The Live Wire is a find that music writers often hope for, but only occasionally come across: an historic rarity. This is what it must have been like to hear Woody Guthrie in the days that bridged the Great Depression and the grating repression of the Cold War.
While the songs of Woody Guthrie have been well documented, no one, apart from his contemporaries, has actually heard him perform live—until now. The Live Wire is a document of a 1949 performance by Woody Guthrie and his then-wife and collaborator Marjorie Mazia Guthrie at Fuld Hall, the Jewish Community Center of Newark, New Jersey. The event was part of a series of presentations the Guthries gave to progressive audiences around the greater New York area. This series combined Woody’s music and soliloquies with Marjorie’s spoken introductions and often her dance performances. Marjorie was a trained modern dancer, a protégé of Martha Graham and Sophie Maslow. She met Woody when the couple were performing together in the New York production of Folksay, a historic piece in modern dance history. Folksay portrayed an authentic American rural life using jigs, hoe downs, and the rhythms of southern blues and Appalachia. Included in the soundtrack were pieces from Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads.
By the time of the Fuld Hall date nine years later, Marjorie was working to arrange dates for Woody, performing in some and doing the footwork and hosting of others. But, as Woody explains on this recording, Marjorie’s role in his life was vast, as she helped him organize most everything, all while starting the work she’d complete later, founding his archive.
This recording was lost for more than 50 years, just as the wire technology has been. Wire recordings are largely unknown today, but were a simple, rustic means of documenting performances in an earlier time. Most wire recordings have long since been transferred to other media or have, sadly, been lost. This Guthrie wire was recorded by urban folklorist Paul Braverman and remained buried in his collection until he offered it to the Woody Guthrie Archive in 2001. Guthrie archivists, working with recording engineers, were able to reformat the recording and clean it up to the point that the quality is now quite good. It feels live. The compact disc is packaged with a hardcover 70-page book, which includes detailed notes, song lyrics, and rare photos.
The Live Wire opens with a statement by host Marjorie speaking about the nature of folk song and its relevance as a means of communication among people. She then shapes the discussion into an introduction of sorts to Woody and their relationship. By the time she introduces Woody, listeners have an opportunity to understand the nature of the couple and their message. It’s clear that both were hell-bent on speaking with no safety nets or shtick, but the dry humor of the Dustbowl refugee is evident, even through the urgency of his stories. You’ll hear Woody occasionally stumbling over a song, mumbling over a joke that only he would chuckle about, even offering a false start to a song, beginning it again after remembering the right key. Woody, through both speech and song, presents a vivid description of his life and the encounters which mapped out his destiny as a balladeer.
What strikes a leftist listening today is Guthrie’s unhampered frankness. Remember, this gig occurred two years after Truman and Congress started a vicious red scare with loyalty programs, hearings, and blacklists. Right-wing forces had already claimed control and fear-mongering was the means of rule. While Woody, playing Fuld Hall, may have been fairly safe among the Jewish left, it’s important to recall that no one was really safe at the time—no one radical, anyhow. But Woody spoke about racial oppression in the south as frankly as he spoke about corn liquor.
While several selections are traditional folk tunes, most of the material on The Live Wire is topical. “Talking Dust Bowl Blues,” one of Woody’s Dust Bowl Ballads, speaks of a stew so thin that you “could read a magazine right through it,” but had the stew been “just a little bit thinner some of them California politicians might have been able to see through it. But then again I got my doubts about them seeing through any- thing….”
Another ballad is the brilliant “Tom Joad,” which tells the story of the Grapes of Wrath in verse. Guthrie’s song recounts the times and the injustices thrust on the poor. Wonderfully, the song “1913 Massacre” opens with a short monologue titled “Told By Mother Bloor,” referring to the then-infamous communist firebrand whose tales of the actual events of the 1913 strike led to Woody’s composition. This song is followed by a more outspoken protest song, “Goodbye Centralia,” which tells of the terrible mining disaster of 1947 where 111 miners were killed. Gurthrie’s song is written from the miner’s perspective in their final moments. It’s chilling. How ironic that Woody’s own notes on the bottom of the typed lyric page could have been written today—in light of the Bush administration’s cuts to the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Woody’s apparent quote from a mine owner of “Quit sending your inspectors into my mines and you’ll quit finding so many things wrong with them” seems to be the philosophy still.
Put The Live Wire at the top of your birthday and holiday lists. It’s a must-have for any fan of protest song, folklore, or historic documents that gives us a glimpse of times past that just can’t seem to fade away.
John Pietaro is a musician, writer, and labor organizer from New York.