Guthrie performing live in 1949: a slice of musical and social history.
Sid Smith 2011
Despite Guthrie’s status as one of the greatest politically conscious troubadours of all time, and the influential shadow he cast across Bob Dylan and beyond, his actual music can sound remarkably ephemeral. It’s almost like it’s become lost, buried beneath piles of high-profile tributes and accolades that have accrued around the man and his surrounding myth.
Caught on a device better suited to office dictation than capturing music – an analogue wire recorder, hence the title – these live recordings from 1949 (available originally in 2007, but here enjoying a far wider release) have been painstakingly rescued from over 60 years of accumulated lo-fi murk. Yet whatever the sonic limitations imposed on them, these songs are brimming with attitude, Guthrie’s compelling brand of simple, direct storytelling coming across loud and clear.
Of equal volume here is the voice of his second wife, Marjorie Mazia. Reminiscent of an overly fussy school mistress, her crisp diction as she introduces each tune contrasts starkly with her husband’s colloquial tale-spinning. There’s a discernible tension when Guthrie wilfully ignores his wife’s requests to keep his own explanations short, or contradicts her interpretation of a song’s meaning.
That this couple hail from two different worlds of experience and upbringing is of no concern to an enthralled audience. Keen to connect with a certain time and place, which even by 1949 had been eroded by modernity just as surely as the soil of Woody’s childhood Oklahoma had been blown away on the wind, they hang on every utterance, be it spoken or sung.
Part public speech, part concert, there’s an unmistakably flinty determination evident in that fragile voice as it trails out across sketchy chords and wavering melodies. The educational agenda presented here is occasionally cumbersome, and as a result this wouldn’t be the most obvious disc to reach for when it comes to accessing Guthrie’s legacy. That said, its relative rarity until now, and intrinsic value as a slice of social history, makes this a welcome release.