Live Wire: Woody Guthrie in Performance 1949
Douglas Heselgrave's #13 album for 2008
First Appeared in The Music Box, April 2008, Volume 15, #4
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Thu, April 3, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT
Living in the age of American Idol, it’s hard to remember that there ever were people like Woody Guthrie. With his wiry, Brillo-pad hair, diminutive form, and machine-gun guitar style, it’s difficult to imagine him making it past a first audition for the popular television show. Even in Guthrie’s day, however, the Simon Cowells of the world had a hard time with the unkempt folk singer. The music that is captured on the newly discovered Live Wire: Woody Guthrie in Performance 1949 may be only 60-years-old, but it feels as ancient as a Dead Sea Scroll.
To call this newly discovered recording invaluable is to diminish its worth. Live Wire features Guthrie in his prime, doing what he loved best: telling stories and performing songs in front of a captive audience. Although his guitar playing was, at best, rudimentary, and although his rough and unpolished vocals never gave Caruso any sleepless nights, Guthrie was a performer and agitator without equal. Live Wire represents the first time that music lovers have been given the opportunity to hear a complete concert performance from the legendary folk singer, and it is as good as anyone could have hoped it would be.
Like many archival releases, the issuance of Live Wire involved both luck and ingenuity. While cleaning out his closet in 2001, Paul Braverman unearthed two spools that contained a performance by Guthrie, which he had made years earlier with an old, wire tape recorder. Realizing the historical importance of his discovery, he sent them to Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter and the President of the Woody Guthrie Foundation. She understood the significance of what Braverman had sent to her, but it wasn’t until 12 months later that she finally was able to listen to the recordings because there was only one device in the world that could play them. Over the subsequent five years, a lot of time, effort, and technological development went into cleaning and polishing the music to prepare it for public consumption. The result is the exemplary Live Wire: Woody Guthrie in Performance 1949, which comes complete with a 72-page book, featuring rare photographs and background essays. It is a treasure trove of music and memorabilia that will appeal to both novices and Guthrie’s hardcore fans.
Perhaps the best news about Live Wire is that it is so wonderful to hear. Historical importance, in and of itself, is rarely enough to get someone to spend their hard-earned money on an album, but thankfully Braverman’s recording captures Guthrie on a good night, when he was at the peak of his powers. Guthrie’s wife Marjorie was a dance instructor at Newark’s YWCA, and she had organized the performance featured on Live Wire in order to expose people to her husband’s music. Telling stories as if his life depended on it, Guthrie entertained the small gathering with some of the best songs that ever were written. Oblivious to the size of the crowd, he treated the audience to raw renditions of Pastures of Plenty, Tom Joad, Dust Bowl Blues, and many of his other, timeless tunes.
How does one judge Guthrie’s music in 2008? For those with a sense of history, Guthrie was a giant who broke down social and musical barriers as he carried his songs of hope, loss, and redemption to working people around the world. His compositions and concerns are embedded so deeply in 20th Century American mythology that they now are almost invisible.
Guthrie’s material was not designed simply to entertain; his lyrics echoed the anxieties of people whose stories had been etched out of blood, sweat, dirt, and bone. Guthrie’s music has become more than it ever was intended to be, and time has rendered it no easier to provide a critique of his work than it is to offer a commentary upon the Northern Lights, a lunar eclipse, or the Bayeux Tapestry. His songs are the Psalms, Arabian Nights, and Canterbury Tales of the North American working class, and they have become as inseparable from their experience as earth and water.
Live Wire, then, is an indispensable document from one of the most important musical figures of the last century. It really belongs in everyone’s record collection. No matter how many times his songs have been heard, Guthrie remains an inspiration. It is impossible not to fall under his spell.
50th Annual Grammy Award Winner:
Best Historical Album
Of Further Interest...
Live Wire: Woody Guthrie in Performance 1949 is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box