Woody Guthrie On Adobe

When Woody Guthrie, the great American folk balladeer who gave us This Land is Your Land, the musician who influenced Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and many others, discovered adobe during the troubled dust bowl years, he became an evangelist for building with mud. Huddled with his young wife and daughter in a Texas panhandle shack  made of wood lined with old newspapers against the wind, whipped by a blizzard of brown snow, he dreamed of building an adobe house so they would never feel the bitter cold again.

Guthrie first saw adobe while in New Mexico and was intrigued with the longevity of the thick walled mud buildings, the coolness inside in the summer and warmth in the winter. The US government at the time liked adobe too, and explained how to build your own adobe buildings in USDA Bulletin Number 1720. Guthrie obtained a copy of the bulletin (it was 5 cents) and when he read that anyone, with very little skill or money, could build with mud he got very excited. As he sang in Bling Blang:

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.

He also wrote a novel, House of Earth, in which the protagonist obtains a copy of USDA Bulletin Number 1720 and carries it with him every where, in hopes of one day building a mud house for his family. Though Guthrie wrote and published several books in addition to more than three thousand songs, this was his only novel and it was not published. He hoped it would be made into a movie but that didn’t happen either, and the manuscript languished.

Now, thankfully, with Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp (!) as champions, House of Earth is at last available Brinkley and Depp have written a wonderful introduction, putting the book in context. The novel itself stands up well, written in Guthrie’s folksy, passionate style. It’s a love story, a protest against banks and greed and agribusiness. But most of all, at the center, is the promise of adobe. Who would have thought that the iconic Woody Guthrie was a mud man!

A PDF scan of the bulletin is available online for download (warning: the download is slow that I could not even put the link on this page). It is fun and useful to read. The intent seems to be to not only show how to make and use adobe, but to convince the readers of its superiority. Clearly, it convinced Guthrie and through him, Tike Hamlin his character.

I love stuff like this. Don’t you?