Lost Woody Guthrie recordings revived
Posted November 5, 2009
By Allison Engel
It sounded too good to be true. Pristine metal 78-rpm masters of more than 100 recordings made by folk musician Woody Guthrie in the mid-1940s, including a few songs that had never been released, had been unearthed in cardboard barrels in a basement in Brooklyn.
But it was true. The aluminum masters had belonged to Herbert Harris, who had briefly been a business partner of Moses Asch at Disc Records. When Asch and Harris parted company, Harris received approximately half the masters Guthrie recorded in April and May 1944.
After Harris died, his wife took custody of the barrels. When she died in 1999, they went to a neighbor, who finally opened them 60 years after the music had been recorded.
It turned out that the sound quality of the discs was exceptional.
“Wow. He’s here,” said Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter, when she heard them the first time.
She told The Boston Globe: “It was as if he was a few feet away. Truthfully, for years I never got why Woody himself was such a popular performer. They’re good songs, but on recordings his voice always sounded muffled. It’s like I’m able to hear it for the first time now, and it all makes sense to me.”
Once the contents of the barrels were inventoried in 2006 and the peerless sound restoration engineer Doug Pomeroy was consulted, a call went out to the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism’s Ed Cray, whose 2004 book, Ramblin’ Man, is the definitive Guthrie biography.
Rounder Records, which wanted to release the best of the recordings, asked Cray to give his recommendations on songs to include and to write liner notes. The “notes,” which he wrote with Rounder co-founder Bill Nowlin, turned out to be a 14,000-word booklet that is part of a boxed four-CD set titled My Dusty Road.
Cray and Nowlin worked on the notes over a six-month period while Cray continued his full teaching load. The set came out in late August.
One gem among the previously unreleased work is a humorous song called “Bad Repetation.” (The misspelling is deliberate.) But the real value of the recordings is their quality, Cray noted.
“I had no idea how good they were,” he said. “This is Woody Guthrie as nobody has ever heard him before.”
Cray said the short-lived Asch and Harris partnership may have come about because aluminum and shellac (both needed to create recording masters) were scarce during World War II. “Asch had aluminum and Harris had shellac,” Cray said.
Many of the recordings were made in marathon sessions during April 1944, when Guthrie was in between voyages in the Merchant Marine. (He made three voyages, including two in which his boat barely survived sinking. On one of those fateful trips, after disgorging troops at Normandy, his ship was hit by aircraft fire. Before leaving the vessel, Guthrie gathered up all the guitars and fiddles he could find.)
For these sessions, Guthrie invited guitarist and fellow Merchant Marine Cisco Houston to accompany him, along with blind harmonica player Sonny Terry. They produced about 300 discs, including multiple takes of the same song.
The 54 songs are divided into four CDs - Woody’s Greatest Hits; Woody’s Roots; Woody the Agitator; and Woody, Cisco and Sonny. In the songs with Terry, he and Guthrie play harmonica together, and Terry adds traditional whoops and hollers.
The “box” that the CDs come in is as original as the music.
It is a scaled-down version of a vintage striped suitcase. Inside is a replica of Guthrie’s business card from radio station KFVD (“Woody, Th’ Dustiest of Th’ Dustbowlers”), a 1947 booking notice that shows him being paid $15 to play at a Local 65 children’s party and a postcard he sent his second wife, Marjorie, from Jacksonville, Fla., in 1951.
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