The Live Wire: Woody Guthrie in Performance 1949

Woody Guthrie

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The Live Wire: Woody Guthrie in Performance 1949 Review

by William Ruhlmann

The Live Wire is the first newly discovered Woody Guthrie recording to be released in many years. It chronicles an appearance by Guthrie in the winter of 1949 at the Jewish Community Center in Newark, NJ. The performance was captured by an audience member on a wire recorder (hence the title), and the recording was donated to the Woody Guthrie Foundation more than 50 years later. After much audio restoration, it emerges here in surprisingly good fidelity, albeit with the disadvantages of amateur recording, such as the abrupt cutoff of "Talking Dust Bowl Blues." This is not a concert per se, so much as a sort of educational presentation in which Marjorie Guthrie, Guthrie's wife, serves as moderator, introducing different aspects of her husband's work, interviewing him, and, with audible effort, reining him in. In some ways, the format is similar to Guthrie's Library of Congress recordings of 1940, in which Alan Lomax interviewed him and requested that he sing various songs. But Marjorie Guthrie is obviously well aware of her husband's tendency to ramble and conscious of keeping things in check; at one point, she asks him to summarize in three sentences, which, of course, he can't do. Elsewhere, she says of "1913 Massacre" that it is self-explanatory and needs no introduction. That doesn't stop Guthrie from going on and introducing it, anyway. The show thus provides insight into the Guthries' marital relationship, even as it also provides Guthrie the opportunity to go over his life story and sing some of his better-known songs. This is the only extant recording of a Guthrie live performance, and it demonstrates what many have said about him as a concert performer, that he was funny and engaging in his rustic manner, as well as presenting compelling music. It can only be hoped that more live Guthrie recordings are moldering in closets somewhere and will emerge eventually.

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