On June 14, 2012, America celebrated what would have been Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday. It would be difficult to name another figure as prominent in early folk music as Guthrie. Over his relatively brief career he penned somewhere around 3,000 songs, including the famous “This Land is Your Land.” This single track is held in such esteem that Smithsonian Folkways, the Smithsonian Institute’s nonprofit music label, refers to it as “America’s second national anthem.” As was commonplace in his era, Guthrie recorded most of his songs intermittently as he trekked across the country, taking breaks from busking in bus stations to appear on local radio shows or pop in to small recording studios. Thus, on the occasion of his 100th birthday, music archivists sought to produce a collection of Guthrie’s recordings that spanned his full career.
“Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection” features 3 CDs with 57 tracks, including 21 performances that had not been previously recorded. In addition, the collection comes with a large coffee table book that contains photos, art, and other unearthed images from Guthrie’s life. In the process of compiling the collection, the music archivists stumbled upon 6 original songs from 1939—likely Guthrie’s earliest recordings—that had never been heard in any previous recording.
At the center of the production of “Woody at 100” is Jeff Place, a specialist in sound archives who also edited the accompanying book. Place is a Grammy-winning music archivist who has served on the Preservation and Technology Committee for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and is currently an archivist for the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. He has produced a number of Woody Guthrie collections and has worked on 38 CDs for Smithsonian Folkways.
Trained in library science as an audio specialist, Place represents a small but essential group within the recording arts field. When people ask, what is recording arts?, they tend to expect answers having to do with popular musicians and flashy studio work. This is certainly a fair assumption, but archival work requires many of the same skills as modern audio mixing. In the case of “Woody at 100,” Place had to sift though archived records and see to it that they were represented on the new CDs in their best quality. Unlike most of today’s music, many early recordings were done with one microphone and thus one track. As a result, working with most folk and blues recordings of the early 20th century requires a different set of technological skills than working with modern multi-track production.
Thus, while most people trained in the recording arts work with modern music, TV, film, and video games, the small amount of those who are music archivists play a central role in preserving not only our music, but also our cultural identity. “Woody at 100” makes sure that the memory of Woody Guthrie stays alive and well in the American consciousness.