In 1947 Woody Guthrie wrote House of Earth, a fictional story about struggling young sharecroppers, poverty and building sustainably with dirt and natural ingredients. The book was never published at the time, due in part to the novel’s sexually explicit material, as well as the oppressive red-baiting political climate during that era. The story has been recently re-discovered by historian Douglas Brinkley, and has just been released by Johnny Depp’s new publishing division of Harper Collins, Infinitum Nihil.
Guthrie’s book takes place during the Great Depression, and tells the tale of two poor young farmers, Ella May and Tike, who are living in the Texas panhandle; they dream of constructing a house that would be able to withstand the bitter dust bowl winds that constantly threaten the poorly constructed wooden shack that they call their home. In addition to promoting natural building, the novel also highlights the criminal and inhuman behavior of greedy businessmen and bankers largely responsible for helping to keep people poor — a theme that is also prevalent throughout Guthrie’s music.
Seeds, Sex, Procreation, Farming & Dirt
NPR recently interviewed Guthrie’s daughter Nora about her father’s book, as well as his creative process; she explained that through his work Woody:
“… 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. 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…”
Woody Guthrie has been a visionary leader and important activist in so many different ways. Learning that he was also a strong advocate for sustainable natural construction only makes me respect and admire this great man even more.