When I moved to Toronto in the early 1960s, my first paid engagement was as the sole musical performer for Poetry Nights at the now long-defunct Bohemian Embassy. I found myself in illustrious company. Margaret Atwood, Milton Acorn, Gwendolyn MacEwen and Raymond Souster were some of the extraordinary participants in those evenings. I had not yet started writing songs, so I decided the only way to measure up to the calibre of their creative work was to sing the entire 16 verses of Woody Guthrie's Ballad of Tom Joad, sung to the traditional melody of John Hardy, as my opening salvo. I managed to pull it off without a hitch, and have never attempted it since, but I have remained a staunch fan of Guthrie's songwriting.
There is no doubt that Guthrie's nose for a good story, talent for description, love for the language and the meaning of words, and his fearless commitment to social comment and social criticism have influenced several generations of prominent songwriters, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to name just two. I still have my battered original copy of his autobiography, Bound for Glory (due for a reprint?), and I returned to it recently to re-establish my feeling for the rhythm of his writing.
To understand the historical significance of House of Earth, it is important to read the introduction by Johnny Depp and his co-editor, historian and biographer Douglas Brinkley. This is the first publication for Depp's publishing imprint, Infinitum Nihil, under the Harper umbrella, and is evidence of his love for iconic American mavericks and his abiding interest in roots music.
Guthrie's only book of fiction, House of Earth is more a novella than a novel. It centres on the lives of Tike Hamlin and his wife, Ella May, who barely eke out an existence living as tenant farmers in a decrepit wooden shack in Caprock County, Texas Panhandle. Their aspirations are to buy a piece of land and to build their own house of adobe, from the instructions in a mail-order booklet from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They believe that this will free them from the grinding poverty of tenancy and the impending threat of being reduced to the humiliation of sharecropping.
A novice to Guthrie's writing may find this a tough read. Each paragraph is as dense as one of his songs, complete in itself, non-stop stream-of-consciousness gems of description and expressions of emotion, both beautiful and brutal. It can be quite overwhelming.
One of my first thoughts on being asked to write this review was to wonder why this book, completed in 1947, had not been previously published. It didn't take long to find out. In the middle of the first chapter is a 20-page description of sex between the husband and wife that is so graphic, so intensely personal, yet so rawly poetic and metaphorical, that it takes one's breath away.
This and an equally detailed and visceral description of the birth of their first child in the second chapter would never have got past the censors in the 1940s, but one senses that none of it was written with the intent to shock or titillate. What is so quintessentially Guthrie is that he is equally passionate in describing the effects of wind and cold and heat and drought on the lives of his characters and the hardscrabble landscape they inhabit.
Sylvia Tyson started her career in 1960 as half of the popular folk duo Ian and Sylvia, and has had an impressive solo career as a singer and songwriter, producing 10 albums and writing more than 200 songs, and is a founding member of the musical group Quartette. In 2011, she published her first novel, Joyner's Dream.