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“Roll On, Columbia”: Newly-discovered Woody Guthrie discs acquired by AFC

This is a guest post by AFC acquisitions coordinator, Todd Harvey.

Close up of label for instantaneous disc recording of "Ballad of the Grand Coulee Dam" by Woody Guthrie. Text on typed label reads "Ballad of the Grand Coulee Dam (Woody Gutherie)".

Label for the instantaneous disc recording of “Ballad of the Grand Coulee Dam” by Woody Guthrie. Photo by Todd Harvey.

A photo featuring American Folklife Center acquisitions coordinator, Todd Harvey, taking posession of a package containing several rare Woody Guthrie recordings. He and another Library staff member are standing in the loading dock at the Library of Congress. Photo by John Fenn.

Todd Harvey receives the package of Guthrie recordings at the Library of Congress loading dock. Photo by John Fenn.

“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.

Photo depicting Todd Harvey opening the package in order to inspect its contents prior to sign a docment acknowledging receipt. Photo by John Fenn.

Harvey inspects the contents of the Guthrie package prior to signing in order to accept delivery. Photo by John Fenn.

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?

Photograph of a full disc from the collection of ten. Photo by Todd Harvey.

One of the ten discs that form this important collection. Photo by Todd Harvey.


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