Beyond the Archives

by Thomas Conner


Woody Guthrie wrote songs, poems, essays, newspaper columns, letters, diaries, you name it. Writing was a compulsion for him. His paper trail is a long one, and the pile that is The Woody Guthrie Archives is tall and impressive.

While the archives have most of Woody’s papers and effects, there’s still more out there.

The Archives of Folk Culture at the Library of Congress, for instance, contains correspondence between Woody and folklorist Alan Lomax from the 1940s, plus a few lyrics and essays, as well as the famous first recordings Lomax made of Woody singing his songs (available commercially as “The Library of Congress Recordings”).

The Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage has its own set, called The Woody Guthrie Papers, which includes typed song lyrics, some letters, drawings, newspaper clippings, and other items from the collection of Moses Asch, another music hound who recorded Woody (released a few years ago in a great box set, The Asch Recordings, Vols. 1–4 ).

Outside of institutions and Woody’s children, the other two major collections are in the hands of Mary Jo Edgmon, Woody’s sister who lives in Seminole, and Barry Ollman, a collector in Colorado. Ollman has lectured before at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival about collecting Woody; he’s also working with Edgmon on a book documenting her collection of letters from Woody.

Ollman has Woody’s annotated copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam  plus some other documents, including a handmade songbook. He also has one of Woody’s oil paintings—a rarity, indeed—depicting a pueblo in Santa Fe. He’s loaned that and other items to the exhibit “Woody at One Hundred: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Celebration 1912–2012” which as on display through April 29 at Tulsa’s Gilcrease Museum.

As far as other non-paper artifacts—like, say, guitars—well, there’s not much. Ollman says he has a friend who owns two guitars traceable to Woody, but adds, “None of the ‘This Machine Kills Fascists’ guitars have shown up.”

“Woody didn’t save a lot of stuff,” Nora Guthrie said. “He bought his guitars in pawn shops, and he didn’t hang onto them. He didn’t have a Lucille. We’re talking about a philosophy. A guitar to him was a tool, a weapon. It wasn’t about being a guitar player. He just needed something to pluck and strum on to get his ideas down.”

Nora knows of only three guitars. One of them Woody left behind with a friend, actor Eddie Albert, when he moved from Los Angeles to New York in 1940. Late in life and in poor health, Albert contacted Nora seeking to sell the guitar as a means of raising money. Nora didn’t have the money, but the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame bought it.

Another guitar is owned by a private collector in California. The third, Nora says, was just discovered.

“A guy contacted me two weeks ago,” Nora said in early February. “He’s in a folk club in Iowa. He said, ‘Your mom visited us a bunch in the ’80s.’ She apparently brought a guitar from the house and gave it to them. He says, ‘I have your family guitar up on the wall.’ I said, ‘Uh, is it nailed to the wall?!’ ”

This being a celebratory, centennial year, collectors are surfacing en masse and hawking their Woody wares for exorbitant prices, said Woody Guthrie Archives curator Jorge Arevalo.

“It’s high time in Woody Guthrie world,” he said, “and materials are showing up on auction sites from people we hadn’t been tracking. It’s only February, and I’ve got half a dozen hits on new objects. One document is a heartbreaking letter Woody wrote in 1956 while in the Brooklyn State Hospital talking about divorce. On an emotional level, the content of the letter is staggering. It’s offered for $12,500.”