Woody Guthrie’s live show at the Newark YM-YWHA in 1949 wasn’t supposed to be a big deal. The great folk troubador’s wife, Marjorie Mazia, taught dance at the Y and helped arrange for her husband to perform there. She served as emcee. About 25 people showed up. One of them was a Rutgers student and recording hobbyist named Paul Braverman, who captured the 74-minute show on a wire recorder, a forerunner of the tape recorder.
In 2001, Braverman was cleaning out his closets when he came across two spools of wire, marked “Woody” and still in their original boxes. He donated them to the Woody Guthrie Archives, which is currated by Nora Guthrie, one of Woody and Marjorie’s daughters.
“I had no idea what was on the wire, because the spool just said ‘Woody,’ and there was no note with the package,” Nora recalls. “When we went to do the first transfer, I was absolutely stunned. It was like hearing ghosts, but funny ghosts. I loved hearing my mother giggle at my father’s jokes.”
Braverman died in 2003, four years before the Guthrie Archives released The Live Wire: Woody Guthrie in Performance 1949. In February, the album, with its 72-page commemorative book, won the Grammy Award for Best Historical Recording.
Guthrie was diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease in 1950, the year Nora was born. An invalid, he survived seventeen years with the degenerative neurological disorder before dying in 1967 at age 55.
“I only knew him as a sick man,” Nora says. “I never heard him sing in a performance. So I was completely struck by so many new impressions of him [in the Newark recording]. Particularly how sociable and chatty he was. He really had a great Will Rogers-like schtick. He used humor to draw people close to him, and then in the moment when they’re open, he told them something more serious.
“This is one of the most fascinating accessions we’ve made,” she adds, speaking as a curator. “You feel like this is what it would have been like to be his friend. He would have talked to you just like this, cracked you up just like this. Even played a few wrong notes or messed up some lyrics just like this. Nothing else that exists documents this.”
In Live Wire (available at woodyguthrie.org), the troubador of social justice tells his audience that he was born twelve days after Woodrow Wilson was nominated as the 1912 Democratic candidate for president.
“My father was a hard, fist-fighting Woodrow Wilson Democrat, so Woodrow Wilson was my name,” he says.
Guthrie had an ingratiating modesty. Introducing “The Great Dust Storm” in Newark, he said, “I like to write about wherever I happen to be. I just happened to be in the Dust Bowl…because I was there and the dust was there, I thought, Well, I’ll write a song about it.”