A Different Woody Guthrie
Sep 17, 2013
16 Min read time
The novel House of Earth shows Woody Guthrie in a different light, exiled from the Dust Bowl but dreaming of it still.
Woody Guthrie’s birthplace, Okfuskee County, Oklahoma.
For Barack Obama’s 2008 inauguration celebration, Pete Seeger, his grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, and a chorus of young Americans sang Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” At Seeger’s insistence, they sang all of the original verses, not just the chorus’s familiar evocations of natural splendors. They sang, “Nobody living can ever stop me / As I go walking that freedom highway.” They sang about gazing at their fellow citizens lining up “in the shadow of the steeple, by the relief office.” And they sang about a sign reading “private property,” whose blank reverse side “was made for you and me.” Standing at the Lincoln Memorial, with the eyes of the nation upon them, they reclaimed America for its poorest citizens.
Woody Guthrie wrote “This Land is Your Land” in 1940, when he was sick of hearing Kate Smith belt “God Bless America” over the airwaves on a daily basis. Nowadays “This Land is Your Land” is an alternative national anthem, and its author, a communist Oklahoma balladeer, has been enshrined as a patron saint of American music. Guthrie never attained anything like superstar status during his lifetime, but as Springsteen put it in his keynote address at last year’s South by Southwest festival, “Sometimes things that come from the outside, they make their way in, to become a part of the beating heart of the nation.”
Over the last decade or so, Woody Guthrie’s place in that heart has seemed increasingly secure. In addition to his own recordings, you can now hear at least nine new albums of his material—much of it previously unknown and set to music by a new generation of artists such as Wilco, Billy Bragg, and the Klezmatics. By all accounts Guthrie’s archives hold troves of other unpublished materials. He was a remarkably prolific writer. He’d hammer away at his typewriter, often composing lyrics before bothering to think about melodies. He wrote voluminous letters, essays, scripts for his various radio appearances, and weekly columns for a communist newspaper. He wrote the first 25 pages of his masterful, fictionalized 1943 autobiography Bound for Glory in a single day. The night after he met his first child, he wrote her a 70-page poem.
Last year was the centennial of Guthrie’s birth, and amidst the flurry of tributes came the announcement that a new Guthrie novel had been discovered: House of Earth. Guthrie had begun writing it in 1946 and was thought to have given up after a single chapter. But three more chapters recently showed up in the papers of the filmmaker Irving Lerner, and earlier this year, the whole thing was trotted out by Infinitum Nihil, a new publishing imprint that HarperCollins has put under the charge of the actor Johnny Depp.
By the time Guthrie wrote House of Earth, he was slowly losing control of his body and his mind.
It’s hard to think of anyone who could bestow a publisher with as much instant cred as Guthrie—save, perhaps, for Bob Dylan. Dylan, who was profoundly influenced by Guthrie, will be the subject of Infinitum Nihil’s next book, slated to roll out in a couple of years, by the historian Douglas Brinkley. One wonders what Hollywood’s favorite loner will deem worthy of release next: a new translation of Baudelaire? The complete works of Hunter S. Thompson?
I don’t mean to make light of any of these figures’ substantial accomplishments. It’s just that it’s hard to imagine House of Earth getting much attention if its author weren’t already a celebrated renegade. In their co-written introduction, Brinkley and Depp assert that the book “reinforces Guthrie’s place among the immortal figures of American letters.” Guthrie is indeed in that pantheon, but if he stays there for all eternity, it won’t be because of this novel. It will be thanks to his music, and thanks to Bound for Glory, which speeds through one engaging story after the next in a captivating voice that owes more than a little to the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. House of Earth, on the other hand, plods. The characters frequently lapse into tedious monologues that seem more or less like ventriloquizations of Guthrie himself. Guthrie could have used an editor, to remind him of the old adage to show, not tell, and to tighten his baggy prose.
Guthrie was never one to reign himself in. Forever restless, he left his first wife to hobo to California, came back, and left again when she was pregnant with their second child. But his second wife, the modern dancer Marjorie Maza, helped him focus. When Guthrie began work on Bound for Glory, Maza put him on a strict nine-to-five schedule and talked through his drafts with him as they typed them up. Joy Doerflinger, his agent and editor, then made liberal and savvy cuts.
By the time Guthrie wrote House of Earth, though, he seems to have suffered from a more general and frightening inability to self-edit. The first symptoms of what would later be diagnosed as Huntington’s disease had begun to set in, and he was slowly losing control of his body and his mind. Two years after he sent House of Earth to Irving Lerner, Guthrie charged at Maza, the love of his life, with a knife.
Seeger was right about needing all the verses of “This Land is Your Land”—but do we need all of Guthrie’s creations? House of Earth certainly doesn’t measure up to the best of them. Still, it’s a fascinating addition to Guthrie’s oeuvre, and not just because it gives us a glimpse of a great artist whose powers are on the decline. House of Earth is a kind of belated answer to The Grapes of Wrath, which, after John Ford’s film version of 1940, had become the defining story of America’s rural poor. Guthrie admired both the novel and the film, and at the request of Victor Records, had even written a seventeen-verse ballad about Tom Joad. But in House of Earth, Guthrie tells an Okie story without the exodus to California. He focuses on rural people who stay put, smack in the middle of the Dust Bowl. Hardscrabble as their existence is, they feel such a profound connection to the land around them that they want to build a permanent home from dirt itself. Even as Guthrie’s literary prowess seemed to be running away, his characters thirsted for stability.
• • •
According to his biographer Joe Klein, in 1934, at the Pampa, Texas public library, Guthrie read a Department of Agriculture pamphlet on adobe houses. He was captivated by the idea of building one. The rickety wooden buildings dotting the Texas Panhandle didn’t offer much shelter from the increasingly frequent dust storms. Dust would blow into the cracks, cover everything inside, and find its way into ears and mouths and lungs. Adobe seemed like a powerful alternative. It was solid, thick, and built to last. To Guthrie, recently enamored with Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, there was something mystical about adobe, too. “Man is himself a adobe house,” Guthrie wrote to a friend in 1937, “some sort of a streamlined old temple.” When Guthrie gave a different friend a painting he’d done of adobe buildings in Santa Fe, he scrawled the same comparison on the back.
Adobe had another crucial advantage over wood: it was cheap. If you owned land, you should have been able to saw up bricks of it yourself. Never mind that Guthrie couldn’t quite manage to do that, though he tried, on more than one occasion, to follow the government pamphlet’s instructions. Adobe, Guthrie hoped, would be the solution to rural poverty, a way for people to carve out their own, meaningful existence from the very land on which they lived.
That’s the dream Guthrie gives to his characters in House of Earth. Tike and Ella May Hamlin, tenant farmers in the Texas Panhandle, receive a copy of the same pamphlet that Guthrie had read. They long to tear up their flimsy shack and build an adobe house of their own, but, as renters, they can’t. That’s pretty much the entire plot of the book, if you can even call it a plot. It’s more like one perpetual conflict. The Hamlins’ thoughts on the matter remain unchanged, but they restate them, again and again. They dream of an adobe house while making love, while taking shelter from a dust storm, and while having a child. Toward the end of the book, we learn that Ella May hopes to buy them some property with money she’s secretly saved, but things don’t look too hopeful: their landlord is unwilling to sell her anything of agricultural value.
In some ways House of Earth is trademark Guthrie, chronicling the trials of the rural poor and railing against money-grubbing landowners and out-of-touch politicians. By the time he wrote House of Earth, he had been covering this terrain for a solid decade. Yet he hadn’t started out intending to rouse the rabble. Back in Oklahoma, his father wrote anti-communist newspaper columns, benefitted from election fraud, and joined a mob that lynched a local black family. When Guthrie moved to Pampa in 1929, he started playing old-time music with friends and writing a few tunes of his own, but they weren’t terribly political. In Los Angeles a few years later, he even tried, without much success, to capitalize on the popularity of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry and find work as a singing cowboy.
But like so many Americans in the ’30s, witnessing economic disparity like they’d never seen it before, Guthrie had a political awakening. Hoboing to California for the first time in 1936, he was horrified by the animosity directed at the thousands of Okie migrants who’d fled the Dust Bowl, and he began to sing about their struggles. Many of these rural refugees listened to his regular radio show with Maxine “Lefty Lou” Chrissman on L.A.’s KFVD. Guthrie and Lefty Lou cast themselves as lovable bumpkins, singing the old tunes people missed from back home and dispensing what Guthrie called “cornpone philosophy.” His philosophy soon became more hardboiled. He travelled to migrant refugee camps and filed reports for a small leftist newspaper, The Light. Newly radicalized, he began performing at union meetings and communist rallies. His songs from this era are characterized by what the critic Michael Denning calls “gallows humor, laughing in the face of the dust.” But it was more than defiance that made Guthrie great. He could sing from both sides of his mouth, playing up a modest, hillbilly mystique even as he poked fun at the ruling elite.
Many of Guthrie’s songs from this era found their way onto his 1940 recording Dustbowl Ballads. They have a humor, bite, and concision that House of Earth lacks. The broke Okies in “Talking Dust Bowl Blues” subsist on potato stew so thin that “You could read a magazine right through it. . . . if it’d been just a little bit thinner, / Some of these here politicians / Coulda seen through it.” In the deceptively jaunty “Do Re Mi,” migrants “think they’re goin’ to a sugar bowl” in California, but are told, upon reaching the state line, “You’re number fourteen thousand for today.” The chorus is a feat of metrical compression: “If you ain’t got the do re mi, folks, you ain’t got the do re mi, / Why you better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee.”
“Dust Pneumonia Blues” is just as barbed. “If you want to get a mama” in the Dust Bowl, Guthrie advises, “just sing a California song.” He has a particular song in mind, too: Jimmie Rodgers’s Blue Yodel number four, “California Blues,” in which the singing brakeman tells his mama that he plans to go “to California / Where they sleep out every night.” “There ought to be some yodelin’ in this song,” Guthrie sings in “Dust Pneumonia Blues,” “But I can’t yodel for the rattlin’ in my lung.” If Rodgers represented the dream world of popular country music, Guthrie cast himself as a wizened truth-teller.
Contrast these wry, taut little masterpieces with House of Earth, and the novel—which is actually quite short—seems sprawling and redundant. Its predominant form, whether coming from characters’ sermonizing, interior monologues, or Guthrie’s own narration, is the riff. When Tike feels ready to fight, Ella May wonders: “Fight what? Fight who? Fight where? When? The wind, or the rain? Fight the moon and the stars? Rip off his clothes and fight the seasons and the clouds?” She goes on for half a page more, and the narrator picks up where she leaves off. “It was all of this. It was more than this. It was something that was so big that it was hard for words to say . . .” This crescendo of repetitive structure might feel more powerful if Guthrie didn’t fall into it every few pages. It’s as if he keeps getting caught in a groove he doesn’t know how to leave.
• • •
Guthrie began writing House of Earth in 1946, during a time in his life we don’t tend to hear much about. No longer a wandering hobo, he was living in a predominately Russian-Jewish neighborhood on Coney Island with Marjorie Maza and their first child. Bound for Glory had sold well enough that he’d landed a second book deal, for a sequel tentatively titled I Want to Be Right. But he had a hard time staying focused.
According to Klein, the drafts of I Want to Be Right never came together, and when Guthrie finally delivered all his material to his publishers, their rejection came as something of a relief. The last few chapters “invariably ended with a wildly improbable sex scene involving Pat Lukas (Woody’s alter ego) and a different, exotic woman—in one case, a Baltimore society matron in the back seat of her Packard; then, in Sicily, with a peasant girl in a hayloft.” Those fantasies were in keeping with much of what Guthrie had been writing, in spite of Maza’s protests, over the last few years: long, pornographic letters.
Beginning in the fall of 1944—when he was serving in the Merchant Marine, and later the Army—Guthrie “appeared to have had little control over where his mind was taking him,” Klein writes. Guthrie’s letters became incredibly graphic, and incredibly long, sometimes ballooning to 40 or 50 pages. On one occasion, Guthrie wrote Maza what Klein describes as “a detailed and joyous description of his masturbatory history,” from learning to jostle his schoolboy erections under the desk to his continuing need to satisfy urges that, he said, Maza had always failed to quench.
To Maza’s embarrassment, she wasn’t Guthrie’s only audience, and he made sure she knew it. He told Maza that he was answering fan mail from a woman he’d never met with missives that were “hotter than a welding torch.” In 1948, when his old partner Lefty Lou’s little sister, Mary Ruth, wrote him about the death of his cousin, Guthrie responded with three pornographic letters, one of which included, for no apparent reason, what Klein describes as “newspaper clippings of grisly murders.” Mary Lou was spooked. She took the letters to the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, and Guthrie ended up serving jail time for obscenity.
Guthrie wrote House of Earth in the same years that his letters and drafts of I Want to Be Right were spinning out of control, and much of the novel seems to reflect the same obsessive urges. Shortly after the book begins, Guthrie plunges into a graphic, 30-page description of Tike and Ella May making love in a barn. Depp and Brinkley’s introduction describes this scene as a “brave bit of emotive writing,” ahead of its time in its frank acknowledgement of sex as a part of life. But descriptions such as “she felt the long hot shape of his penis”—and there are many passages like this—are more embarrassing than visionary. Considered in the context of Guthrie’s letters, the whole scene takes on a desperate light. When Guthrie has Tike and Ella May glance at the adobe pamphlet in the barn, it’s as if he wants to stay on topic but is led away by his own fantasies. Those seem to be the central poles of Tike Hamlin’s existence: he’s almost always either lusting after sex or longing for an adobe house.
It seems unjust to read House of Earth from mere pathological interest.
In the last half of the novel, Ella May goes into labor, and runs outside into the cold, preferring it to their awful wooden house. She has visions of their house blowing up “like a big firecracker,” of a man decapitated by his own tractor, of adobe, and of the connectedness of all beings. In the meantime, Tike covets the midwife, Blanche. He makes no effort to hide his feelings from either woman, feeling Blanche up and telling Ella May, “over and over . . . that he would ‘really like to roll that Blanche in a way that she’d admire.’” Unlike Maza, who was embarrassed by Guthrie’s attentions to other women, Ella May doesn’t mind these comments. But if Guthrie is using Tike to engage in wish fulfillment, that fulfillment only goes so far. Blanche, Guthrie writes, is “several thoughts ahead” of Tike, and more or less ridicules his unreasonable desires. Tike ends up looking rather pitiful and, in hindsight, so does Guthrie. House of Earth simply doesn’t measure up to his other, truly great work. Today, we know one possible reason why: Guthrie seems to have been suffering from the early signs of Huntington’s disease, whose victims often lose not just their bodily control, but also their superegos. Obsessiveness, nervousness, and hypersexuality are common symptoms.
Yet it seems unjust to read House of Earth from mere pathological interest, in part because that means overlooking the book’s urgent political content and occasional flashes of brilliance. In its opening lines, for example, Guthrie’s descriptive powers are at their sharpest: “The wind of the upper flat plains sung a high lonesome song down across the blades of the dry iron grass. Loose things moved in the wind but the dust lay close to the ground.” In those two sentences, there’s music, beauty, and threat: the dust, you sense, could lift right up. At times, the tenderness between Tike and Ella May is truly touching, as when they make themselves laugh over the old newspapers with which they hope to seal up their house against an approaching storm. There’s that familiar gallows humor, too, in Ella May’s suggestion that she and Tike make adobe bricks by catching dust in their hats the next time it blows across the plains.
Tike and Ella May often seem like ciphers for Guthrie, giving voice to his political discontents: they’re unhappy with sharecropping, angry about racism, and think the country needs to redistribute its wealth. But unlike the Guthrie of myth, the Hamlins are trapped. The Guthrie of myth never seems trapped: he hops on a freight train and moves along. This was a man who sang for his supper, lifted the spirits of strikers and hobos, laughed at his oppressors, and, according to legend, refused to compromise. The Guthrie of myth is the Guthrie who, in Bound for Glory, scampers out of an audition at the Rainbow Room to avoid having his art turned into a commodity. It’s the Guthrie who sang with little girls in migrant camps, who poked fun at bankers, and who gave us “This Land is Your Land.”
House of Earth shows us a different Woody Guthrie, exiled from the Dust Bowl but dreaming of it still, clinging firm to socialist thought at a time when it was falling from favor, and struggling to shape his prodigious energies into art. Like the Hamlins, who long for the stability of adobe, Guthrie hoped to dig up structures that would endure. House of Earth just isn’t one of them. But perhaps that’s not surprising: some of Guthrie’s finest work is about the lack of any fixed shelter at all. “I ain’t got no home in this world anymore,” he sang, and turned poverty into something like outlaw defiance.
Photograph: Walter Smalling, Historic American Buildings Survey / Library of Congress
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September 17, 2013
16 Min read time