independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Woody Guthrie still makes us wonder if this land was made for you and me

Woody Guthrie was one of my favourite songwriters when I was a teenager just starting to play the guitar. His writing was blunt and simple enough to teach myself.

He was an early icon of American folk music and deeply influenced the young Bob Dylan who, in a kind of pilgrimage, visited him in the hospital where Guthrie lay dying of Huntington's disease.

My friends were into Patti Smith and David Bowie, but I loved the album Folk Song and Minstrelsy, which introduced me to the songs of Woody Guthrie. Released in the late 1950s, it was a four-record set that I found in a charity store in the 1970s. I felt that he and Leonard Cohen belonged to me alone.

Then, in the 1980s, I got into New Wave music – and suddenly Woody Guthrie seemed old-fashioned and somewhat out of date. So I wondered: how would his novel, written more than half a century ago, hold up in this day and age?

House of Earth is so alive it is hard to realise that its author has been gone for 45 years. First of all, his vision is not a fossil, crystallised in amber. From the opening pages you feel his narrative voice struggling and wrestling and tapping into the real life as he lived it in what was known as the Dust Bowl during the Depression.

The book was written in 1947. Ten years before that Guthrie had travelled through the middle of America (from Oklahoma, where he was born, to California) and seen the ecological, human and economic catastrophe now known simply as the Dust Bowl.

Drought had destroyed crops and led to an exodus of farmers, their plight most famously depicted by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939.

But Guthrie – whose famous ballad, 'This Land is Your Land', was also written in response to what he'd seen – put his novel away. It hasn't been published until now, and is edited by the perhaps unlikely team of the history professor Douglas Brinkley and the actor Johnny Depp, who also have written a fascinating foreword to the book.

The plot is simple – a man and wife live on a farm in the Dust Bowl during the Depression.

They have a child and they envision a better life. They long for a "house of earth", such as the Native Americans made – a house of adobe, a type of mud brick. Something of their own that can't be uprooted and hurled through the air like clouds of dust, or shrivelled by the sun and gnawed on by termites like houses made of wood, such as the house they rent.

The thrust of this book is the relationship between the man, Tike, and his wife, Ella May. The two are joined together in a battle against the elements and also against the world, where others have and they have not. Others such as greedy landlords, one of whom is Ella May's father.

Much of the first half of this book describes the sexual current between the couple. Okay – not just the sexual current, the actual sex. And, well, more than describes.

It places the reader right in the middle of the action, you might say.

The prose is beautiful and not lascivious. You feel that he had read his James Joyce, but the tone and quality of the writing is pure Woody Guthrie. Stark, original, brutal in spots, lyrical in others, often very funny, bordering on caricature, like the woodcut illustrations from old folk ballad songbooks. But never forced or self-consciously intellectual: "And it did seem to Ella May that her eyes strained to try to follow the rays from the sun around the world. She leaned back against a higher bale of hay and lifted her breasts in her own hands, took a deep breath, let her lips fall apart, and wished that she could see every little hair on every little body in the whole wide big world, like the lamp of the sun does."

It is alive and atmospheric and bleak and urgent and tender. Let's just say that.

Could it be considered pornographic? Well, it's more original and written better than Fifty Shades of Grey! (Which I keep forgetting to finish.) Not to mention more straightforward.

You might have to furrow your brow to get all the dialogue, however, which is written in the broad vernacular of the Mid-Western Okies of the 1930s. Still, if you can understand the dialect of Mellors from Lady Chatterley's Lover, you should be fine.

It's worth it to get at the vision depicted here: searing, intense, alive. In its stasis, House of Earth is almost like a poem or meditation. Any action is in the relationship between this man and woman, in their relationship to the earth and to society. It's maybe not as structurally sophisticated as The Grapes of Wrath, but more singular in its vision for that.

The questions raised here – aren't these the questions of our time as well? Occupy Wall Street is still so fresh in our minds – the clashing of the 99pc v the 1pc.

Those who own their houses and those who were swindled in the real estate loan frauds and predatory lending that led to our own long recession. "Some will rob you with a six-gun, some with a fountain pen," Guthrie wrote in his ballad Pretty Boy Floyd: his words have never been truer.

And, with floods and tempests ravaging new parts of the Earth, and last July being the hottest on record in America, the questions of global warming and the impact of human life and how we live with nature or fight in vain against it make the Dust Bowl in this novel feel like current news.

"No place on Earth is closer to the sun than these upper flat plains," Guthrie writes. "Nowhere could the wind blow the rain any colder than here, nor any harder could the rain hope to fall, nor any longer could it stand. None of the world's winds blow dustier, nor drier, nor harder day in and day out. Nowhere on the planet do the winds and the sun suck the grass, the leaves, the cattle, sheep, hogs, chickens, dogs, cats, people any drier."

So to the question – is this novel from more than 60 years ago still any good? Still vital? Still relevant? To paraphrase Molly Bloom: Yes I say Yes it is Yes. In some ways, more than ever.

Suzanne Vega is best known for her song 'Luka', an international hit

Irish Independent

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