Somebody Shoot at Me!

Ian Sansom

  • House of Earth: A Novel by Woody Guthrie
    Fourth Estate, 234 pp, £14.99, February 2013, ISBN 978 0 00 750985 0

To celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009 a concert was held in Washington DC, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. ‘In the course of our history, only a handful of generations have been asked to confront challenges as serious as the ones we face right now,’ Obama said, truly, after will.i.am and Sheryl Crow had busked their way through Bob Marley’s ‘One Love’, with Herbie Hancock noodling on piano; and the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington DC had pounded out ‘My Country, ’Tis of Thee’; and Garth Brooks had gurned through ‘American Pie’; and so on and so on. Perhaps the only truly radical note in the concert was struck – or at least attempted – by Pete Seeger, resplendent in plaid shirt and woolly hat, leading the crowd in America’s unofficial national anthem, ‘This Land Is Your Land’, including the infamous, often unsung verse suggesting that all property is theft:

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.

And so an angry song of protest and a hymn to trespass became part of a celebration of the American Dream: you don’t have to be Gramsci to recognise cultural hegemony at work here.

Woody Guthrie wrote ‘This Land Is Your Land’ – originally titled ‘God Blessed America’ – in February 1940, in response to the sentiments of Irving Berlin’s ‘God Bless America’:

Let us all be grateful for a land so fair,
As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer …
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans, white with foam
God bless America, My home sweet home.

Goddamnit: in the end, everything gets alloyed in the melting pot, including Guthrie, all-American hero. ‘For a man who fought all his life against being respectable, this comes as a stunning defeat,’ Arlo Guthrie announced in 1998, when his father’s image was put on a 32 cent stamp.

Not much taller than 5’7’’, rake-thin, beady-eyed, haunted by family tragedy, and suffering in later life from Huntington’s disease, Guthrie casts a shadow that grows ever longer and stranger. Last year, on the hundredth anniversary of Guthrie’s birth, the singer Billy Bragg – born in Essex, resident in Dorset, and about as far removed from the wind-blown, dirt-road, footloose, boxcar ramblin’ origins of Guthrie as is possible – released the third volume of his recordings of Guthrie’s previously unpublished lyrics and songs. But this was only to be expected: unlikely as it seems, Bragg, along with fellow singer-songwriter Steve Earle, has become an official keeper of the Guthrie flame. The true sparks from the sacred fire are perhaps to be found elsewhere. Maybe in the film Big Easy Express, directed by Emmett Malloy and released last year, which followed gentlemen folk-rockers Mumford & Sons, the Americana string band Old Crow Medicine Show and alt-rock hipsters Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros as they travelled together by train from Oakland in California, ending up in New Orleans with an inevitable hootenanny-style rendition of ‘This Train Is Bound for Glory’. The song is actually an old gospel standard, although strongly associated with Guthrie (his autobiography, chronicling his own criss-crossing of America, was entitled Bound for Glory at the suggestion of his editor; Guthrie had wanted to call it Boomchasers). ‘It’s the same track that Woody Guthrie rode on,’ Malloy explained in an interview, ‘and it probably didn’t look a whole lot different’ – except for the catering crew, the lighting rig and Jake Gyllenhaal hopping on board for the ride.

Or perhaps the Guthrie hand of fate falls now on Jake Bugg, a teenager with dead eyes, rudimentary chords and an unexpected UK number one album, who may be the closest thing we have to a homegrown dust-bowl troubadour: he’s from the east Midlands. (Typical lyrics: ‘I go back to Clifton to see my old friends/The best people I could ever have met/Skin up a fat one, hide from the Feds.’) And at the other end of the cultural spectrum there are the super-slick Toy Story movies, with Sheriff Woody, a pull-string cowboy apparently named after the African-American actor Woody Strode, yet who bears more than a passing resemblance to Guthrie in his hillbilly heyday, when he worked as a professional entertainer on KFVD radio in Los Angeles, singing ‘Lefty Lou from Ol’ Mizoo’ with Maxine Crissman. ‘I’d like to join your posse, boys,’ Pixar’s Woody squeaks, ‘but first I’m gonna sing a little song.’

Many years ago, as a post-punk adolescent, I too was touched by the legend, and like many amateur three-chord strummers I carefully Tippexed my first guitar with the immortal words, ‘This machine kills fascists,’ the phrase stickered by Guthrie onto his beautiful old black Gibson L-00 and later onto his sunburst Southern Jumbo, guitars full of both threat and promise. Alas, my machine – a dirt-cheap Yamaha dreadnought with plastic machine heads coated to look silver, a terrible action and tooth-rattling fret buzz – merely caused slight discomfort to listeners, and calluses to my precious fingers. The inscription on Pete Seeger’s banjo, which he played at the inauguration concert, reads ‘This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender,’ which tells you everything you need to know about the difference between Seeger and Guthrie, and suggests why Seeger might be acceptable at an inauguration while Guthrie would almost certainly have been unwelcome. In Woody Guthrie: A Life (1980), Joe Klein tells a story about Guthrie’s behaviour at a Spanish Relief Fund event on the Upper East Side: it recalls the scene in The Blues Brothers where Jake and Elwood arrive at a swanky restaurant called Chez Paul to try and persuade their old trumpet player, Mr Fabulous, to rejoin the band. ‘From the start,’ Klein writes, ‘it was obvious that Woody was going to be in rare form that night. He swooped down on the hors d’oeuvres and gathered clumps of them in each hand, stuffing them into his mouth … and washing each mouthful down with prodigious gulps of liquor.’ In true John Belushi fashion, Guthrie proceeded to steal the hostess’s onyx and gold cigarette-holder and attempted to make off with the money that had been collected, pouring the coins inside his shirt. ‘Somebody shoot at me,’ he said. ‘You cain’t hit me now!’ Throughout his life, Guthrie worked variously, and with varying degrees of enthusiasm, as a sign-painter, a cartoonist, a spiritual healer, a journalist and a radio entertainer – ‘The only thing I’m sure he hadn’t been was a lawyer,’ Studs Terkel wrote – but he was a full-time pain in the arse. He was also, as it turns out, a part-time novelist.

The editors of House of Earth, Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp (yes, that Johnny Depp), describe the recently rediscovered book as Guthrie’s ‘only fully realised novel’. His part-realised novels include, arguably, not only Bound for Glory (1943), his autobiography with added bits of fiction, full of improbable dialogue and cutesy descriptions (‘It was an Indian summer morning and it was crispy and clear, and I stuck my nose up into the air and whiffed my lungs full of good weather’), and Seeds of Man, published posthumously in 1976, a novel clearly enhanced with large doses of autobiographical fact, but also the thousands of songs, song fragments, gobbets of verse and prose, and the cartoons, journals, diaries, letters and endless observations banged out on a typewriter, or scribbled on a steno pad, and often carelessly discarded. Guthrie, like, say, Balzac, Simenon, Joyce Carol Oates, Bob Dylan, Richmal Crompton and Stephen King, was basically a writing machine, someone constantly in the process of noting, notating and composing.

Born in Okemah, Oklahoma in 1912, Guthrie was brought up in Texas, then lived in California, New York and Florida, but he didn’t really belong anywhere. It’s as if the act of writing itself became his home – the desire to record, to affirm, to declare and to protest standing in for stable family relationships and long-term commitments. The procedures of writing – and novel-writing in particular – are often misunderstood, interpreted as intelligent, premeditated attempts at understanding, analysing and world-building. But for a writer like Guthrie, the novel seems to have been simply another fulfilment of an overwhelming physical desire to write something. A discharge of energy, a disease of language, with the outcome merely the consequence of a series of haphazard acts of memory and imagination. Thus, to describe House of Earth as ‘fully realised’ may be to describe its apparent form, but it’s to misunderstand the fluid, primitive nature of the work – and to underestimate its characteristic Guthrian charms.

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When you listen to Guthrie performing ‘Worried Man Blues’ or ‘Jesus Christ’ or ‘The Biggest Thing that Man Has Ever Done’, what you hear is firm, fluent, rhythmic playing, with the picking and the flicking and the hammerings-on characteristic of early 20th-century Carter Family-style guitar technique. The style – derivative, perhaps, often imitated, yes, but never bettered – is confident, belligerent and preaching, shapely-unshapely and eminently suitable for ballads, storytelling and talking blues. And Guthrie wrote his prose in exactly the same fashion: direct, passionate, cranky, and always with an underlying message, warning of damnation and heralding hope. House of Earth chronicles the life and adventures of a tenant farmer, ‘Tike’ Hamlin, who dreams of building his own adobe house, and his wife, Ella May, both in their early thirties, struggling to make a living in drought-ridden Texas during the Great Depression. In Chapter 1, Tike and Ella have sex in a barn. In Chapter 2, they fix up their shack. In Chapter 3 Ella May gets pregnant and goes into labour. And in Chapter 4, she gives birth. Tike never gets round to making his adobe house. That’s the story. But all along the way, plucking out another melody, as it were, on the bass strings, all the way from the barn to the bed and back again, Guthrie picks out a tale about poverty and man’s relationship to the land. It’s not just fiction, it’s testimony; it’s folklore; it’s ‘The Ballad of Tike and Ella May’.

Guthrie seems to have had the idea for the book sometime in the late 1930s, but it wasn’t written for another ten years. He was desperately busy, of course: performing, recording, hosting a daily radio show, writing columns for the Daily Worker and songs for the Department of the Interior, writing Bound for Glory, starting work on another (unfinished) novel, joining the US Merchant Marine, joining the US army, divorcing his first wife, marrying his second, and taking up residence at 3520 Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island. So what happened to make him finally knuckle down and knock out House of Earth? The editors of the book make some grand claims for it: it’s all about class war, and ‘the ecological threats inherent in fragmenting native habitats’; ‘wood is a metaphor for capitalist plunderers while adobe represents a socialist utopia where tenant farmers own land’; ‘it’s almost as if Guthrie had written House of Earth prophetically, with global warming in mind.’ They make it sound like Silent Spring: it reads, in fact, much more like an outpouring of grief. It’s a book all about sex and birth and grand plans, written after a catastrophic loss.

In 1919, Guthrie’s older sister, Clara, died from self-inflicted burns, having set fire to herself during an argument with her mother. In 1927, Guthrie’s father, Charley, was severely burned in another fire: everyone suspected that his wife, Guthrie’s mother, Nora, had set fire to him, but Charley refused to say what had happened; Nora, suffering from Huntington’s, was soon after committed to the Central State Hospital for the Insane in Norman, Oklahoma; this was when young Woody started a-wandering. And then, in February 1947, Cathy, Guthrie’s daughter with his second wife, Marjorie Mazia, burned to death in a house fire caused by faulty wiring in a radio. The child was only four years old: Guthrie called her Miss Stackabones. In response Guthrie did what he always did, which was to sit down at the typewriter and start spurting forth:

This is to test the typewriter after it came thru the bath of Cathy’s fire … I am going ahead now and finish up this letter on this same piece of scorched and smoked paper just to show myself that such a thing as a no good wartime radio wire shorting out and burning little Miss Stackabones to death has not stopped me nor slowed down my thinking, but has made my old bones jump up wider awake to fight against this kind of a greed that sells such dangerous wirings.

Dangerous wiring unleashed what was in effect his final storm of creativity. In July 1947, Marjorie gave birth to their second child, Arlo, and by the end of that year Guthrie had completed the manuscript of House of Earth and sent it off to the filmmaker Irving Lerner, hoping it might make a movie. It didn’t and the manuscript languished for years in Lerner’s archives, eventually ending up in the University of Tulsa’s Woody Guthrie collection, from where it has now been unearthed. He and Marjorie had two more children in quick succession, he kept on writing and performing, finished the eight-hundred page manuscript of his autobiographical novel, Seeds of Man, moved to California, met another woman, divorced Marjorie, married again, divorced again, and then the dreaded Huntington’s caught up with him. He didn’t die until 1967, but the 1950s and 1960s were years of decline; the late 1940s were Woody in his pomp.

At the very end of House of Earth, Tike is sent outside in a howling storm to bury his son’s afterbirth. ‘His shovel struck against the icy dirt’ and he begins to sing:

Well the Grasshopper says to that landlord
You can drive your tractor all around
You can plough, you can plant, you can take in your crop,
But you cain’t run my earth house down, down, down!
No! You cain’t run my earth house down!

We’ll not run it down. When he showed the first chapter of House of Earth to his friend Alan Lomax, who had already embarked on his own unconventional career as an ethnomusicologist and folklorist, Lomax was so impressed that he considered giving up everything and becoming Guthrie’s agent. You can see why. There are passages and phrases throughout the novel of startling originality, and some fine self-portraits. For Tike Hamlin, read Woody Guthrie:

Five feet and eight inches tall, square built, but slouchy in his actions, hard of muscle, solid of bone and lungs, but with a good wide streak of laziness somewhere in him … a medium man, medium wise and medium ignorant, wise in the lessons taught by fighting the weather and working the land, wise in the tricks of the men, women, animals, and all of the other things of nature, wise to guess a blizzard, a rainstorm, dry spell, the quick change of the hard wind, wise as to how to make friends, and how to fight enemies. Ignorant as to the things of school.

The book’s many descriptions of landscape are at their best when detailed and specific.

The ground around the house was worn down smooth, packed hard from footprints, packed still harder from the rains, and packed still harder from the soapy wash water that had been thrown out from tubs and buckets. A soapy coat of whitish wax was on top of the dirt in the yard, and it had soaked down several inches into the earth at some spots. The strong smell of acids and lyes came up to meet Ella May’s nose as she carried two heavy empty twenty-gallon cream cans across the yard.

Elsewhere, the prose sometimes reads like wishy-washy National Geographic nature writing:

A world close to the sun, closer to the wind, the cloudbursts, floods, gumbo muds, the dry and dusty things that lose their footing in this world, and blow, and roll, jump wire fences, like the tumbleweed, and take their last earthly leap in the north wind out and down, off the upper north plains, and down onto the sandier cotton plains that commence to take shape west of Clarendon.

There is too much reliance on lists and enumerations – ‘the rot, the filth, the hurt, the misery, the decay of land and of families’ – and the characters are often no more than mannequins, forever pausing to deliver interminable speeches. Ella May in particular often sounds as if she’s addressing a Party meeting:

Why has there got to be always something to knock you down? Why is this country full of things that you can’t see, things that beat you down, kick you down, throw you around, and kill out your hope? Why is it that just as fast as I hope for some little something or other, that some kind of crazy thievery always, always, always cuts me down?

And, later:

It is a very plain and simple problem with a very plain and simple answer. Our modern machines and our modern factories and our modern systems of labour have simply given us more of everything than we can use. There is no demand for this oversupply. Prices are falling because all of the storage rooms are full and overflowing and nobody will buy the excess. There is too much. Too much of everything.

Agreed.

But then this is what happens when a writer is impudent and wild, and always giving in to impulses and cravings. House of Earth is a wayward work by a wayward artist – what else could it be? A writer who couldn’t keep his hands to himself, and who was always grabbing at some thing, some idea, or incident, or person. ‘Tike’s hand felt the nipples of her breast as he kissed her on the neck from behind and chewed her gold earrings between his teeth.’ Guthrie’s own sex life was complicated. Or more complicated than some: there are complications, and there are complexes. During the war he had begun to write to women – including, but not only his wife – detailing his sexual fantasies. Some replied; most were appalled. In November 1949, after almost two years of court proceedings, he was convicted and sentenced to prison for sending obscene letters to Maxine Crissman, the younger sister of his one-time radio partner. He remained unrepentant. When it came to his fiction it meant that he had had plenty of practice describing an erection.

Inside his overalls Tike felt the movement of his penis as it grew long and hard. In the way he was sitting there was not room enough for his penis to become stiff. His clothing caused it to bend in the middle in a way that dealt him a throbbing pain. He stood up on the ground and spread his legs apart. He reached inside his overalls with his fingers and put it in an upright position and sighed a breath of comfort.

The publication of House of Earth serves as an intriguing lesson at an interesting time. The current boom in self-publishing sees writers increasingly having to figure themselves not only as authors but also as entrepreneurs, educators, speakers and businessmen and women – exactly the kind of people you’d want at your presidential inauguration concert. You could accuse Guthrie of a lot of things, but you could never accuse him of being a businessman. He seemed to write out of a yearning for release and escape. In one of the soaring passages in House of Earth, Tike imagines himself connected to everyone and everything: ‘house, barn, the iron water tank, the windmill, little henhouse, the old Ryckzyck shack, the whole farm, the whole ranch’. He was entirely self-made, his desire and imagination his only authority. This made him immoderate, irresponsible, foolish, careless and naive. It also, undoubtedly, made him great. Victor Hugo in his essay on Shakespeare announced: ‘He is the earth.’ Guthrie likewise: quintessence of dust.