The legend of Woody Guthrie as folk singer is firmly etched in America’s collective consciousness. Compositions like “Deportee,” “Pastures of Plenty” and “Pretty Boy Floyd” have become national treasures akin to Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanack” and Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” But Guthrie, who would have been 100 years old on July 14, was also a brilliant and distinctive prose stylist, whose writing is distinguished by a homespun authenticity, deep-seated purpose and remarkable ear for dialect. These attributes are on vivid display in Guthrie’s long-lost “House of Earth,” his only fully realized, but yet unpublished, novel. (His other books, “Bound for Glory” and “Seeds of Man,” are quasi-fictional memoirs.)
“House of Earth” was written as a direct response to the Dust Bowl. In December 1936 the rambling troubadour had an epiphany while busking for tips in New Mexico. He’d traveled there after a treacherous duster whacked the Texas Panhandle town of Pampa, where he’d been living in poverty. While in New Mexico, Guthrie became transfixed by an adobe hacienda’s sturdy rain spouts and soil-straw bricks, a simple yet solid weatherproof structure unlike most of his Texan friends’ homes, which were poorly constructed with flimsy wooden boards and cheap nails.
An immediate convert, Guthrie purchased a nickel pamphlet, “Adobe or Sun-Dried Brick for Farm Buildings,” from the United States Department of Agriculture. The manual instructed poor rural folk on building adobe homes from the cellar up. All an amateur needed was a home-brew of clay loam, straw and water. Guthrie promoted this U.S.D.A. guide with wild-eyed zeal. Adobes, he boasted, would endure the Dust Bowl better than wooden aboveground structures that were vulnerable to wind, snow, dust and termites. If sharecroppers and tenant farmers could only own a piece of land — even the uncultivable territory of arroyos and red rocks — they could build a “house of earth” that would protect them from dirt blowing in through cracks in the walls.
In the late 1930s, a winter sleet crippled the Dust Bowl region; The New York Times called it “a blizzard of frozen mud,” the color of “cocoa.” Visibility was often less than 200 feet. “Well Howdy,” Guthrie wrote to his actor friend Eddie Albert in Hollywood in a letter from Pampa written during that period. “We didn’t have no trouble finding the dust bowl, and are about as covered up as one family can get. Only trouble is the dust is so froze up it cain’t blow, so it just scrapes around.” Stuck in his Pampa shack, trying to protect his baby girl from a fever, Guthrie dreamed about insulating his family from the cold. “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 thickness, and you put in a mould, and you mould out around 20 bricks a day,” Guthrie wrote, “and in a reasonable length of time you have got enough to build your house.”
Guthrie’s Dust Bowl experiences, along with his reading “Grapes of Wrath” and the writing of “This Land Is Your Land,” formed the roots of what would become “House of Earth.” Guthrie conceived of “This Land Is Your Land” while hitchhiking to New York. When he heard Irving Berlin’s sentimental “God Bless America” performed ad nauseam on radio stations, he decided to write a rebuttal. On Feb. 23, 1940, holed up in a low-rent Times Square hotel, he wrote the now iconic song, including radical verses, later changed, like the one below:
By the relief office I saw my people.
As they stood hungry,
I stood there wondering if God blessed America for me.
Endemic poverty is a theme that Guthrie would turn to full-bore in “House of Earth.” The narrative follows the lives of two hardscrabble farmers, Tike and Ella May Hamlin, 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.” The impoverished couple, it seems, live in biological harmony with the land. A scorching lovemaking scene on a hay bale viscerally represents the fertility ritual. Yet they can’t keep the bizarre weather out of their shabby home, and Tike — Guthrie’s alter ego — starts espousing the gospel of adobe.Continue reading the main story
Woody Guthrie's discography was a bit of a mess already before the 1990s began and his 50-year-old recordings began to go out of copyright in Europe. After the formal studio sessions for RCA Victor Records that produced the two three-disc 78 rpm albums Dust Bowl Ballads, Vol. 1 and Dust Bowl Ballads, Vol. 2 (later combined onto a single LP and CD) in 1940, Guthrie recorded hundreds of tracks for Moses Asch in the mid-'40s that Asch later released on his Folkways Records label, although some of them escaped to other hands in the wake of a 1947 bankruptcy, such that, when Guthrie became widely popular in the '60s, LPs of widely varying quality came out on various labels. After the Smithsonian Institution acquired the Folkways catalog in the '80s, some order began to emerge. But European copyright law once again opens the floodgates to low-quality, unauthorized, but technically legal Guthrie reissues. The British Prism Leisure label exists primarily to take advantage of the copyright limit, and Pastures of Plenty selects more or less randomly from material recorded for RCA and Asch, including tracks that later turned up on such labels as Stinson. The carelessness with which the tracks have been chosen is suggested by the inclusion of "Tom Joad, Pt. 2," the second half of a song Guthrie was forced to break into two parts for RCA because of the time limitations of a 78 disc, even though "Tom Joad, Pt. 1" is not included here. There are no annotations to speak of, only a brief biographical essay by Tony Watts that contains factual errors. (For example, Arlo Guthrie is not the progeny of Woody Guthrie's first marriage, contrary to Watts' contention.) This is hardly the ideal way to encounter Woody Guthrie, but the collection does provide value for the money if purchased at the modest price at which it was being offered in mail-order catalogs in the U.S. upon release (even though, technically, it should not be available for purchase in the U.S., where copyrights last much longer).