The 'lost' Woody Guthrie album found
LOS ANGELES - He wrote more than a thousand songs, ranging from his "Dust Bowl" ballads to patriotic incantations like "Pastures of Plenty" to the American classic "This Land is Your Land."
He performed them everywhere he went, from community centers to Broadway theaters to California fields filled with migrant workers. He also recorded dozens on records.
But one thing Woody Guthrie never got around to doing was recording any of his songs in front of a live audience — or so Guthrie's family thought.
Until an odd-looking package with reels of wires showed up unsolicited in the mail one day at the Woody Guthrie Archives.
Once she had assured herself it wasn't a bomb, Nora Guthrie was delighted at what she was holding.
"Basically, it's an early bootleg," says Guthrie, youngest surviving child of the legendary folk-music balladeer.
Captured on a wire recorder, the 75-minute recording was painstakingly transferred to compact disc, an effort that took more than a year. It was recently released by the archives as "Live Wire: Woody Guthrie in Performance 1949."
It apparently had sat for decades in the closet of the late Paul Braverman, who was a Rutgers University student when he lugged his recorder to Fuld Hall in Newark, N.J., one night for a concert by Guthrie.
"He mailed it to the archives in 2001," Guthrie's daughter says. "He was cleaning out his closet because he was moving."
Braverman, who died in 2003, didn't get what musicians would call a soundboard-quality recording, says Guthrie's oldest son, folk singer Arlo Guthrie. But what he got was surprisingly good, especially considering the circumstances. Except for some notable scratches here and there, the recording survived a half-century in Braverman's closet in surprisingly pristine shape.
"This isn't somebody who set out to record with the permission of the family or whoever was putting on the event," Guthrie notes. "This is a guy maybe holding up a microphone in the back of the room."
It took Nora Guthrie a year just to find a home-built model she could play the reel on, as Braverman's original machine had long since conked out.
After that, still more challenges lay ahead, especially for the team of audio restoration experts she called in.
"There were so many minor tragedies that happened just in the transfer process, with the wire breaking many, many, many times," she recalls during a phone interview from her New York City office, where she's director of the Guthrie Archives.
The finished result, the Guthrie family believes, will be of much interest to fans as well as to academics who continue to study Guthrie's impact on American pop culture and to musicians who continue to reinterpret his work.
"We're talking Native American, punk bands, German cabaret singers and Klezmer music players," says Arlo Guthrie, the composer of "Alice's Restaurant." "Every kind of genre you can imagine because my dad's work is so varied that it allows itself to be used in these ways."
Indeed, the Klezmatics won a Grammy earlier this year for "Wonder Wheel," a collection of Guthrie songs. Punk pioneer Billy Bragg was nominated for Grammys for his own Guthrie collections, 1998's "Mermaid Avenue" and 2000's "Mermaid Avenue, Volume II."
To Arlo Guthrie and his sister, though, the recording is more personal.
"This was the first time I had ever had a chance to hear a live performance of my dad," says Arlo Guthrie, 60. "It's not only that I hadn't heard him live, I hadn't heard many stories about him live. When I talk to friends that were with him, guys like Pete Seeger or Cisco Houston or Ramblin' Jack (Elliott), they generally would talk about their adventures. ... We never got into what a performance was like."
Guthrie, who died of Huntington's Chorea in 1967, had retired from performance years before his death because of the effects of the degenerative nerve disease.
To his son's surprise, "Live Wire" turned out to be eerily similar to an Arlo Guthrie performance: The elder Guthrie would often digress into long, comical tales about his life. He would also frequently intersperse those tales with sharp-tongued observations on the political events of the day.
"You do begin to wonder how much of this is genetic," laughs the younger Guthrie.
The album's release also raises another question: Could there be material lying around in a garage or attic somewhere that might eventually be turned into a long-lost Woody Guthrie concert film?
Arlo Guthrie is doubtful, although he notes that in an age when every bit of film seems to eventually find its way to YouTube he could be wrong.
"There is very little film on my dad," he says. "But then that's what we said of this live recording. It didn't exist. And sure enough it did."