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Woody Guthrie's 'House Of Earth' Calls 'This Land' Home

The cover of House of Earth is an oil painting that Guthrie made in 1936 called In El Rancho Grande. (Courtesy HarperCollins)

Woody Guthrie wrote thousands of songs in his lifetime — but as far as anyone knows, he only wrote one novel. Recently discovered, House of Earth is the story of a young couple living in the Texas Panhandle in the 1930s. They dream of building a house that will withstand the bitter winds and ever-present dust that constantly threaten the flimsy wooden shack they call home.

The novel is being released by Johnny Depp's new publishing imprint at HarperCollins, Infinitum Nihil. It was Depp's publishing partner, historian and author Douglas Brinkley, who tracked down the lost novel after he stumbled across a reference to it while doing research. When he sat down to read it, Brinkley could hear the same Woody Guthrie he had grown to love through his music.

"Woody Guthrie has something that every artist would dies for: a voice," says Brinkley. "You can read House of Earth and you know it's Woody Guthrie. You know it's coming from the heart."

When Woody Guthrie's daughter, Nora Guthrie, first read the book, she had a different reaction. "The opening chapter was so sexy," she says, laughing. "I just went, whoa, Dad, where are you going with this?"

Both Brinkley and Guthrie suspect that in part, it is the sexually explicit material in the book that kept it from being published after it was written in 1947.

And there was another reason: The book would have come out just as an era of virulent anti-communism was getting under way, so it was also most likely that politics kept it from being published. Because, Brinkley says, the book is both a love story and a polemic against the bankers and businessmen Guthrie blamed for keeping the poor, poor — a theme often heard in his music.

House of Earth is the story of struggling young sharecroppers Tike and Ella May. Nora Guthrie says her father has created a portrait of their life: sowing seeds, planting crops, making love, giving birth, and dreaming of creating a safe haven amid the dust storms and economic depression of the 1930s.

"These ideas of seeds and sex and procreation and earth, and farm language and things like that — adobe houses being built out of this combination of water and earth," muses Nora Guthrie, "that's what really struck me once again is how he hammers home this really rough and rich life."

Tike is determined to build a new house made of adobe, convinced that such a house will give them better protection from the unrelenting weather. Nora Guthrie says this idea of building adobe homes was one of her father's obsessions.

"He was fascinated with this whole idea of people being able to cheaply create homes that were stronger than the wooden homes that were being devastated during the dust bowl," she says. "So he had this long-term fascination, and when he had fascinations, he turned them into everything — he turned it into art, he turned it into letters, he turned it into lyrics."

In his song "Bling Blang" he writes:

I'll grab some mud and you grab some clay
So when it rains it won't wash away.
We'll build a house that'll be so strong,
The winds will sing my baby a song.

There are passages in the novel where you can hear Woody Guthrie the lyricist. He plays with words, veers into poetry, wanders off into streams of consciousness. Brinkley says the book does not have a strong narrative, but Guthrie makes deft use of language to bring his characters to life.

"And he is able to really do a great job of capturing dialects and the slang expressions of a region," says Brinkley. "But it's done with a poetic flourish. You can almost speed-read the novel out loud, and when you do there is a musicality to it."

Brinkley says the themes of House of Earth are reflected in Guthrie's most famous song, "This Land Is Your Land," especially in lyrics like these, which are not heard in most popular versions of the song:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn't say nothing;
This land was made for you and me.

"Woody believed that the people that lived on the land should own the land," says Brinkley. "So he was outraged at what bankers were doing, and when people were struggling and they couldn't pay rents and were being forced off the land. And so 'This Land Is Your Land' and House of Earth are both aimed at people being able to say if you grew up on a property it should be yours, and you should be able to live on it."

Brinkley says though this book was written in 1947 and set in the Depression era, it's as relevant today as it was then.

"This novel takes place everywhere," he says. "It happens to be in Texas, but this book echoes for global shantytowns in many ways, and the need to try and find the dignity of dwelling and shelter."

In the end, Guthrie leaves the reader with a lot of unanswered questions about the fate of his characters. And that makes sense, Brinkley says, because real life is messy and rarely gets resolved in a tidy package — especially if you are poor.

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"What a Beautiful World," 1947

House of the Earth, Woody Guthrie's 1947 novel about struggling young sharecroppers, is ...

"Untitled," 1947

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The cover of House of Earth is an oil painting that Guthrie made in 1936 called In E...

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Woody Guthrie wrote thousands of songs in his lifetime but as far as anyone knows, he only wrote one novel. That novel, which just recently was discovered, is being published by another artist, actor Johnny Depp.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

He recently partnered with Harper Collins to create his own imprint, his own brand of books. And Guthrie's novel, called "House of Earth," is the first book published under that imprint.

MONTAGNE: The novel tells the story of a young couple in the Texas Panhandle of the 1930s. They dream of building a house that will stand up the bitter winds and ever-present dust that constantly threaten their flimsy wooden shack.

INSKEEP: Sounds a little like a Woody Guthrie song.

And as NPR's Lynn Neary reports, the novel grew out of a little known passion of Guthrie's.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: It was Johnny Depp's publishing partner, historian and author Douglas Brinkley, who tracked down the lost novel after he stumbled across a reference to it while doing research. When he sat down to read it, Brinkley could hear the same Woody Guthrie he had grown to love through his music

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: Woody has something every that artist dies for, a voice. You can read "House of Earth" and you know its Woody Guthrie, you know it's coming from the heart.

NEARY: When Woody Guthrie's daughter, Nora Guthrie, first read the book, she had a different reaction

NORA GUTHRIE: Whoa.

(LAUGHTER)

GUTHRIE: Whhhoaaa

(LAUGHTER)

GUTHRIE: The opening chapter is so sexy.

(LAUGHTER)

GUTHRIE: I just went whoa, Dad, where are you going with this?

NEARY: Both Brinkley and Guthrie suspect that, in part, it is the sexually explicit material in the book that kept it from being published, after it was written in 1947. And there was another reason. The book would have come out just as an era of virulent anti-communism was getting underway. So it was also most likely that politics kept it from being published. Because, Brinkley says, the book is both a love story and a polemic against the bankers and businessmen who Guthrie blamed for keeping the poor, poor - a theme often heard in his music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AIN'T GOT NO HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE")

WOODY GUTHRIE: (Singing) Was a-farming on the shares and always I was poor. My crops I lay into the banker's store, my wife took down and died upon the cabin floor and I ain't got no home in this world anymore...

NEARY: "House of Earth" is the story of struggling young sharecroppers, Tike and Ella May. Nora Guthrie says her father has created a portrait of their life: sowing seeds, planting crops, making love, giving birth, and dreaming of creating a safe haven amid the dust storms and economic depression of the 1930s

GUTHRIE: These ideas of seeds, and sex, and procreation, and Earth and, you know, farm language and things like that - adobe houses, you know, being built out of this combination of water and earth. That's what really struck me, you know, once again how he just hammers home, this really rough and rich life.

NEARY: Tike is determined to build a new house made of adobe, convinced that such a house will give them better protection from the unrelenting weather. Nora Guthrie says this idea of building adobe homes was one of her father's obsessions.

GUTHRIE: He was fascinated with this whole idea of people being able to cheaply create homes that were stronger than the wooden homes that were being devastated during the Dustbowl. So he has this long term fascination. And when he had fascinations, he turned it into everything. He turned it into art. He turned it into letters. He turned it into lyrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLING BLANG")

GUTHRIE: (Singing) Well, I'll grab some mud and you grab some clay. So when it rains it won't wash away. We'll build a house that'll be so strong, the winds will sing my baby a song. Bling blang, hammer with my hammer. Zingo zango...

NEARY: There are passages in the novel where you can hear Woody Guthrie the lyricist. He plays with words, veers into poetry, wanders off into stream of consciousness. Brinkley says the book does not have a strong narrative, but Guthrie makes deft use of language to bring his characters to life

BRINKLEY: And he is able to really do a great job of capturing dialects and the slang expressions a region. But it's done with a poetic flourish. You can almost speed read the novel out loud, and when you do, there is a musicality to it.

NEARY: In this passage, Ella May reacts with scorn to Tike's suggestion that they build a new adobe home.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Reading) A house, her voice rose, of Earth. Tike only listened. His throat was so tight that no words could get out. A house of Earth and not an inch of Earth to build it on. There was a quiver, a tremble, and a shake in her body as she scrapped her shoe sole against the ground. Oh yes, she said in a way that made fun of them both, of the whole farm. Mock the old farm shed, shame the iron water tank - made fun of all the houses that lay within her sight.

NEARY: Brinkley says the themes of "House of Earth" are reflected in Guthrie's most famous song. "This Land Is Your Land," especially in lyrics like these which are not heard in most popular versions of the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND")

GUTHRIE: (Singing) There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me. Sign was painted, it said private property. But on the back side it didn't say nothing. This land was made for you and me...

BRINKLEY: Woody believed that the people that lived on the land should own the land. So he was outraged at what bankers were doing and when people were struggling, and they couldn't pay rents and were being forced off the land. And so "This Land is Your Land" and "House of Earth" are both aimed at people being able to say if you grew up on property it should be yours. And you should be able to live on it. But instead, many people didn't have money and were forced off the land.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND")

GUTHRIE: (Singing) This land was made for you and me...

NEARY: Brinkley says though this book was written in 1947 and set in the Depression Era, it is as relevant today as it was then.

BRINKLEY: You know, this novel takes place everywhere. It happens to be in Texas. But this book echoes, you know, for a global shanty towns in many ways, and the need to try and find the dignity of dwelling and shelter.

NEARY: In the end, Guthrie leaves the reader with a lot of unanswered questions about the fate of his characters. And that makes sense, Brinkley says, because real life is messy and rarely gets resolved in a tidy package, especially if you're poor.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TALKING DUST BOWL BLUES")

GUTHRIE: (Singing) Back in 1927, I had a little farm and I called it Heaven. The prices up and the rain come down and I hauled my crops all into town. I got the money...

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TALKING DUST BOWL BLUES")

GUTHRIE: (Singing) I fed the kids, took it easy. The rain, it quit and the wind got high and the black old dust storms filled the sky. And I swapped my farm for a Ford machine and I filled it full of this gas-i-line and started... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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