Refugees wandering and unwelcome, environmental disasters wrecking the land, poverty pushing people to the margins — Woody Guthrie was responding to the hardships of the Great Depression, but he may as well have been singing about now.
“I ain’t got no home, I’m just a-roamin’ ’round, / Just a wandrin’ worker, I go from town to town. / And the police make it hard wherever I may go / And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore,” he crooned on his first album, Dust Bowl Ballads, the folksy rhythm of the lyrics belying the bitterness of the words. The Okies chugging west to California, through busted boomtowns and away from the clouds of dust suffocating their homes, inspired Guthrie’s words as he rode the rails with his guitar.
That journey is reimagined in Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl Ballads by Nick Hayes. The graphic novel was published in the UK in 2014 and got its American release earlier this year from Abrams Books. Hayes previously penned and illustrated The Rime of the Modern Mariner (2012), a contemporary take on the Samuel Coleridge poem that transports the seafarer’s voyage to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
I’ll admit, as a born and raised Oklahoman, I was skeptical about the London-based author’s ability to capture the spirit of the Sooner State and its homegrown folk hero. But in sepia tones that reference the parched soil that flew all the way to New York City at the height of the Dust Bowl, Hayes offers a poignant narrative of how Guthrie rose from a directionless teenager in Okemah to the voice of the downtrodden nationwide.
There’s been a surge of comic book biographies lately, exploring the likes of Sigmund Freud, Robert Moses, and every famous male artist. So why do we need one on Guthrie? Maybe because, although his populist anthem “This Land Is Your Land” remains familiar, people don’t really listen to the lyrics and the defiance in its refrain.
He wrote the song in response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” whose pomp and patriotism Guthrie saw as at odds with the American lives being swallowed by dust and the politicians looking the other way. Instead of “this land was made for you and me,” he originally had a sarcastic “God blessed America for me” at the end of each stanza (you can see these original lyrics at the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa). And he concluded with these mutinous words:
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
“This Land Is Your Land” is the culmination of Hayes’s work, following a sweeping view of Guthrie’s life. While the book includes darker facts like Guthrie’s mother’s battle with Huntington’s — a disease which would later befall Woody himself — and his role as an absent father, it doesn’t mention Woody’s father’s participation in a lynching. The event arguably haunted Guthrie as much as his mother’s illness, broiling up in his “Hangknot, Slipknot“: “I don’t know who makes the law for that hangknot. / But the bones of many a men are whistling in the wind, / Just because they tied their laws with a hangknot.” Hayes does, however, movingly illustrate the cataclysmic “Black Sunday” in Pampa, Texas, when the dusty earth consumed everything, including the light from the sun.
Without directly stating it, Hayes also shows how Guthrie’s music remains as relevant as ever. The final image in the book features the New York City skyline, the words “this land was made for you and me” emblazoned over the buildings, while people sleep in a trash heap below. Back in the 1950s, Guthrie wrote a screed against his Brooklyn landlord, adapted from his song “I Ain’t Got No Home“: “I just can’t pay this rent. / My money is down the drain, and my soul is badly bent. / Beach Haven is like heaven where no black ones come to roam. / No, no, no, old man Trump, Beach Haven ain’t my home.”
That landlord, who refused to rent to African Americans, just happens to have been Fred Trump, father of presidential candidate Donald. There might not be a Dust Bowl, and it’s been years since Guthrie’s ashes were scattered at Coney Island, but his music still burns with urgency today.
Nick Hayes’s Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl Ballads is published by Abrams Books and available from Amazon and other online booksellers.