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Thursday, August 6, 2009

A folk revival

Unearthed in a Brooklyn basement, a trove of Woody Guthrie recordings will see the light in a new four-CD collection - and he’s never sounded better
By Joan Anderman, Globe Staff | August 2, 2009

The phone call came late on a Friday night, five summers ago, during the final innings of a Red Sox game. It was Boston artist manager Michael Creamer’s cousin on the line, calling to quiz him about the music business.

“It was weird,’’ says Creamer. “We’re relatives. We don’t talk about business.’’

Weird, indeed. It turns out Creamer’s cousin had a friend, Lucia Sutera, who had inherited the remains of a 1940s record label from a neighbor in her Brooklyn apartment complex, an elderly woman named Irene Harris to whom she’d shown small kindnesses through the years. The label, as it were, was a collection of cardboard barrels with screw tops sitting in a wired-off storage bin in the building’s basement. Sutera didn’t know much about the barrels’ contents, only that Harris had mentioned shortly before her death in 1999 that somewhere down there, in and among the stacks of metal masters made for Stinson Records, were unreleased recordings by Woody Guthrie.

Half a decade later - years filled with diligent detective work, careful cataloguing, and painstaking restoration - “My Dusty Road,’’ a four-CD collection of what are widely considered the finest-sounding Guthrie recordings ever heard, is being released by Rounder Records. The set will be available in stores and online Aug. 25.

“It was as if he was a few feet away,’’ says Woody’s daughter Nora Guthrie, of hearing the recordings for the first time. “Truthfully, for years I never got why Woody himself was such a popular performer. They’re good songs, but on recordings his voice always sounded muffled. It’s like I’m able to hear it for the first time now, and it all makes sense to me.’’

Roughly 2,000 metal discs were found in Irene Harris’s storage bin. About 150 of those are Woody Guthrie recordings, and the rest are by a host of folk, blues, and jazz artists who recorded for the Stinson label, among them Lead Belly, Art Tatum, Mary Lou Williams, and Burl Ives. Many of the metal discs were in pristine condition when Doug Pomeroy, a renowned sound restoration and mastering engineer, went to work transferring the Guthrie songs to his computer hard drive. Pomeroy points out that while recordings of a similar vintage are typically stored vertically on shelves in temperature- and humidity-controlled vaults, the Stinson collection could have wound up in far worse places than the basement of 78 Eighth Ave.

“Metal parts are nickel-plated and if you don’t get them wet or bend them, they don’t deteriorate by themselves,’’ Pomeroy says. “They must have been stored in piles, like pancakes, but most were not damaged - except for the scratched discs. We still don’t know who did it or why, but it was absolutely intentional. Every one is scratched exactly the same way.’’

A third of the Stinson collection, including about a quarter of the Guthrie masters, was deliberately damaged by someone who presumably didn’t want the recordings to see the light of day - or their owner to see a penny in profits. Like much of Stinson’s history, it’s likely to remain a mystery.

‘Wow. He’s here.’
The first thing Michael Creamer did when he hung up the phone with his cousin, Jim Farrow, was scour the Internet for information about Stinson Records. He didn’t find much.

The Asch/Stinson company was formed in the early 1940s by Herbert Harris (Irene’s father-in-law, who owned a store called the Stinson Trading Co. in New York’s Union Square) and Moe Asch (a music business entrepreneur who would later found the Folkways label, now part of the Smithsonian Institution). The partnership only lasted for a few years, but during that time they released numerous significant recordings. After the split, both Asch and Harris, and later Harris’s son Bob, continued to issue albums from the same recording sessions, and controversy over ownership of many titles persisted for years.

With all of the key players now deceased, Creamer came to manage the resuscitation of the Guthrie recordings in much the same way he manages the careers of rock musicians on his client roster. He helped Sutera create an inventory of the metal masters, and with her blessing began to put together an informal team to decipher the content, ownership, and value of the Stinson collection. Jonathan Horn, an attorney with extensive knowledge of the folk world, introduced him to Nora Guthrie, who runs the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives in New York, and Matt Barton, a Cambridge native who was retained to research the company’s history. (Barton is now curator of recorded sound at the Library of Congress.)

Several names of relatives surfaced, but nobody knew who owned Stinson. Moreover, owning Stinson didn’t translate to owning the masters, as both the business arrangement and the buyout terms were ambiguous. A half a century had passed, and the paper trail had long since gone cold.

“The whole thing is a puzzle,’’ says Barton. “It’s not quite like trying to figure out how [blues legend] Robert Johnson died, but there is a ‘Da Vinci Code’ aspect to it.’’

Jeff Jones, then president of Columbia’s Legacy label and now CEO of Apple Corps, suggested they visit Pomeroy, who works in a studio in the attic of a Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, brownstone. That’s where a small group that included Creamer, Farrow, Sutera, and Barton gathered on an April afternoon in 2005 to listen to the original metal masters - which are mirror images of a pressed record, and have to be played backward - for the first time. Pomeroy cued up two familiar songs: “Hard Travelin’ ’’ and “This Land Is Your Land.’’ The sound that came from Pomeroy’s speakers was, by all accounts, remarkable.

“Wow. He’s here,’’ were Nora Guthrie’s first words.

“Everyone’s mouth just dropped,’’ Creamer recalls.

“Woody sounds like the young man he was,’’ says Barton. “That alone is a revelation.’’

Then they listened to a disc marked “Bad Repetation,’’ dated May 19, 1944, which had never appeared on an album or a field recording. It’s likely that no one had heard the song for 60 years.

While most of the unearthed Guthrie recordings are already in print, half a dozen of the 54 tracks on “My Dusty Road’’ are alternate versions that have never been issued. “Bad Repetation’’ - a humorous song whose lyrics were included in two of Guthrie’s late-1930s songbooks, suggesting the tune was a crowd-pleaser - is the one true find.

Pomeroy transferred three complete songs onto a reference CD, and Creamer played them for numerous music industry colleagues, among them Scott Billington, vice president for A&R at Rounder Records, which has issued a handful of Guthrie albums over the years. Billington’s boss, Rounder cofounder Bill Nowlin, was familiar enough with the dismal quality of previous Stinson albums that he didn’t want to take 15 minutes out of his day to listen. Pomeroy hypothesizes that a wartime shortage of good vinyl and strict rationing of shellac may have been a cause, or that Harris and Asch wouldn’t or couldn’t spend the money for better materials.

‘Commitment to tradition’
Nowlin did eventually listen, and the Rounder team shortly set to work licensing the songs for release. Lucia Sutera died in 2007, and with no other valid claim so far to the collection, ownership is now in the hands of Sutera’s partner, Marilynn Rantinella, to whom it was bequeathed.

Billington came up with the idea for four themed CDs: Woody’s Roots (traditional songs), Woody the Agitator (protest and political songs), Woody, Cisco, and Sonny (tracks recorded during a jam session with Cisco Houston and Sonny Terry), and Woody’s Greatest Hits (“This Land Is Your Land,’’ et al). Guthrie historian Ed Cray was brought on to help select songs and co-write the liner notes, and once the songs were selected Nora Guthrie threw open the Guthrie Archives’ doors.

Many unpublished photos and artifacts have been reproduced for the box set - a replica of a vintage suitcase - including a booking notice for a 1947 children’s party, a business card that identifies Guthrie as “Woody, Th’ Dustiest of the Dustbowlers,’’ as well as a 68-page booklet with Guthrie’s artwork and illuminated lyric sheets. Rounder is releasing vinyl LPs of the individual discs on “My Dusty Road,’’ and the tracks will also be available for download at iTunes. The label is planning to issue still more Woody Guthrie music as 2012, the 100th anniversary of the folk hero’s birth, draws near.

Guthrie is an American icon, and “My Dusty Road’’ is certainly distinguished by its unprecedented audio quality. Yet as this new collection takes its place among the dozens if not hundreds of reissues, packages, and compilations that have preceded it, one has to wonder if there’s a saturation point. In terms of commercial viability, the answer is yes, and Rounder knows it. The label has manufactured a modest run of 10,000 box sets, which can be pre-ordered at for $75.99.

“There are many things we might have done in life if the best return for our investment was our only goal,’’ says Nowlin. “It’s a commitment to tradition.’’

Nora Guthrie’s motives run still deeper. As caretaker of her father’s legacy, she’s worked to keep Woody’s work relevant for people outside the traditional folk culture, getting his unpublished lyrics into the hands of artists like Wilco and Billy Bragg, the Klezmatics, and Jonatha Brooke, and hiring 20-somethings to work at the Archives who will become the next generation of Woody Guthrie scholars. She gets plenty of unsolicited help from devotees like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, and a host of punk bands that continue to shine a light on Guthrie as a seminal storyteller and uncompromising political activist.

“You have to keep enlivening the ideas and making sure the material is available to every new generation,’’ Guthrie says. “If kids discover Woody without their parents telling them about it, it belongs to them.’’

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