Woody Guthrie’s story retold thanks to Johnny Depp

Woody Guthrie. Picture: American Library of Congress
Woody Guthrie. Picture: American Library of Congress
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Woody Guthrie captured the mood of Great Depression America in his songs. Now, 46 years after his death, another legacy of the troubadour of the poor is about to surface thanks to a new publishing company set up by Johnny Depp.

IN FEBRUARY 1940, a gay Communist actor called Will Geer – you might know him as Grandpa Walton – got in touch with Woody Guthrie and invited him to New York. As Guthrie hitched north, Irving Berlin’s God Bless America seemed to be playing on every radio. He loathed the song.

As soon as he booked into a two-bit hotel on the corner of 43rd and 6th street – now, ironically, the headquarters of the Bank of New York – he started thinking back on the journey there from the Midwest. In his mind, he went further back too. To the trains he had ridden on three years earlier, when he left the Texas Panhandle in search of the better life in California. To the hundreds of thousands of poor farmers who had made that same journey, fleeing their dustbowl-ravaged land in Oklahoma and Arkansas.

If there was to be an anthem about America, Guthrie resolved, it wouldn’t be as anodyne as God Bless America. It would be radical, socialist even. It would highlight the division between the propertied rich and the poor waiting in line for welfare. God wouldn’t come into it, but the people would. “This land is your land,” it would begin.

That’s what most people know about Woody Guthrie. That he was the troubadour of the poor, prolific balladeer of the dispossessed, a hobo Huck Finn, godfather of the folk revival.

Without Woody Guthrie – in the timbre of his singing, his talking blues, his moothie-playing and self-mythologising – it is almost impossible to imagine the early Bob Dylan. Without Woody, even though he never had a hit record, even though there are only two film clips of him playing, Springsteen’s anthems to the common man might be less assured, Billy Bragg’s protest songs less confident. Woody Guthrie didn’t sell many records and ended up busking bars in New York’s Upper East Side instead of counting his royalties, but when he died – after being hospitalised for 11 years with Huntington’s disease – he left one thing behind for the next generation that most musos never manage: influence.

Next month, thanks to a new publishing company set up by Johnny Depp, we’ll see that he left something else. Forty-six years after Woodrow Wilson Guthrie died, the only novel he ever wrote is to be published.

We don’t know precisely when Guthrie began writing House of Earth, although it was certainly after he moved to New York in 1940 and before 1947, when he showed it to a leftist documentary-maker hoping that it could be turned into a film. There was – conceivably – a market for a novel like this about the struggles of north Texan farmers in the Depression.

In 1939, John Steinbeck had published The Grapes of Wrath about the migrant workers from Oklahoma (“Okies”) fleeing the duststorms of the Dirty Thirties in search of a new life in California. Within a year it had sold 420,000 copies, won both a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award before being turned into an Oscar-winning film.

In his fictionalised autobiography Bound for Glory (1943) Guthrie had gone over some of this ground. Here too were the Okies’ battered old jalopies piled high with household goods heading optimistically west to California (and, once there, often being turned back by the police). As with Steinbeck, there was the same sense of a society on the edge of an abyss, a country that had turned its workers into refugees in their own land, hundreds of thousands of them unemployed and desperate to work, even for the fruit-picking jobs where employers competed to see how little they could pay them, masses of them living in tented cities or sleeping rough, with no hint of entertainment in sight unless someone – anyone – had a guitar.

Both Bound For Glory – and Steinbeck’s success – would make anyone have high hopes for a Woody Guthrie novel. Here, for example, is Guthrie writing about the kind of people that he used to play to:

“Stealers, dealers, sidewalk spielers; con men, sly flies, flat foots, reefer riders, dopers, smokers, boiler stokers; sailors, whalers, bar flies, brass railers; spittoon tuners, fruit-tree pruners; cobbers, spiders, three-way riders; honest people, fakes, vamps and bleeders; saviours, saved and side-street singers; whore-house hunters, door-bell ringers; footloosers, rod riders, caboosers, outsiders; honky tonk and whiskey setters, tight-wads, spendthrifts, race-horse betters; black-mailers, gin soaks, comers, goers; good girls, bad girls, teasers, whores; buskers, corn huskers, dust bowlers, dust panners; waddlers, toddlers, dose packers, syph carriers; money men, honey men, sad men, funny men; ramblers, gamblers, highway anklers; cowards, brave guys, stools and snitches; nice people, bastards, sonsabitches…”

You get the same love of language in Dylan, although here the rhythm is as insistent as rap. So take Guthrie’s wordplay, add it to his idealism, throw in all his experience of life’s vicissitudes … surely all of that is going to add up to an impressive novel?

Sadly, no. House of Earth is an absolute clunker. It’s a novel about two people, Tike and Ella May, who have a hardscrabble farm on the drought-ridden plains of the Texas panhandle. Tike reads a Department of Agriculture bulletin advocating the use of adobe brick and becomes evangelical about the notion of building the native American way with sun-dried-brick, instead of flimsy wooden shacks. He and Ella make lusty, Lawrentian love for about 40 pages. A year passes, and in the middle of a storm, their child is born. Nothing else happens.

A novel about rural building techniques bound to have its longueurs, but the problems with House of Earth go beyond that. What Tike and Ella want – a house that can withstand the duststorms of the 1930s, where they can live both in harmony with nature and free from capitalist oppressors – is easy enough to describe. But if you don’t care about Tike and Ella, so what?

In the end, Woody Guthrie fails as a novelist for the very reason that he succeeds as a songwriter. In This Land is Your Land, Guthrie twisted together an anthem out of political idealism (“this land is my land”) and threads of geography (“from California to the New York island”). He’s always doing this in his lyrics because that’s the way his mind works – condensed and expansive at the same time. Here’s another example, again with the whole sweep of America and its two rival classes compressed into two lines:

Dig the beet from the ground and the grape from the vine

To set on your table your bright sparkling wine (from Pastures of Plenty)

Novels, though, don’t work like this. They need to break down slogans, to particularise situations, to individualise character. Something needs to happen in them, something that can be built up slowly, carefully, with characters who are always more than archetypes.

In House of Earth, Woody Guthrie showed that he couldn’t do that. But look what he could do. He could play the guitar in a way that made a stringed box sound like a whole train that was in deed bound for glory. He could and did oppose injustice wherever he found it. He could and did suffer appalling tragedies – a sister and daughter who burnt to death, children killed in car crashes, all on top of the deadly curse of Huntington’s ravaging his family. Yet he remained, as he once described himself in a letter to his third wife, “a hoping machine”.

A novel may have been beyond him. But songs and dreams weren’t. “Any fool can make something complicated,” he once wrote. “ It takes a genius to make it simple.”

• House of Earth is published on 5 February by 4th Estate, price £12.99.