And there on the Texas plains right in the dead center of the dust bowl, with the oil boom over and the wheat blowed out and the hard-working people just stumbling about, bothered with mortgages, debts, bills, sickness, worries of every blowing kind, I seen there was plenty to make up songs about. ~Woody Guthrie
The other night, I was at a house concert here in NYC where the Grammy Award nominated singer-songwriter John Fullbright delivered an amazing two sets of music. Fullbright is from Okemah, OK, the hometown of Woody Guthrie, so it was even more appropriate than usual when he, as I’ve seen many singer-songwriters do, brought up Woody’s name during one of his sets. Woody’s never far from my thoughts, or the thoughts of many of the artists I know. A balladeer of the Dust Bowl, Guthrie sang songs of the people, songs about what he thought was right and wrong in the world around him. Today, musicians like Fullbright and mega-stars like Dylan and Springsteen alike cite Guthrie as an inspiration.
What Guthrie is perhaps lesser-known for is his prose. He published two semi-autobiographical works in his lifetime. Now, long past his 1967 death from Huntington’s disease, Johnny Depp has salvaged and edited one of Guthrie’s unpublished works. Depp plans on having it be one of the first books published by his new imprint of HarperCollins, Infinitum Nihil.
The book, House of Earth, chronicles the life and fights of two dust bowl farmers struggling to make ends meet and stave off the banks trying to foreclose on them. The book is supposedly inspired by Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, and by a pamphlet Woody discovered in his travels about how to build an adobe house to withstand the harsh dust storms of the time. It is due out next year.
As a fan of the radical spirit and enduring writing in Woody’s songs, I expect great things from this book. Woody was the rare artist who, through his poverty-stricken rambles and travels, managed to see enough of the country and the people fighting to survive in it to put his finger directly on the pulse of the nation. There are many times these days, like when I watched a news segment about families put out of their houses by banks in Florida who were living in their cars, like when I went to Coney Island post-Sandy and saw a homeless encampment covered in sand, and a woman trying to dig her few possessions out, that I think, “I wish Woody were here to write about this.” To hear Woody’s voice in something new, describing a time not so terribly unlike our own, will be a great comfort for me and the many, many people who have this same wish, and sometimes try to use our own voices to say the things Woody would have said.