Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl Ballads
by Nick Hayes
Harry N. Abrams
16, 272 pages, 8.6 x 8.6 x 1.2 inches
A graphic novel of the life and early career of singer Woody Guthrie, Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl Ballads is a sepia and dusty brown, linocut illustrated graphic novel. It begins with harrowing tales of his youth – his mother burning his father with coal oil, resulting in her being shipped off to the Hospital For The Insane, the collapse of his Pampa hometown as the plummeting price of wheat ruined the local and national economy, and Guthrie traveling roads and hopping trains during the Great Depression. His encounters with snake oil salesmen and carnival acts, hobos, and migrant workers, as well as his exposure to the music of Cajuns, Native Americans, Xit cowboys, and Appalachian folksong performances at barn dances ultimately inspire him to take up the fiddle and write original tunes.
Along with Woody's story, the book provides a powerful backstory on the environmental conditions of the Dust Bowl region, including the displacement of Native Americans through the push of white settlers on native lands, agriculture techniques that resulted in the tearing up of the bluestem grasses to plant wheat, an unprecedented drought, and the glut of wheat causing the exodus of settlers to California. This all brings to life the tragic unraveling of the fragile Dust Bowl ecosystem and brings about the hardscrabble lives and dust-blown landscape that Guthrie integrates into his music. Drifting through America with his guitar and knocking on doors begging for work, he reluctantly stumbles into an uncomfortable fame with a radio show, leading to national recognition. The book ends with the creation of his masterpiece, "This Land Is Your Land", with the now-redacted communist lyrics included, which became America's unofficial National Anthem.
Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl Ballads is a somber, bittersweet tale of the singer/songwriter, and the harrowing tragedy of the Dust Bowl years. It's a weighty, handsome book. Lovely, broad-stroked illustrations bring to life the desperate struggle of 1930s midwestern America.
– S. Deathrage