This is a guest post by AFC acquisitions coordinator, Todd Harvey.
“Big things come in small packages,” they say. I coordinate acquisitions for the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and I can attest to the wisdom of this adage. Our archive accessions about a quarter-million items annually and they range from the invisible—most are digital files—to the tangible, without direct correlation between research value and fixed form. Similarly, some collections are vast and some are not, but all add to the ornate tapestry of expressive culture documentation that comprises the Folklife Center archive.
A small package arrived last week containing ten 12-inch instantaneous discs. They had been obtained in a Portland, Oregon, estate sale by a local record collector. They appear to be recordings of Woodrow Wilson Guthrie singing such classics as “Pastures of Plenty,” “Roll on Columbia,” “Columbia Talking Blues,” and seven others. In my estimation they are heretofore lost discs from Guthrie’s 1941 recording session in Portland.
The session dates from a well-known part of Woody’s songwriting career. Hired by the Bonneville Power Authority (BPA) to provide music for a film about the nearly completed Grand Coulee Dam, Woody spent a month musing about the Columbia River, mentally tracing the canyons that would soon be flooded, articulating the dam’s meaning to this dry Northwest region. He claims to have written 26 songs, a handful of which he recorded at the BPA offices in Portland, Oregon.
Here is the tricky part, the caveat that always accompanies this type of material. Instantaneous discs require specific playback styli to avoid damage. Library of Congress standards demand that discs only be played by a trained engineer for preservation purposes. Before listening, our processing archivists need to rehouse and catalog. The discs will then be moved from Capitol Hill to the National Audiovisual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Virginia, where they will be digitized.
Once they are digitized, scholars can listen and determine, for example, if we have three new versions of “Pastures of Plenty” to discuss. At this point, however, we know the basic provenance. A noted authority was consulted and agreed that they looked like originals or near-original copies of Woody’s Bonneville Power Authority recordings. We know what is written on the discs. Was it worth the effort? What do you think?