Nick Hayes first appeared on our collective radar a couple of years ago with his graphic updating of Coleridge, The Rime of the Modern Mariner, a graphic novel that was so beautifully drawn and so sumptuously written even as it delivered a tough ecological message in a page turny fashion it made us wonder if he could possibly follow it up with anything as good. What Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl Ballads demonstrates is that Hayes is no flash in the pan. What’s more, he is able to turn his gimlet eye on any subject it would seem and draw from it serious, political points for the modern reader to mull over. All of which takes some serious skill.
What we have here is a partial biography. Hayes is not setting out to do what Rheinhardt Kleist did with his Johnny Cash graphic novel, I See a Darkness. This is as much a history as a biography, as much a polemic as an entertainment, as much a spirited rant as a tale willing to take you from points A to Z. Which isn’t to say Hayes isn’t interested in Woody Guthrie. Undoubtedly he is. Guthrie is a thrilling figure, a potent musician whose own motivations would go on to inspire the likes of Seeger, Dylan and Springsteen. Hayes’ Guthrie is a rabble rouser, an outsider, someone whose upbringing was influenced by the madness of his mother and the dreamy ambition of his father. He travels the land and he keeps his eyes open and he reads books and he sees America about him, and it is this watchfulness that comes to hone his trade. He likes music, forms small bands, listens to old songs shared around the camp fire – and then he takes these self same songs and reruns them through the times in which he lives, changing the lyrics, updating the meaning, becoming great in the process. He takes a job for a newspaper and travels like a hobo all over America interviewing the families rendered homeless by the Great Depression. He attempts to stay married but the shackles of married life are not really for him and off he goes, again and again, searching for something that will answer a question the answer to which seems out of reach.
Alongside all of this, of course, Hayes is busy painting a picture of America, an America that we may have seen previously within the pages of books like The Grapes of Wrath. But of course Hayes isn’t Steinbeck, he isn’t writing about the Great Depression from personal view, he’s writing about the Great Depression refracted through the major economic crash we have lived through in our own lives. We see tales of people made homeless, of families starving, of the rich getting richer, of big business changing laws to suit themselves and bugger the rest of us – and Hayes’ readers will see how similar the time in which those people lived is to the time in which we now live. It gives the book an added resonance and, given the cumulative double punch of both his books now, it feels imperative we see these connections and ask just how important the pull of highlighting injustice and political wrongdoing is to Hayes’ narrative engine. Not that it entirely matters, though. You can read this book as a graphic novel about Woody Guthrie, an important folk musician who went on to write a song, This Land is Your Land, that many still think of as the alternative American national anthem – the book halts as the song first starts to percolate in his brain, the experience of his travel, of what he has seen of poverty and injustice shaping his vision. We would say though (wouldn’t we) that this double reading makes the book important, adding its voice to the likes of Owen Jones’ The Establishment. We can say that we are now excited to see what Hayes will do next. This is a man who could tell our stories, who could turn the eye of Joe Sacco on British society and lay the structure bare in a way that is palatable for people who perhaps won’t dip their toe in the nonfiction world of people like Owen Jones (or Shami Chakrabarty or John Lanchester).
Any Cop?: A biography of Woody Guthrie with the fire of modern indignation in its belly. Well worth shelling out your dough for.