Review: 'House of Earth' by Woody Guthrie

But Tiffany Colannino, archivist at the Woody Guthrie Archives in New York's Westchester County, said there's no way to know what Guthrie actually was thinking on this matter.

"We don't have him writing about 'House of Earth' at all," Colannino said. "We don't have him making any comment on it."

She is relatively certain that Woody Guthrie, who died in 1967 at age 55, sent a complete version of the manuscript to filmmaker Irving Lerner, who had worked on some socially conscious documentaries — though how the author imagined that a late-'40s feature film might be crafted from a story in which the characters do little other than argue, have sex, contemplate their struggles and rhapsodize about adobe houses is anyone's guess. At any rate the film never got made, but Lerner's copy of the novel was donated to the University of Tulsa's Guthrie collection.

Brinkley and Depp write that they "stumbled on" "House of Earth" there while researching material about Bob Dylan for a separate project. Colannino said the archive had a photocopy of the Lerner manuscript as well, and when Brinkley called for permission to edit and publish it, she and Nora Guthrie gave the OK.

"I said, 'OK, you're a smart guy. If you think it's good enough to publish, I'll trust you on this,'" Nora Guthrie recalled.

Brinkley and Depp, who call the novel "a significant cultural event and a major installment in the corpus of his published work," note that editing was minor, with two paragraphs restructured and some spellings tweaked and "cosmetic changes" made. Colannino said Guthrie liked to elongate some vowel sounds, and some of those were edited for comprehension's sake while maintaining the spirit of the language.

The novel's publication is in line with Nora Guthrie's general attitude about her populist father's works: They were intended to be shared. The highest-profile Guthrie excavation project has been Billy Bragg and Wilco's acclaimed "Mermaid Avenue" albums, for which they wrote and recorded new music to go with the songwriter's unpublished lyrics. But the Woody Guthrie Archives is packed with lyrics, manuscripts, artwork, notebooks, scrapbooks, correspondences and other creations that have never been made public or even inspected by his daughter.

"The bulk of his creativity was never published or sung," Nora Guthrie said. "I have 3,000 lyrics in the archives. He only recorded 250 in his lifetime."

Among those unrecorded songs, she noted, was one called "House of Earth," but it addresses a different subject from the novel: The lyric is about a prostitute who, among other things, promises to teach her johns things that they can take home to their wives.

"Woody is writing sex therapy songs pre-Dr. Ruth," Nora Guthrie said with a laugh, noting that she sent the lyrics to Lucinda Williams, who recorded a version of the song for the "House of Earth" audio book. "She sings it in her gravelly house-of-earth voice."

As for the "House of Earth" book, Nora Guthrie said there are no other remaining Guthrie novels left to publish — at least as far as she knows.

"I'll have to sit and look through everything," she said. "There's so much in there."

Mark Caro writes about entertainment, the arts and culture for the Chicago Tribune and is author of "The Foie Gras Wars."

"House of Earth"

By Woody Guthrie, Infinitum Nihil, 288 pages, $25.99

An excerpt

Tike's face was sad for a second, but before she turned her eyes toward him, he slapped himself in the face with the back of his hand, in a way that always made him smile, glad or sad. "Let it be rotten, Lady." He put his hands on his hips and took a step backward, and stood looking the whole house over. "Guess it's got a right to be rotten if it wants to be rotten, Lady. Goldern whizzers an' little jackrabbits! Look how many families of kids that little ole shack has suckled up from pups. I'd be all rickety an' bowlegged, an' bent over, an' sagged down, an' petered out, an' swayed in my middle, too, if I'd stood in one spot like this little ole shack has, an' stood there for fifty-two years. Let it rot. Rot! Rot down! Fall down! Sway in! Keel over! You little ole rotten piss soaked bastard, you! Fall!" His voice changed from one of good fun into words of raging terror. "Die! Fall! Rot!"

CHICAGO

More