dirt from their front porches and swept bas-ketfuls of debris from inside their houses. Guthrie, inces-santly curious, tried to reconcile the joy of being alive with the widespread despair. He surveyed the damage in Pampa the way a veteran reporter would have done. The engines of the usually reliable G.M. motorcars and Fordson tractors had been ruined by thick grime. Huge dunes had accumu-lated in corrals and alongside wooden ranch homes. Most of the livestock had perished in the storm, the sand clog-ging their throats and noses. Even vultures hadn’t survived the maelstrom. Images of human anguish were everywhere.
Some old people, hit the hardest, had suffered permanent damage to their eyes and lungs. “Dust pneumonia.” as phy-sicians called the many cases of debilitating respiratory ill-ness, became an epidemic in the Texas Panhandle. Guthrie would later write a song about it.
To express his sympathy for the survivors of that Palm Sunday, Guthrie wrote a powerful lament, which set the tone and tenor of his career as a Dust Bowl balladeer:
On the fourteenth day of April, Of nineteen rhirry-five. There struck the worst of dust storms That ever ad the sky. You could see that dust storm coming It looked so aufid black, And through our little city, left a dreadfid track.
In the spring of 1935. Pampa was not the only town that had been punished by the agony and losses of the four-year drought. Sudden dust cyclones—black, gray, brown, and red—had also ravaged the high, dry plains of Kansas, Ne-braska, Oklahoma. Arkansas, Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico. Still, nothing had prepared the region’s farmers, ranchers, day laborers, and boomers for the Palm Sunday when a huge black blob and dozens of other, smaller dust clouds quickly developed into one of the worst ecological disasters in history. Vegetation and wildlife were destroyed far and wide. By summer, the hot winds had sucked up millions of bushels of topsoil, and the continuing drought devastated agriculture in the lowlands. Poor tenant farm-ers became even poorer because their fields were barren. Throughout the Great Depression, the Great Plains un-derwent intolerable torment. The prolonged drought of the early 1930s had destroyed crops, eroded land, and caused many deaths. Thousands of tons of dark topsoil, mixed with red clay, had been blown down to Texas from the Dakotas and Nebraska, carried by winds of fifty to seventy miles per hour. A sense of hopelessness prevailed. But the indcfat iga-He Guthrie, a documentarian at heart, decided that writing folk songs would be a heroic way to lift the sagging morale of the people.
Confronted with dreariness and absurdity, with poor folks in distress, many of them financially ruined by the Dust Bowl, Guthrie turned philosophical. There had to be a better way of living than in rickety wooden lean-tos that warped in the summer humidity, were vulnerable to termite infestation, lacked insulation in subzero winter weather, and blew away in a sandstorm or a snow blizzard. Guthrie real-ized that his neighbors needed three things to survive the Depression: food, water, and shelter. He decided to concern himself with the third in his only fully realized novel: the poignant House of Earth.
A central premise of House of Earth-first conceived in the late 1930s but not fully composed until I947—is that “wood rots.” At one point in Guthrie’s narrative, there is a tirade against forestry products that rot down… sway… keel over. Someone curses at a wooden home: “Die! Fall! Rot!” Scarred by the dust storm of April 14, Guthrie, a socialist, damned Big Agriculture and capitalism for the degradation of the land. If there is an overall ethos in House ofEarth, it’s that those with power—especially Big Banks, Big Lumber, Big Agriculture—should be chastised as repugnant robber barons and rejected by wage earn-ers. Woody was a union man. But his harangues against the powers that be are also tinged with self-doubt. Can one person really fight against wind, dust, and snow? Isn’t vent-ing one’s spleen futile in the end?
Scholars who devote themselves to Woody Guthrie are continually amazed by how much unpublished work the Oklahoma troubadour left behind. He had an unerring in-stinct for social justice, and he was a veritable writing ma-chine. During his fifty-five years of life, he wrote scores of journals, diaries, and letters. He often illustrated them with good-hearted cartoons, watercolor sketches, and comical stickers. Then there are the memoirs and his more than three thousand song lyrics. He regularly scribbled random ideas on newspapers and paper towels. And he was no slouch when it came to art. But House of Earth —in m hich wood is a metaphor for capitalist plunderers while adobe represents a socialist utopia where tenant farmers own land—is Guth-re’s only accomplished novel. The book is a call to arms in the same vein as the best ballads in his Dust Bowl catalog. The setting for House of Earth is the mostly treeless, arid Caprock country oldie Texas Panhandle near Pampa. This was Guthrie’s hard-luck country. He was proud that the Great Plains were his ancestral home. It’s perhaps surprising to realize that Guthrie of Oklahoma—who tramped from the redwoods of California to subtropical Florida through-out his storied career—first developed his distinctive writ-ing style in the windswept Texas Panhandle. Guthrie’s treasured Caprock escarpment forms a geological boundary between the High Plains to the east and the Lower Plains of West Texas. The soils in the region were dark brown to reddish-brown sand, sandy barns, and clay barns. They made for wonderful farming. Bur the lack of shelterbelts—except the Cross Timbers, a narrow band of blackjack and post oak running southward from Oklahoma to Central Texas between meridians 96 and 99—left crops vulnerable to the deadly winds. Soil erosion became a plague, owing to misuse of the land by Big Agriculture, an entity that Guthrie wickedly skewers in the novel.
Guthrie, it seems, knew more about the Caprock coun-try than perhaps any other creative artist who ever lived. He knew the local slang and the idioms of the Panhandle region, the secret hideaways, and the best fishing holes. Throughout House of Earth, Guthrie uses speech pat-terns (“or something like that”; “shore cain’t”; and “I wish’t I could”) with sure command. Exclamations such as “Wh00000” and “Lookkky!” help establish Guthrie’s populist credibility. He had lived with people very similar to the novel’s hardscrabble characters. His slang expressions are lures similar to those found in 0. Henry’s folksy short stories. Building on Will Rogers’s large comedy rep-ertoire. Guthrie. in a little pamphlet titled $30 Wood Help. gave a thumbnail impression of his beloved Lone Star State while carping about the lumber barons turned loan sharks. “Texas,” he wrote, “is where you can see further, see less, walk further, eat less, hitch hike further and travel less, see more cows and less milk, more trees and less shade, more rivers and less water, and have more fun on less money than anywhere else.”
House of Earth has a literary staying power that makes it more than just a curiosity: homespun authenticity, deep-seated purpose, and folk traditions are all apparent in these pages. Guthrie clearly knows the land and the marginalized people of the Lower Plains. In the novel, he draws portraits of four hard-luck characters all recognizable, or partly rec-ognizable. to readers familiar with his songbook: the dutiful tenant farmer “Tike” Hamlin; his feisty pregnant wife. Ella May; a nameless inspector from the US Department of Ag-riculture (USDA) who asks farmers to slaughter their live-stock to raise farm prices; and Blanche, a registered nurse. When Tike, full of discord. lashes out at his own ramshackle house—”Die! Fall! Rot!”—he is speaking for all of the world’s poor living in squalor. Like all of Guthrie’s work, which is often erroneously pigeonholed as mere Americana, tins book is a direct appeal for world governments to help the hardest-hit victims of natural disasters create new and better lives for themselves. Guthrie contrives to let his readers know in subtle ways that capitalism is the real villain in the Great Depression. It’s reasonable to say that Guthrie’s novel could just as easily have been set in a Haitian shanty-town or a Sudanese refugee camp as in Texas.
It was desperation that first brought Guthrie to forlorn Pampa. He had been born on July 14, 1912, in Okemah. Oklahoma. but in 1927, after Woody’s mother was sent to Central State Hospital for the Insane in Norman (for what today would be diagnosed as Huntington’s disease), his father moved to the Texas Panhandle. Not only were the crops withered in the Oklahoma fields during the 1920s, but the oil fields were also drying up. Tragedy seemed to follow young Woody around like a thundercloud: his older sister, Clara, died in a fire in 1919: then a decade later the Great Depression hit the Great Plains hard, bringing widespread poverty and further dislocation. After spending much of his teens scraping out an existence in Oklahoma. Woody de-cided in 1929 to join his father in Pampa, a far-flung commu-nity in the Texas Panhandle populated largely by cowboys, merchants, itinerant day laborers, and farmers. The mostly self-educated Woody, who had taken to playing the guitar and harmonica for a living, married a Pampa girl. Mary Jennings, who was the younger sister of a friend, the mu-sician Matt Jennings. They would have three children. An oil discovery in the mid-1920s unexpectedly turned Pampa into a boomtown. The Guthries ran a boardinghouse, hop-ing to capitalize on the prosperity.
Temperamentally unsuited to a sunup-to-sundown job. Guthrie—a slight man weighing only 125 pounds—played a handsome mandolin for tips or sandwiches in every dark juke joint, dance hall, cantina, gin mill, and requileria from Ama-rillo to Tucumcari. Leftist and progressive-minded. Guthrie was determined not to let poverty beat him down. He con-sidered himself a straight-talking advocate for truth and love like Will Rogers. With head cocked and chin up, he embod-ied the authentic Vest Texas drifter complaining about how rotten life was for the poor. He became a singing spokesman for the impoverished, the debt-ridden, and the socially os-tracized. Comic absurdity, however, infused everything Guthrie did. “We played for rodeos, centennials, carnivals, parades, fairs, just bustdown parties,” Guthrie recalled, “and played several nights and days a week just to hear our own boards rattle and our strings roar around in the wind.” Determined to be a good father to his first (laughter, Gwendolyn, Guthrie tried to earn an honest living in Pampa. But he was restless and broke. For extra money, he painted signs for the local C and C Market. When not making music or drawing, he holed up in the Pampa Public Library; the librarian there said he had a voracious appetite for books. Longing to grapple with life’s biggest questions, he joined the Baptist church, studied faith healing and fortune-telling, read Rosicrucian tracts, and dabbled in Eastern philosophy. He opened for business as a psychic in hopes of helping lo-cals with their personal problems. He wanted to be a fulfiller of dreams. His music, grounded in his dedication to improv-ing the lives of the downtrodden, was sometimes broadcast on weekends from a shoe box—size radio station in Pampa. Depending on his mood at any moment, he could be a corn-pone comedian or a profound country philosopher of the airwaves. But he was always pure Woody.
His tramps around Texas took him south to the Permian basin, east to the Houston-Galveston area, then up through the Brazos valley into the North Central Plains. and back to the oil fields around Pampa. Always pulling for the under-dog, the footloose Guthrie lived in hobo camps, using his meager earnings to buy meals or to shower. He was proud to be part of the downtrodden or the southern zone. is heart swelled with his new social consciousness:
If I was President Roosevelt Id make groceries free—d give away new Stetson hats, And Let the whiskey he. Id pass out suits of clothing At least three times a week—And shoot theirs his oil man That killed the fishing creek.
It was while husking around New Mexico that Guthrie’s gospel of adobe took root. In December 1936, nineteen months after the Black Sunday when the dust storm ter-rorized the Texas Panhandle, Guthrie had an epiphany. In Santa Fe he visited a Nambe pueblo on the outskirts of town. The mud-daubed adobe walls fascinated him (as they had D. H. Lawrence and Georgia O’Keeffe). The adobe haciendas had hardy wooden rainspouts and bricks of soil and straw that were simple yet perfectly weath-erproof, unlike most of the homes of his Texas friends, which were poorly constructed with scrap lumber and cheap nails. These New Mexico adobe homes, with their mud bricks (ten inches wide, fourteen inches long, and four inches high) baked in the sun. Guthrie understood, were built to last the ages.
Adobe was one of the first building materials ever used by man. Guthrie believed that Jesus Christ—his savior—was born in an adobe manger. Such structures seemed to signify Mother Earth herself. If the people in towns like Pampa were going to survive dust storms and snow bliz-zards, Guthrie decided, they would have to build Nambe-style homes that would stand stoutly until the Second Coming of Christ. In New Mexico, with almost religious zeal, he started painting adobes of “open air, clay, and sky.” In front of the Santa Fe Art Museum one afternoon, an old woman told Guthrie, “The world is made of adobe.” He was transfixed by her comment but managed to nod his head in agreement and reply, “So is man.” Out of these epiphanies in New Mexico was born the central premise of Hattie of Earth. To Guthrie, New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment, was a crossroads of Hispanic, Native American, African American, Asian, and European cultures. He thought of the state as a mosaic of enduring peoples and cultures. Dos Pueblo—some of its structures as much as five stories high—had been occupied by Native Americans without interruption Iota millennium. Santa Fe, founded in 1610, was the first and longest-lasting European capital on US soil. As Guthrie wrote in his song “Ming Blang”—which he recorded t’or his 1956 album Songs to Grow On for Mother and Child—his day of reckoning, with regard to New Mexico—style adobe, was fast approaching.
So when it rains it won’t wash away.
Well build a house that’ll be so strong,
The winds will sing np, bay a song.
From his inquiries in New Mexico, Guthrie learned that you didn’t have to be a trained mason to build an adobe home. His dream was to live and wander in the Texas Panhandle, and to build a lasting adobe sanctuary on the ranch land he could return to at any time—one that wasn’t a wooden coffin or owned by a bank or vulnerable to the dreaded dust and snow. With the well-reasoned convic-tion. Guthrie, voice of the rain-starved Dust Bowl, started preaching back in Texas about the utilitarian value of adobe,. For Ave cents, he purchased from the USDA its Bulletin No. 1720, The Use of Adak or Sun-Dried Brick for Farm Budding. Written by T. A. H. Miller, this how-to manual taught poor rural folks (among others) how to build an adobe from the cellar up. In the Panhandle, there was no cheap lumber or stone available, so adobe was the best bet for architecturally sound homes in the Southwest. All an amateur needed was a homemade mixture of clay loam and straw, which helped the brick to dry and shrink as a unit. Constructing a leak-proof roof was really the only difficult part. (Emulsified as-phalt was eventually used to seal the roofs of adobes.) The rest was as easy as playing tic-tac-toe.
The model US city in the pamphlet was Las Cruces, New Mexico. where SO percent of all structures were made of adobe. Guthrie promoted this USDA guide for decades. Re-alizing that dugouts in the Panhandle had endured the Dust Bowl better than wooden aboveground structures, which were vulnerable to wind and termites, Guthrie considered it a public service to promote the notion of adobe dwellings in drought areas. If sharecroppers and tenant farmers in places like Pampa could only own a piece of land—even unculti-vable land among arroyos or red rocks—they could build a dream “house of earth” that was fireproof, sweatprool, windproof, snowproof, Dust Bowl–proof, rhiefproof, and bugproof.
It was early in January 1937 that Guthrie’s vision of adobe inspired House of Earth. A vicious blizzard, in which dust mixed with snow to turn the white flakes brown, hit the Panhandle, and Guthrie’s miserable twenty-five-dollar-a-month shack rattled in what the Pampa Daily News deemed the most “freakish” storm ever. Never before had residents experienced a summer storm, complete with thunder and lightning, in subzero temperatures. Sitting by the fireplace—the thermostat having frozen—Guthrie dreamed of warm adobes and started plotting House of Eani,. In Los Angeles the previous year, Guthrie had befriended the actor and so-cial activist Eddie Albert (who would make his feature film debut in Hollywood’s 1938 version ofBrother Rat with Ron-ald Reagan and would star in the CBS television sitcom Green Xeres from 1965 to 1971). Guthrie had been so taken with the charismatic Albert, a proponent of organic farming, that he had given Albert his guitar as a going-away gift. “Well howdy,” Guthrie now wrote to Albert from frigid Pampa. “We didn’t have no trouble finding the dustbowl, and are about as covered up as one family can get. Only trouble is the dust is so froze up it cain’t How, so it just scrapes around. Had seven or eight fair sized blizzards down here. But was 3 or 4 days a having them. It run us out of our front room the last freeze. We had the cook stove and the heater a going full blast in the house and it was so windy inside it nearly blowed the fires out. We dig in at night and out about sunup. This one has really been a freezeout. Snowed and thawed out 3 times while we was hanging out the clothes. They froze on the line. We took em down just like boards.”
The mercury dropped to six degrees below zero in Pampa, and gas lines froze, leaving homes without heat. While Guthrie was glad to be back home in Pampa—even in wintertime—he was a worried man. What the New York Times called a “blizzard of frozen mud” the color of “cocoa” was pummeling the Great Plains. In Pampa, visibility was often less than two hundred feet. Stuck in his shack, bitterly cold and trying to keep his baby girl from catching a fever, Guthrie fantasized about handcrafting adobe bricks come the spring thaw. Such a bold venture would cost him $300 for supplies for a six-room residence. “You dig you a cellar and mix the mud and straw right in there, sorta with your feet. you know, and you get the mud just the right thick-ness and you put it in a mould, and you mould out around 20 bricks a day, and in a reasonable length of time you have got enough to build your house,” he wrote to Albert. “You kinda let the weather cure em for around 2 or 3 weeks and the sun bakes em, then you raise up your wall.”
Guthrie’s letter to Eddie Albert—previously unpub-lished, like House of Earth itself—is a recent discovery. It illuminates how mesmerized Guthrie was by the vision of his own adobe home while trying to survive the brutal win-ter of 1937.
People around here for some reason aria got much faith in a adobe mud house. Old Timers dont seem to think it would stand up. But this here Dept of ilgr. Book has got a map there in it which shows what parts of the countty the dirt will work and tells in no hidden words that sun dried brick is the answer to many a dustblown malys prayer.
Since by a lot of hard work, which us dustbowlers are long on, and a way small cash cost, any family can raise a dem good house which is bug proof greproof and cool in summer. and not windy inside M the winter.
I have been sort of experimenting out here M the yard with mud bricks, and afieryou make a bunch ofem,you’d say yourself if a fellow calm raise up a house our ofdust and water, by George, he taint raise it up out of nothing.
Right on hand/got a good cement Mall when he can get work and also a uncle of mine Mats lived up here on the plains for .15 years, and he knows all of these hills and hollers and breaks in the land and cakyons, and river bottoms where we can get stuff to built with, like timber and rock and sand, and he’s too old to get a job but just the right age to build.
This cement workers is just right freshly married. But could work some.
Now since this climate is fairly arty and mighty dusty, and in view of the wind that blows, and the wheat that somehow grows, why hadn’t these good cheap houses be introduced around here, which to, the bricks M my back yard. I think is a big success.
If folks calm find no work at nothing else the)’ can build ern a house. There is plen 9, of exercise to it.
We’ve owned this little wood house for six years and it has been a blessing over and over, and the same amount of work and money spent on this house will raise one just exactly twice this good from the very well advertised dust of the earth.
It would be neatly dustprool: and a whole lot warmer. and last longer to hoot. But .fei lks around here just &nem studied it out, or got no information front the govern-ment, or somehow are walking around over and overlook-ing their own salvation.
Local lumber yards dont advertiie mud and straw be-cause you cant find a spot on earth without it, but you see old adobe brick houses almost everywhere that are as old as Hiders tricks. and still standing, like the Jews.
If I was aiming to preach you a sermon on the subject I would get a good lung ful of air and say that man is him-self a adobe house, some sort of a streamlined old temple.
But what I want to come around to heft. re the paper runs out is this: We’re scratching our heads about where to raise this $300 and we would furnish the labor and work, and we would write y a note of some kind a telling that this house belonged to somebody else till we could pay it out…
Course the payments would have to run pretty low till we could get strung ow and the weather Mall’ out and the sun take a notion to come ow, but it would be a loan and as welcome as a gift.
In this case, a few retakes on the lenders part could shore change a mighty bleak picture into a good one, and maybe an endless One.
Starting in the late 1930s. Guthrie toyed with the idea of writing a panegyric to survivors of the Dust Bowl with adobe as the leitmotif. Because John Steinbeck had sto-len his thunder by writing The Grapes of Wrath, about the Okie migration westward from Oklahoma and Texas to California. Guthrie decided to focus instead on his own authentic experience as a survivor of Black Sunday and the great mud blizzard. Also, to his ears, the dialect of Stein-beck’s uprooted loads fell short of realism. To Guthrie, true-to-life bad grammar was the essential way to capture the spirit of how people really talked on the frontier. Like Joel Chandler Harris, the author of the Uncle Remus tales, he was an excellent listener. So House of Earth, in Guthrie’s mind, would be less an adulterated documentation of the meteorological calamities than a pioneering work in cap-turing Texas-Okie dialects. Steinbeck, like all reporters, focused on the dust cyclones, but Guthrie knew that the frigid winter storms in West Texas during the Dust Bowl era also crippled his fellow plainsmen. Guthrie granted Steinbeck the diploma for documenting the diaspora to California. Nevertheless, he himself claimed for literature those brave and stubborn souls who decided to stay put in the Texas Panhandle. It was one thing for Steinbeck, in The Grapes of Wrath, to feature families who were search-ing for a land of milk and honey, but Guthrie’s own heart was with those stubborn dirt farmers who remained be-hind in the Great Plains to stand up to the bankers, lumber barons, and agribusinesses that had desecrated beautiful wild Texas with overgrazing, clear-cutting, strip-mining, and reckless farming practices. The gouged land and the working folks got diddly-squat … nothing … zero … nada … zilch. (For a while Guthrie used the nom de plume Alonzo Zilch.)
While Guthrie’s twenty-five-year-old heart stayed in Texas, his legs would soon be bound for California. Much like Tike Hamlin, the main character in House of Earth, Guthrie paced the floorboards of his hovel at 408 South Russell Street in Pampa during the great mud blizzard of 1937, wondering how to find meaning in the drought-stricken misery of the Depression. His salvation required a choice: to go to California or to build an adobe home-stead in Texas. When the character Ella May Hamlin screams, “Why has there got to be always something to knock you down? Why is this country full of things you can’t see, things that beat you down, kick you down, throw you around, and kill out your hope?” the reader feels that Guthrie is expressing his own deep-seated frustration. He decided he would have to try his luck in California if he wanted a steady income. Having learned the Carter Fam-ily’s old-style country tunes, and with original songs like “Ramblin’ Round” and “Blowing Down This Old Dusty Road” in his repertoire, he was determined to become a folksinger who mattered. In early I937—the exact week is unknown, but it was after the snow had thawed—Guthrie packed up his painting supplies, put new strings on his gui-tar, and bummed a ride in a beer delivery truck to Groom, Texas. Hopping out of the cab and waving good-bye. he started hitching down Highway 66 (what Steinbeck called the “road of flight”), where migrants were begging for food in every flyspeck town, to Los Angeles.
There is an almost biblical sense of trials and tribula-tions in the obstacles Guthrie would confront in Califor-nia. Like all the other migrants on Highway 66, he always felt starvation banging on his rib cage. From time to time, he pawned his guitar to buy food. Like the photographer Dorothea Lange, he visited farm camps in California’s San Joaquin Valley, stunned to see so many children suffer-ing from malnutrition. But then Guthrie’s big break came when he landed a job as an entertainer on K FVD radio in Los Angeles, singing “old-time” traditional songs with his partner Maxine Crissman (“Lefty Lou front Mizzou”). His hillbilly demeanor was affecting, and the local airwaves al-lowed Guthrie to reach fellow workers in migrant camps with his nostalgic songs about life in Oklahoma and Texas. For a while, he broadcast out of the XELO studio from Villa Acuiia in the Mexican state of Coahuila; the station’s powerful signal went all over the American Midwest and Canada, unimpeded by topography and unfettered by FCC regulations.
Many radio station owners wanted Guthrie to be a smooth cowboy swing crooner like Bob Wills (-My Adobe Hacienda”) and Gene Autry (“Back in the Saddle Again”). Guthrie, however, had developed a different strategy for folksinging that he clung to uncompromisingly. “I hate a song that makes you think you’re not any good.” he ex-plained. “I hare a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are either too old or too young or too fat or too slim or too ugly or too this or too that … songs that run you down or songs that poke fun of you on account of your had luck or your hard traveling. I am out to fight those kinds of songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood.”
When Guthrie became a “hobo reporter” for The Light in 1938, he traveled extensively, reporting on the 1.25 mil-lion displaced Americans of the late 1930s. The squalor of the migrant camps angered him. He kept wishing the poor could live in adobe homes. “People living hungrier than rats and dirtier than dogs,” Guthrie wrote, “in the land of sun and a valley of night.” Guthrie came to understand that, contrary to myth, these so-called Dust Bowl refu-gees hadn’t been chased out of Texas by dusters: nor had they been made obsolete by large farm tractors. They were victims of banks and landlords who had evicted them simply for reasons of greed. These money-grubbers wanted to evict tenant farmers in order to turn a patchwork quilt of little farms into huge cattle conglomerates, and they thereby forced rural folks into poverty. During his travels around California. Guthrie saw migrants living in card-board boxes. mildewed tents, filthy huts, and orange-crate shanties. Every flimsy structure known to mankind had been built, but adobe homes were nowhere to be found. This rankled Guthrie boundlessly. What would Jesus Christ think of these predatory money changers destroy-ing the family farms of America and forcing good folks to live in wretched lean-tos? “For every farmer who was dusted out or tractored out,” Guthrie said, “another ten were chased out by bankers.”
The Franklin Roosevelt administration tried to help poor farmers through the federal Resettlement Administration (the successor to the Farm Security Administration, fa-mous for collaborating with such artists as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Pare Lorentz) by issuing grants of ten to forty-five dollars a month to the down-and-out; farmers would line up at the Resettlement Administration offices for these grants. President Roosevelt also aimed to help farm-ers like the Hamlins by ordering the US Forest Service to plant millions of acres of trees and shrubs on farms to serve as shelterbelts (and reduce wind erosion) and by having the Department of Agriculture start digging lakes in Oklahoma and Texas to provide irrigation for the dry iron grass. These noble New Deal efforts helped but didn’t completely solvethe crisis.
The legend of Guthrie as a folksinger is etched in the col-lective consciousness of America. Compositions like “De-portee,” “Pastures of Plenty,” and “Pretty Boy Floyd” became national treasures, like Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huck-leberry Finn. With the slogan “This Machine Kills Fascists” emblazoned on his guitar. Guthrie tramped around the country, a self-styled cowboy-hobo and jack-of-all-trades championing the underdog in his proletarian lyrics. When Guthrie heard Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” sung by Kate Smith ad nauseam in 1939, on radio stations from coast to coast, he decided to strike out against the lyrical rot and false comfort of the patriotic song. Holed up in Hanover House—a low-rent hotel on the corner of Forty-Third Street and Sixth Avenue—Guthrie wrote a rebuttal to “God Bless America” on February 23, 1940. He origi-nally titled the song “God Blessed America” but eventu-ally settled on “This Land Is Your Land.” Because Guthrie saved thousands of his song lyrics in first and final drafts, we’re lucky to still have the fourth and sixth verses of the ballad, pertaining to class inequality:
And on the sign there, it said “no trespassing.”‘
But on the other side, it didn’t say nothing.
That side was made for you and me.
In the squares of the city, in the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, id seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?
Guthrie signed the lyric sheet, “All you can write is what you see, Woody G., N.Y., N.Y., N.Y.” (During that week in Hanover House, the hyperproductive Guthrie also wrote “The Government Road,” “Dirty Overhalls,” “Will Rog-ers Highway,” and “Hangknot Slipknot.”)
Over the decades, “This Landis Your Land- has become more a populist manifesto than a popular song. It’s Guthrie’s “The Times They Are a- Changin’,” a call to arms. There is a hymnlike simplicity to Woody’s signature tune. The lyric is clear and focused. Woody’s art always reflected his politi-cal leanings, but that was all part of his esprit. He wasn’t, in the end, a persona. What you heard was real as rain. There was no separation between song and singer.
Everything about a Guthrie song accentuated the posi-tive in people struggling against all odds. He would trumpet hope at every turn. He even once referred to himself as a “hoping machine,” in a letter when he was courting a future wife. Guthrie sought to empower those who had nothing, to uplift those who had lost everything in the Great Depres-sion, and to comfort those who found themselves repeatedly at the mercy of Mother Nature. He could not help raging at the swinish injustice of it all, in the two fierce verses in “This Land Is Your Land” that slammed private property and food shortages—verses that were lost during the period of McCarthy’s “red scare.” A relatively unknown, but very important, verse—”Nobody living can ever stop me … Nobody living can ever make me turn back”—challenges the agents of the authoritarian state who prevent free ac-cess to the land that was “made for you and me.” Reading all the verses now, one is impressed by Guthrie’s ability to elucidate such simple, brutal truths in such resolute words.
In many ways. House o f Earth-originally handwritten in a steno notebook and then typed by Guthrie himself—is a companion piece to “This Land Is Your Land.” It’s an-other not-so-subtle paean to the plight of Everyman. After all, in a socialist utopia, once a Great Plains family acquired land, it would need to build a sturdy domicile on the prop-erty. The novel is therefore pitched somewhere between rural realism and proletarian protest, with a static narrative but a lovely portrait of the Panhandle and the marginal-ized people who made a life there in the 1930s. It’s Guthrie addressing the elemental question of how a sharecropper couple, field hands, could best live in a Dust Bowl–prone West Texas. Trapped in adverse economic conditions, unable to pay their bills or earn anything more than a sub-sistence wage. Guthrie’s main characters dream of a better way. Tike Hamlin—like Guthrie himself—wants to build an adobe home for his family. Wherever Guthrie went, no matter the day or time, he talked about someday having his own adobe home. “I am stubborn as the devil, warn to built it my own self,- Guthrie wrote to a friend in 1947, “with my own hands and my own labors out of pissc de terra sod, soil, and rock and clay.”
Before writing House of Earth, he had composed his autobiography. Bound far Glory, in the early 1940s. In that work, Guthrie proved to be a genius at capturing the ru-ral Texas-Oklahoma dialect in realistic prose. Somehow he managed to straddle the line between “outsider” folk art and “insider” high art. Bound for Glory-which was made into a motion picture in 1976—is an impressive first try from an amateur inspired by native radicalism. Guthrie’s great accomplishment was that his sui generis singing voice. his trademark, prospered in his prose.
Another book of Guthrie’s. Seeds of Man-about a sil-ver mine around Big Bend National Park in Texas—was largely a memoir, though fictionalized in parts. There is an authenticity about this book that was—and still is—ennobling. He saw his next prose project—House of Earth-as a heartfelt paean to rural poverty. (Just a month after Guthrie had written “This Land Is Your Land,” he played the guitar and regaled his audience with stories about hard times in the Dust Bowl at a now legendary benefit for migrant workers hosted by the John Steinbeck Committee to Aid Agricultural Organization.)
What Guthrie wanted to explore in House of Earth was how places like Pampa could be something more than tum-bleweed ghost towns, how sharecropping families could put down permanent roots in West Texas. He wanted to tackle such topics as overgrazing and the ecological threats inherent in fragmenting native habitats. He elucidated the need for class warfare in rural Texas, for a pitchfork re-bellion of the 99 percent working folks against the 1 percent financiers. His outlook was socialistic. (Bricks to all landlords! Bankruptcy to all timber dealers! Curses on real estate maggots glutting themselves on the poor!) And he unapologetically announces that being a farmer is God’s highest calling.
One of the main attractions of Guthrie’s writing—and of House of Earth in particular—is our awareness that the author has personally experienced the privations he de-scribes. Yet this is different from pure autobiography. Guth-rie gets to the essence of poor folks without looking down on them from a higher perch like James Agee or Jacob Riis. His gritty realism is communal, expressing oneness with the subjects. The H am fins. it seems, have more in common with the pioneers of the Oregon Trail than with a modern-day couple sleeping on rollout beds in Amarillo during the In-ternet age. Objects such as cowbells, oil stoves, flickering lamps, and orange-crate shelves speak of a bygone era when electricity hadn’t yet made it to rural America. But while the atmosphere of House of Earth places the novel firmly in the Great Depression, the themes that Guthrie ponders—misery, worry, tears. fun, and lonesomeness—are as old as human history. Guthrie’s aim is to remind readers that they are merely specks of dust in the long march forward from the days of the cavemen.
The Hamlins have a hard life in a flimsy wooden shack, yet exist with extreme (and emotionally fraught) vitality. The reader learns at the outset that their home is not up to the function of keeping out the elements. So Tike starts exasperatedly espousing the idealistic gospel of adobe. On the farm, life persists, and the reader is treated to an ex-tended, earthy lovemaking scene. This intimate descrip-tion serves a purpose: Guthrie elevates the biological act to a representation of Tike and Ella May’s oneness with the land, the farm, and each other. And yet, the land is not the Ham lins’ to do with as they please—and so the building of their adobe house remains painfully out of reach. The narrative then concerns itself with domestic interactions between Tike and Ella May. Despite their great energy and playfulness, dissatisfaction wells up in them. In the clos-ing scenes, in which Ella May gives birth, we learn more about their financial woes and how tenant farmers lived on tenterhooks during the Great Depression when they had no property rights.
When the folklorist Alan Lomax read the first chapter of House of Earth (“Dry Rosin”), he was bowled over, amazed at how Guthrie expressed the emotions of the downtrodden with such realism and dignity. For months Lomax encouraged Guthrie to finish the book, saying that he’d “considered dropping everything was doing” just to sell the novel. “It was quite simply,” Lomax wrote, “the best material I’d ever seen written about that section of the country.” House of Earth demonstrates that Guthrie’s social conscience is comparable to Steinbeck’s and that Guthrie, like a FL Lawrence in Lady Chatterky’s Lover, was willing to explore raw sexuality.
Guthrie apparently never showed Lomax the other three chapters of the novel: “Termites,” “Auction Block,- and “Hammer Ring.” His hopes for House of Earth lay in Hollywood. He mailed the finished manuscript to the film-maker Irving Lerner, who had worked on such socially conscious documentaries as One Third of a Nation (1939), Volley Town (1940). and The Land (1941). Guthrie hoped that Lerner would make the novel into a low-budget fea-ture film. This never came to pass. The book languished in obscurity. Only quite recently. when the University of Tulsa started assembling a Woody Guthrie collection, did House of Earth reemerge into the light. The Lerner estate had found the treasure when organizing its own archives in Los Angeles. The manuscript and a cache of letters writ-ten by Guthrie and Lerner to each other were promptly shipped to Tulsa’s Mcrarlin Library for permanent housing. Coincidentally, while hunting down information about Bob Dylan Iota Rolling Stone project, we stumbled on the novel. Like Lomax, we grew determined to have House of Earth published properly by a New York house, as Guthrie surely would have wanted.
The question has been asked: Why wasn’t House of Earth published in the late 1940s? Why would Guthrie work so furiously on a novel and then let it die on the vine? There are a few possible answers. Most probably, he was hoping a movie deal might emerge; that took patience. Perhaps Guthrie sensed that some of the content was passe (the fer-tility cycle trope, for example, was frowned on by critics) or that the sexually provocative language was ahead of its time (graphic sex of the “stiff penis” variety was not yet ac-ceptable in literature during the 1940s). The lovemaking between Tike and Ella May is a brave bit of emotive writ-ing and an able exploration of the psychological dynamics of intercourse. But it’s a scene that, in the age when 7?opk of Cancer was banned, would have been misconstrued as por-nographic. Another impediment to publication may have been Guthrie’s employment of hillbilly dialect. This per-haps made it difficult for New York literary circles to em-brace House of Earth as high art in the 1940s, though the dialect comes across as noble in our own period of linguis-tic archaeology. Also, left-leaning originality was hard to mass-market in the Truman era, when Soviet communism was public enemy number one. And critics at the time were bound to dismiss the novel’s enthusiasm for southwestern adobe as fetishistic.
Toward the end of House of Earth, Tike rails against the sheeplike mentality of honest folks in Texas and Oklahoma who let low-down capitalist vultures steal from them. Long before Willie Nelson and Neil Young championed “Farm Aid,” a movement of the 1980s to stop industrial agricul-ture from running amok on rural families. Guthrie wor-ried about middle-class folks who were being robbed by greedy banks. As Tike prepares to make love to Ella May in the barn scene in House of Earth, his head swirls with thoughts of how everything around him—” house, barn, the iron water tank, the windmill, little henhouse, the old Ryckzyck shack, the whole farm. the whole ranch” —cc as “a part of him, the same as an egg from the farm went into his mouth and down his throat and was a part of him.” Tike is biologically one with even the hay on his leased property.
In 1947, after years of gestation, House of Earth was fin-ished. Shortly thereafter Guthrie’s health started to dete-riorate from complications of Huntington’s disease. While disciples like Ramblin’ jack Elliott and Pete Seeger popu-larized his folk repertoire. House of Earth remained among Lerner’s papers. Like a mural by Thomas Hart Benton or a novel by Erskine Caldwell, it was an artifact from a different era: it didn’t fit into any of the standard categories of popular fiction during the Cold War. But, as Guthrie might say, “All good things in due time.” The unerring rightness of southwestern adobe living is now more apparent than ever. Oscar Wilde was right: “Literature always anticipates life.” It’s almost as if Guthrie had written House of Earth prophetically, with global warming in mind. To read the voice of Guthrie is to hear the many voices of the people, his people, those hardworking Great Plains folks who didn’t have a platform from which their sharp anguish could be heard. His voice was the pure expression of the lost, of the downtrodden, of the forgotten American who scratched out a living from the heartland.
While Guthrie was himself a common man, he was uncommon in his efforts to celebrate the proletariat in his art. He hoped someday Americans could learn how to abolish the laws of debt and repayment. Guthrie wanted to be heard, to count for something. He demanded that his political beliefs be acknowledged, respected, and treated with dignity. As his graphic love scenes demonstrate, he wasn’t scared of anyone. He had no fear. He lived his art. In short, Guthrie inspired not only people of his time, but people of later times enraged by injustice, yearning for truth, searching for that elusive resolution of class in-equality.
We consider the publication of House of Earth an in-tegral part of the celebration of the centennial of Woody Guthrie’s birth, a significant cultural event, and a major installment in the corpus of his published work. He wrote the novel as a side project; it was never the focus of his intrepid life of performing his songs from coast to coast. Yet the novel’s intensity guarantees it a place in the ever-growing field of Guthrie:ono. When we shared Guthrie’s House ofEarth with Bob Dylan, he said he was “surprised by the genius” of the engaging prose, a realistic medita-tion about how poor people search for love and meaning in a corrupt world where the rich have lost their moral compass.
The discovery of House of Earth reinforces Guthrie’s place among the immortal figures of American letters. Guthrie endures as the soul of rural American folk culture in the twentieth century. His music is the soil. His words—lyrics, memoirs, essays, and now fiction—are the adobe bricks. He is of the people, by the people, for the people. Long may his truth be heard by all those who care to listen, all those wit II hope in their heart and strength in their stride. Guthrie’s proletariat-troubadour legacy is profoundly hu-man, and his work should be forever celebrated. As Stein-beck wrote in tribute, “Woody is just Woody. Thousands of people do not know he has any other name. He is just a voice and a guitar. He sings the songs of a people and I suspect that he is, in a way, that people. Harsh voiced and nasal, his guitar hanging like a tire iron on a rusty rim, there is nothing sweet about Woody, and there is noth-ing sweet about the songs he sings. But there is something more important for those who still listen. There is the will of a people to endure and fight against oppression. I think we call this the American spirit.”
Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Bringing House of Earth alive has been a strange and wonderful experience. Because Woody Guthrie has such a distinctive writing style, it sometimes seemed as though we were communing with the ghost of the typewriter-hanging Okic himself. His spirit is very much alive in these pages. Those who decide to enter Woodyland, as we did, never come out the same. There is an old house in the desert near the Chisos Mountains where Guthrie once holed up with his father, brother, and Uncle Jeff. If you visit the ruins, you can almost channel this novel in full. Sometime in 1947, Guthrie sat down at his typewriter and found the right groove in which to compose House of Earth. We’ve clone our best to edit the novel as we believe Woody would have wanted it done. We made a few cosmetic changes and spelling corrections, and some minor restructuring of two paragraphs. We thought about annotating t he novel, but decided it was better to let Woody’s prose sing bravely without academic pretense.
Our partner in publishing House of Earth is the nonprofit Woody Guthrie Foundation, based in Mount Kisco, New York. All our proceeds from this book will go to the foun-dation. Never in our experience have we encountered an es-tate that functions with such loving professionalism. Nora Guthrie. a (laughter, is director of the foundation and has spent a lifetime preserving and celebrating all things related to her father. She is a joy to work with. Her fitmily must be smiling down on her from the great beyond.
Through Nora we got to know Tiffany Colannino (ar-chivist) and Barry Oilman (Denver art collector). Both were tremendous to work with.
Two great Guthrie scholars proofread our introduction and Guthrie’s novel: Guy Logsdon of Tulsa. Oklahoma: and Professor Will Kaufman of the University of Central Lancashire, author of Woody Guthrie, American Radical. We thank Heather Johnson, director of the Northport (NY) Historical Society, who helped us better understand Guth-re’s relationship with the Roosevelt administration. Rob-ert Santelli, impresario of the Grammy Museum, shared his hard-earned knowledge of Guthrie with us around every bend. We also benefited mightily from Guthrie’s two great biographers: Ed Cray and Joe Klein. Bob Dylan and Jeff Rosen offered us smart feedback after their initial read of the manuscript.
On the production front, special thanks to Virginia Northington of Austin, Texas, for diligently helping to prepare the manuscript for publication. At HarperCollins, we worked with Jonathan Burnham and Michael Signorelli. The were terrific. From the Infinitum Nihil wirld, special thanks to Christi Depp, Stephen Deuters, Joel Mandel, and Mike Rudell. The Audiobook was recorded at both Tequila Mockingbird in Austin and Infinitum Nihil in Los Angeles (thanks, Shayna Brown).
When this novel was first discovered, we collaborated with Pamela Paul and Sam Tanenhaus of New York Times Book Review. They edited our jointly written announcement about House Of Heart, titled “This Lans Was His Land”, to coincide almost exactly with the troubadour’s one hundredth birthday. We couldn’t have found better outfit to callaborate with.
Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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