Nora Guthrie—daughter of Woody, sister of Arlo, proprietor of the Woody Guthrie Archives and Museum—has always believed that nobody managed to record a single live performance her father gave during his unfortunately abbreviated career. Then, one day, a package arrived at the archives containing a bootleg some random fan had made back in 1949.
About the Recording
There are so many incredible aspects of this recording, which was made on a small wire recording device in 1949. First, according to the press release, there were only about 25 people in the audience. The performance was moderated by Woody's wife Marjorie Mazia, a dance teacher at the local Y.
Considering the antiquated nature of the recording equipment, it took several years to get it cleaned up and of good quality. In fact, listening to the disc now, the sound quality is rather impressive. There are a few places where the sound skips and dips, but that's to be expected, considering. Sound dips aside, there is little about this disc that's not an extraordinary peek into the influence of Guthrie's life and work, as well as that of American folk music in general.
A Communication Between Two Worlds
In addition to the ten songs Woody Guthrie performed that night, there was quite a bit of commentary and exchange between him and Marjorie. Some of the best moments come from their discussions about the songs Woody has written, and about folk music in general. According to the press release, this particular performance was intended to introduce folk music to the New Jersey crowd. So, there's plenty of discussion about what folk music is, exactly, and what folksingers do.
In the very beginning introduction of Woody, Marjorie says:
It’s nice to think, if you can, that a voice can be heard today that can communicate to you one thing, and twenty-five years from now will still mean something to somebody else about our times.
Indeed, this is the perfect statement about what Woody Guthrie managed to achieve in his life and career, and what The Live Wire achieves.
Indeed, here, it is mostly the stories that Woody tells between songs that so grabbed me. Marjorie asks him to say a few sentences about his life and folk music, and he launches into a story so like the stories he told in his autobiography and in Seeds of Man
—a somewhat creative memoir. They're stories about the working class in Oklahoma, about his father, who was an activist and a musician, and his mother, who sang to him as a child.
Guthrie's storytelling cadence is infectious and not unlike that of his son Arlo, whose shows are peppered with as much talking as singing. Here we get to see how that's a genetic thing.
As this performance was intended to present folk music to an unfamiliar audience, some of the songs are not Woody Guthrie originals. However, ther are quite a few gems from the Guthrie catalog here.
Most notably, songs from his Columbia River collection—"Pastures of Plenty," "Grand Coulee Dam," etc. The first song in the performance is a tune called "Black Diamond" that his parents enjoyed singing. The final song is "Jesus Christ"—a classic example of Guthrie's songwriting and personal philosophy, portraying Jesus as an activist betrayed by political interests.
To purchase this CD, and for more information, visit WoodyLiveWire.com
This review published 1/17/08