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Woody Guthrie & The Dust Bowl Ballads

[Abrams ComicArts]

by Nick Hayes

Reviewed by Chris Auman

Woody Guthrie & The Dust Bowl Ballads Nick Hayes

For those who may be unfamiliar, Woody Guthrie was an American folk singer and songwriter who is responsible for writing "This Land is Your Land" and about 999 more songs. He was also considered a bit of a rabble rouser (agitator?), a socialist (commie?) and political commentator who gave a voice to tens of thousands of migrant workers and impoverished farmers during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl period of the 1930s.

Nick Haye’s beautiful and moving graphic novel Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl Ballads chronicles Guthrie’s early years on the move from Okemah, Oklahoma to Pampa, Texas and to the Cisco Mountains in search of silver. If you’ve read John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath or Woody’s own autobiography, Bound for Glory, or are just familiar with the Dustbowl Era in American History, this depiction provides another perspective on the journey that saw thousands of Midwestern families, like Steinbeck's Joads, traveling from the Midwest and Oklahoma in particular, to California in search of jobs and opportunities that did not exist.

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.

Woody Guthrie Dust Bowl Ballads excerpt Hayes

Hayes uses alliteration to create prose that is poetical and lyrical. He details the conflict that is sometimes man versus nature, man versus man, and man versus god from one chapter to the next. Woody battles the system, he battles the authorities, he battles poverty. All the conflicts he encountered in a hard world acted like a whetstone to sharpen Woody but without making him bitter. Instead, the hard times inspired him and instilled in him the heart of a crusader.

Haye's panoramic page layout depicting the landscape and Woody's dreams/visions/hallucinations are beautifully rendered and provide a good counterweight to some of the injustice of the times.

Hayes’ past work includes an update of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poem, The Rime of the Modern Mariner. He is also a contributing cartoonist to the Guardiannewspaper and the New Statesman magazine in the UK where Hayes lives and works.

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