Recommended Reading: Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl Ballads

Where do you get the inspiration to create? Musicians listen to music, poets read poems, playwrights go to the theatre and watch plays. They don’t do this simply for entertainment, they do it to learn as well as to be inspired by what they see and hear. Observing other artists helps inspire us in our own work. It give us ideas and instills in us a desire to create our own versions and give our own voice to the world. Artists and musicians alike will appreciate this graphic novel created by British comics artist Nick Hayes. The book details the early life of an American music icon, Woody Guthrie.

By Nick Hayes [Abrams Comicarts]

Woody Guthrie was an American folksinger and songwriter who wrote at least 1,000 songs in his lifetime. The most well known is “This Land is Your Land” which many of us first learned in elementary school music class. With his graphic novel, Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl Ballads, Hayes has created a beautifully rendered homage to the man.

“This Machine Kills Fascists”: an iconic photo of Woody Guthrie.

This graphic novel chronicles Guthrie’s early years surviving boom town busts and America’s Dust Bowl in the 1930s. It follows him on his travels throughout the American Midwest, Southwest and into California. Using sepia tones and common dialect of the era, Hayes recreates a world where human-caused ecological damage created even more hardships for people already dealing with the Great Depression. It’s also a story about an artist struggling to discover himself and figure out how to get his music to a larger audience while still being the voice of the people. Spoiler alert: Woody succeeds.

Read my full review of Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl Ballads here.

Hayes recreates the language of the American Midwest in the early 20th century and captures well the look of grainy black and white Depression-era photography. He expertly employs sepia tones to create the feeling of a different time — a time when color was a luxury few could afford. Hayes also builds an emotional bridge for the reader to connect us to a time we’ve never known. He portrays a period of American history where food, jobs and hope were hard to come by. As Woody traveled around the country in search of work and opportunities to play his music, he learned he couldn’t rely on the government certainly, but neither could the church be trusted to give him a bowl of soup when he was down and out and willing to work for it. Everyone was suspect in that world, authority was to be questioned and nothing made sense.

Hayes is a working artist whose previous graphic novel, The Rime of the Modern Mariner was an updated version of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s similarly titled poem. He is also a contributing cartoonist to The Guardian newspaper and the New Statesmen magazine in the UK where Hayes lives and works.


Also Recommended

I also highly recommend Woody’s own partly fictional autobiography, Bound for Glory. It’s a great read for musicians and music lovers whether they’re fans of folk music or not so much. Published in 1943, the book depicts the life of a wandering minstrel and hobo riding the rails around the vast American landscape. Though the book is considered semi-autobiographical the language of the time.

Whatever medium or art form you work in, inspiration can be found everywhere, especially in the work of other artists. Read, listen, watch, see and feel it.


4 thoughts on “Recommended Reading: Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl Ballads

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