Saturday, January 27, 2007

Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly at WNYC

A few days ago I received a forwarded message from Eli Smith of the radio program Down Home Radio. He hosts the show on WNYC radio in New York, along with Henrietta Yurchenco. The message read, in part:

"My co-host on the show, Henrietta Yurchenco sent me down to the WNYC archives a while back where archivist Andy Lanset gave me the transcription of a program which Henrietta was the producer for back in 1940. It is Leadbelly's show and his guest that week was Woody Guthrie. It's really a great show, about 1/2 hour long, and the audio fidelity is so good that it really gives you a taste of what it must have been like to turn on your radio and have these two great musicians playing live over the air. I don't believe this program has been heard since it was first broadcast 67 years ago."

Eli sent out the note to his own distribution list, and fortunately one of the recipients forwarded it on to me. But I was busy, whatever, I didn't follow up.

So, last night I got another forwarded message, this one from writer Elijah Wald. Again, I'm not on Wald's list, but fortunately one of the recipients was kind enough to forward.

Well... Eli's not kidding.

This show is just astounding, to me.

It comes, in surprisngly good quality, just out of nowhere. With Henrietta, the original producer, around 67 years later and with specific recall of it. Leadbelly and Woody, together in the studio. And, of course, Guthrie's 3-song set.

When I reserached my "Songs of the Seeger Sessions" website last year, I spent a lot of time unsuccessfully trying to track down a Guthrie recording of Billy Gashade's "Jesse James" (Woody recorded a different song of the same name). And here it was, sitting in someone's closet for half a century or more.

Woody's lyrics are interesting: no "solitary race" verse, his wife didn't mourn for his life; "Jesse's got a wife, she's proud of his life." And it's pretty much all about the Robinhood angle. "Jesse was a man, a friend to the poor, and he never would rob a mother with a child. But he took it from the rich and he gave it to the poor, so they shot Jesse James on the sly."

Guthrie's intro to "Jesse James" is priceless:
"Here's one about a boy way out in Missouri, way out West, he ranged all over the Western states, and he built up I guess a better reputation than most politicians out in that country. His name was Jesse James. He tried to shoot his way through life with a couple guns, and he lost... but he tried."

Guthrie's other two songs on the original show were "John Hardy" and "Ballad of Tom Joad," so a lot of that melody surrounding "Jesse James."

Then there's the rest of the archive beyond the original 1940 broadcast, with "They Laid Jesus Christ in his Grave" (Library of Congress recording, I think), and two songs of Leadbelly and Woody playing together. Stay for "We Shall Be Free," with Sonny Terry also joining in.

The show is available for download at

Have a listen, and enjoy!

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