American singer-songwriter and folk musician; the “Dust Bowl Balladeer.”
Typewritten Letter Signed, one page, Signed vertically, Woody Guthrie, on lightly-lined beige paper measuring 7 1/2 inches wide by 9 3/4 inches high, March 19, 1946. To the legendary record producer Moe Asch who a year later founded Folkways Records. In the upper left corner he has typed (in upper case): “TWO GOSPEL KEYS / THRASHERS WONDERS.”
The Dustbowl Balladeer gives his opinion of the group that became The Drifters.
Dear Moe and Marian [Distler, Asch’s assistant and co-founder of Folkways Records]:
“My two favorites are ‘CHARITY’ AND ‘I LOVE TRAVELING’ as you might expect. It is more like the soul and heart of all of these street singers I have heard and seen. Of course you would not always find them in the streets, but in the church, or on the parade or little bandstand. This has all of the homey love about it that you hear in a hillside cabin, and this is not always heard after the music comes to town. Is it true that these two Spiritual Keys are over Sixty years each? To me, it is an even tossup, between my liking for Charity and Traveling. I can see no heartfelt difference in them, the same breath moves through the two of them. I would like to see these Two Gospel Keys do some more whole albums together, and you can put me down as a walking talking salesman for our Two Gospel Keys. They are as fresh and clean as the Carter Family at the Carter’s tip top best which is not one out of twenty of their records. So, your average, with the Gospel Keys, could be twenty out of twenty with good breaks in the weather and the road.
“THE THRASHER WONDERS are wonders. They are strong and they try as hard as they know how, but they are very consciously imitating other successful money making singers, and not one out of the group has found his own natural voice, not like the free riding outswinging Gospel Keys. There is monotony and sad repitition on every Wonder side, and I am afraid that I would not give my good money for an album of their things without picking my way through a dozen records to find two good ones. I am not knocking the Wonders down, I hope that I am waking them up to find their own tongues and stop mispronouncing words exactly as the other famous mispronouncers have. At their high spots the wild harmonies are well studied and followed, well practiced and finely done, but the same identical ryme and rythmn on every side is the worst ball and chain. They sound fiery and young, which is all in their favor, and when the new success dies down, they will stand flatter on their feet and sing with more power and plainer voices. It sounds to me like their mispronunciations are a part of a planned attack on the listener, not something that the Two Gospel Keys felt and just had to pour out, take it or leave it. The general voice set up of the Thrasher Wonders is musically fine, harsh and rough, which is good, and they are capable of doing things with more guts. They ought to at least look around for a new way to do each side that they do, instead of draggint the same old pattern so thin and bare. I like Jesus I Love You best, Blind Old Barnabus next, and Noa and Motherless Child last. I would like the chanter best if he chanted alone, as it is his helpers that speak their words in a way that is very nearly onto cooning down to me, and I don’t like to be cooned down to.”
This letter has a real feeling for what it was like to be there at the time when folk music was enjoying a boomlet and artists and producers were scrambling to find and record the most authentic material. Who better as a talent scout than the author of “This Land Is Your Land?”
Though he never graduated from high school and was an indifferent student in the classes that he did attend, Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Guthrie had an ear for language and for music; he loved to read and he loved to write long rambling letters on his manual typewriter. This epistle to Moses “Moe” Asch, the legendary producer of the Folkways label, and a key figure in the rise of folk music in the 1940’s and 50’s and its later revival in the 1960’s, captures the flavor of those exciting, early days, when as collaborators and like-minded social progressives, they worked together both formally and informally to find and preserve authentic American voices.
Asch was the first to record Woody Guthrie’s most famous song, “This Land Is Your Land.” Written in 1940, partly in reaction to “God Bless America” (which Guthrie considered unrealistic and complacent) and partly inspired by his experiences during a cross-country trip, this unofficial national anthem was not recorded until April 1944 when Asch and Guthrie undertook a series of now famous recording sessions. They included the bulk of Guthrie’s original material, including “Dust Bowl Ballads,” “Songs to Grow on for Mother and Child” and “Nursery Days.” They were released under a number of Asch labels (which preceded Folkways) and have been repackaged in recent times in the Smithsonian Folkways label.
Asch, an immigrant from Poland and son of a famous Yiddish author, was an unconventional music producer. He championed artists who he believed represented the truth of the American experience whether or not their songs were popular and whether or not their songs actually even sold. This led to a few bankruptcies and as a result when Asch formed Folkways, he needed his assistant Marian Distler (to whom this letter is also addressed) to front for the label.
On his various labels (Asch, Disc, and Folkways), Asch recorded some of the most seminal artists, including Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lead Belly, Josh White, and Mary Lou Williams. While Folkways Records released about 2,200 albums, some of them sold less than 100 copies a week and some sold less than 500 copies total. Asch’s true interest was in finding and recording the culture and heritage of various ethnic groups.
Woody Guthrie, a witness to the Dust Bowl era and to the migration of thousands of Okies to California looking for work, was embraced by the leftist folk music community when he arrived in New York City in the early 1940s (They called him “the Oklahoma cowboy”). His impact on them was probably greater than theirs on him as his “discovery” led to a brief popularity for folk music in the late 1940s and 50s. Together with the Weavers (organized by Pete Seeger in 1948), Guthrie was responsible for its popularity then and a decade later (after his death) with the folk music revival which is associated with artists inspired by him, such as Bob Dylan.
At the time of this letter, Woody Guthrie had just been discharged from the army and was about to join People’s Songs, a progressive musical association. Reading his opinions about up and coming groups is fascinating, all the more so because he was right. Several years after this letter, members of The Thrasher Wonders did find their own voice, as suggested by Guthrie. They morphed into the doo wop group The Drifters (whose hits in the 1950s included “Money Honey” and “Such a Night”).
Letters of Woody Guthrie with this quality of content are highly unusual.
Framed (in blue inner and outer mats, with a photograph of Guthrie playing the guitar, in a wood frame) dimensions: 25 1/2 inches wide by 19 1/2 inches high.
This item is associated with these categories in our inventory:
- Musicians / Composers