Fifty years ago and more, while a student at Rice University in Houston, I was exploring the music room at Fondren Library. I put a 78-rpm record on the turntable and heard this:
On the fourteenth day of April,
Of nineteen thirty-five,
There struck the worst of dust storms
That ever filled the sky.
You could see that dust storm coming
It looked so awful black,
And through our little city
It left a dreadful track.
The “little city” was probably Pampa, Texas, where, at the time, half my family lived. Eight of my uncles, three of my aunts, and cousins innumerable either faced down that storm or ran from it. (You can see it now in Ken Burns’s excellent documentary The Dust Bowl.1) Working-class families throughout the Great Plains, nearly broken by the prolonged drought and Great Depression of the 1930s, could hardly believe what they saw: tons and tons of black topsoil, swept down from the north by seventy mile-per-hour-plus winds, blanketed seven states like a vast shroud.
A singer I had never heard of until that afternoon was singing about a storm I had heard plenty about, none of it good. Though I heard the song in swampy Houston, I was a son of the Panhandle. I have nothing against the famous Woody Guthrie songs—that is, “This Land Is Your Land” or “Pastures of Plenty”—but I like the gritty stuff more. The harsher songs seem more visceral, less syrupy. And “Dust Storm Disaster,” one of his finest Dust Bowl ballads, is where Woody Guthrie starts, for me. It’s a song that might come from either Panhandle, in Oklahoma or in Texas.
House of Earth was completed in 1947 but discovered only recently. It is a novel about farming; there aren’t many such. The one great one, Edith Summers Kelley’s Weeds, was reprinted not long ago by the persistent professor Matthew J. Bruccoli, who was given it by an astute bookseller.2 It’s a great book, and House of Earth isn’t, though it is powerful. It’s a serious effort to dramatize the struggles of a young couple, Tike and Ella May Hamlin, who try to make a living as farm laborers in the most unforgiving years of an equally unforgiving place: the Texas Panhandle in the 1930s.
House of Earth is so named because Tike Hamlin reads a five-cent Department of Agriculture pamphlet about the many uses of adobe. Woody Guthrie liked adobe too, as the cover of his book is an oil painting by him of a pueblo in the New Mexico adobe zone.
Another thing Tike Hamlin gets excited about is his wife’s body. The sexual description is far too raw to have been printed by a trade publisher in 1947. The book reminds me of The First Lady Chatterley,…
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