Sunday, December 5, 2010

CD REVIEW: 'The Live Wire', Woody Guthrie (2007)

CD review by John Pietaro:


Released September, 2007 Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc

(Exclusively available via the Woody Guthrie Foundation:

“The Live Wire” is a finding music writers often hope for but only occasionally come across: a historic rarity. Damn. This is what it must have been like to see Woody playing clubs in the days that bridged the Great Depression of the ‘30s and the grating oppression 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. “Live Wire” is a document of a performance by Woody Guthrie, in the company of 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, who met Woody when the couple were performing together in the New York production of ‘Folksay’. By the time of the Fuld Hall date, nine years later, Marjorie was working diligently to arrange for dates for Woody, performing in some and simply doing the footwork and hosting of others. But, as Woody explains on this recording, Marjorie’s role in his life was vast: she helped him organize most every facet and began the work she’d complete later, founding his archive.

This recording was lost for more than fifty years, just as the technology it was collected on has been. Wire recordings are largely unknown today, but were a simple, if rustic means of documenting performance in an earlier time. Most wire recordings have long since been transferred to other media or have, sadly, been lost to the passage of time. This Guthrie wire was recorded by urban folklorist Paul Braverman, remaining deep in his collection until he offered it to the Woody Guthrie Archive in 2001. Guthrie archivists, working in concert with near-genius recording engineers, were able to reformat the recording and clean it up to the point that the quality is now quite good, complete with reverb, some background sounds and the attack of Woody’s pick on his guitar strings. It feels live. The compact disc is packaged with a hard-covered 70 page book which includes detailed notes, song lyrics and rare photos. A brilliant collection.

“The Live Wire” presents Woody and Marjorie in the naked light. The recording opens with a statement by host Marjorie, then pregnant with daughter Nora, speaking about the nature of folk song and its great relevance as a means of communication among the people. She then shapes the discussion into an intro 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. Its pretty clear that both were hell-bent on keeping it real, 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 not only hear unrehearsed speaking, but 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. If you close your eyes while listening to this disc, you can almost smell the faint cigarette smoke that must have lingered from the prior night’s community meeting or card-game. Woody, through both speech and song, presents a vivid description of his life and the encounters which mapped out his destiny as a balladeer. He couldn’t really have known in 1949 that he would become legendary as America’s balladeer.

What strikes a Leftist today upon listening to Woody is his unhampered frankness. Remember, this gig occurred two years after McCarthy had begun his Communist witch-hunt and one year shy of the Korean War. Right-wing forces had already claimed control and fear-mongering was the means of rule. While Woody, playing Fuld Hall, may have been nestled fairly safely in the bosom of the Jewish Left, its important to recall that no one was really safe at the time; no one who thought radical, anyhow. But Woody spoke about racial oppression in the south as clearly he spoke about corn liquor. And while several selections are traditional folk tunes, most of the material heard on this date was topical. “Talking Dust Bowl Blues”, one of Woody’s ‘Dust Bowl Ballads’, speaks of a meal born of poverty, 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 anything…”

Another Dust Bowl Ballad heard on “The Live Wire” is the brilliant ballad “Tom Joad” which told the story of ‘Grapes of Wrath’ in verse. Guthrie’s song runs rampant with accounts of the times and the injustices thrust upon the poor. Wonderfully, “1913 Massacre” opens with a short monologue titled here “Told By Mother Bloor”, referring the then-infamous Communist firebrand who’s 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. One hundred-eleven miners were killed and this song is written from their perspective in their final moments. Its 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 severe cuts to the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Currently, miners are faced with a greatly diminished force of inspectors as well as increasingly limp laws that contain nearly no penalty for violations. 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 list. And keep it fresh in mind as a gift for anyone else. It’s a must-have for any fan of protest song, folklore or historic documents which can give us a glimpse of times past that, after all, just can’t seem to fade away.

--originally published in an edited form in Z Magazine, June 2007--

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