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In rotation: Woody Guthrie's 'Live Wire'

May 27, 2011 |  7:41 am

 A series in Sunday Calendar about what Times writers & contributors are listening to right now...

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The mere existence of this release of Woody Guthrie in concert, recorded at a little auditorium in Newark, N.J., in 1949, is something of a miracle. It also reveals a little-seen side of one of the most important American folk musicians of the 20th century. Recorded by college student Paul Braverman using a wire recorder — an early device that captured sound waves and imprinted that information onto copper wire — the audio document that spawned “The Live Wire: Woody Guthrie in Performance, 1949” was tucked away amid random possessions for 50 years and ended up in a Florida closet.

Braverman found it among his possessions and donated it to the Woody Guthrie Archives in 2001. Not only did the thread of metallic data survive intact, but after an intricate restoration process to fix the wobbly wow-and-flutter distortion due to bends in the copper, Guthrie’s guitar and voice also came out crisp and clear. In 2008, the release won a Grammy for best historical album, but it had gone out of print. Now, thankfully, Rounder has reissued it.

On this recording, Guthrie’s approach is casual and conversational, revealing the so-called Dust Bowl balladeer to be both strong in voice and the consummate entertainer: smart and amiable, offering funny between-song banter and a long, autobiographical greeting to the audience. And that voice: You can hear in it not only the whole of the folk revival of the late ’50s through the ’60s — musicians such as Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and Phil Ochs — but hints of the outlaw country movement of Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle. History never sounded so engaging.

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— Randall Roberts

Woody Guthrie
“The Live Wire: Woody Guthrie in Performance, 1949”
(Rounder Records)

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