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[Detail] Woody Guthrie

Early Radio and Recording Industries

Radio signals were first transmitted by an Italian man named Guglielmo Marconi in 1895, but it wasn't until the 1920s that commercial broadcasting emerged. Similarly, Thomas Edison made the first recording of a human voice in 1877, but it wasn't until the early twentieth century that the technology had advanced enough to make commercial recordings possible. Letters in this collection, dating primarily from the 1940s, reflect the radio and recording industries when they were still relatively new.

Several letters discuss radio programs in which both Guthrie and Alan Lomax were involved. School of the Air, for example, was a program on CBS for which Lomax produced a series called American Folk Songs and Wellsprings of Music. As host, Lomax sang and discussed folk music and presented other performers, including Guthrie. Lomax went on to produce a nightly program for CBS called Back Where I Come From, which featured folk tales, proverbs, prose, and sermons, as well as songs.

Search on radio, School of the Air, and Back Where I Come From for relevant materials such as Lomax's February 4, 1941 letter to Guthrie and Guthrie's composition called The Railroad Cricket, which is thought to have been written for a broadcast of Back Where I Come From.

  • What was Guthrie's role on Back Where I Come From?
  • What can you tell from these letters about what Back Where I Come From was like?
  • What impression do these materials give you about what radio might have been like in general in the early 1940s? How was it different from radio today?
  • How did these programs about folk music impact the recording of commercial folk music?

On February 15, 1941, Guthrie wrote to Lomax from California about why he left New York City and his plans to work on a radio program in Los Angeles. At the same time, he shared some criticisms of the radio industry:

"Give our regards to the cast in New York. Hope they are all in good circumstances with a sponsor that likes them good as we do and one that believes in freedom of speaking.... I couldn't see to save my neck any immediate prospect of a commercial there. The fifteen minutes was a little packed. The elevator run too straight up and straight down and the studio had too many radioactivities in it, and so I ducked off down across the southern states to get a first hand look at what's going on, and lit here in L.A.... With every invention of modern times turned against them, the people sing their song just the same as they ever did. Everywhere you go they tell you they don't believe what you hear on your radio.... as far as soaking up all of this war scare and bloody talk and hooray stuff —, they've had hard luck enough to wake them up and put them away above that stuff - that comes from great big overgrown rich folks. They control everything that's said and done on every single radio.... We'll have some real honest to goodness singing and playing on the air waves some of these days, when the real peoples songs and programs can be broadcasted instead of what we have got now."

From Letter from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax, February 15, 1941 (pages 1 and 2).

  • What problems did Guthrie have with the radio and recording industries?
  • What were his opinions of radio sponsorship?
  • According to this letter, why did Guthrie leave the radio program in New York City?
  • Why do you think that Guthrie felt that the radio was "turned against" the people?
  • According to his letter written in the fall of 1940, how did Guthrie like the experience of performing for a radio broadcast at CBS?
  • What do you think Guthrie hoped to accomplish through radio programs?
  • What do you think Lomax hoped to accomplish through radio programs?

Broadcasting companies such as CBS and BBC were also the companies that produced sound recordings. For example, CBS, or the Columbia Broadcasting System, started out as the Columbia Phonograph Co., which produced its own commercial recordings in addition to selling phonographs and cylinders. Search on recording for 17 letters including a full recording contract between Guthrie and the RCA Manufacturing Company. Readers will also find letters that Guthrie wrote to two companies, Victor and Columbia, pitching the idea of a record of war and work songs.

  • What did RCA get out of its contract with Guthrie?
  • What did Guthrie get out of this contract?
  • What were some of the restrictions that Guthrie accepted as part of this contract?
  • Do you think that this contract made a fair exchange between RCA and Guthrie?
  • How are recording contracts different today?
  • Do artists still pitch ideas to recording companies the way Guthrie did in 1942?
  • What do Guthrie's letters to Victor and Columbia suggest about what he saw as the potential of the radio and recording industries?

Other letters reveal that the Federal Government was also an important record producer. In a memo to another Library of Congress employee, Lomax requests that blank records and cutting needles be sent to Guthrie so that he could record his own songs. In another letter, Lomax requests Guthrie's permission to use a recording of his song "Gypsy Davy" on a new album of American ballads that the Library was producing:

"Our fee to singers for permission to use their material is a flat $10.00 per side, which is hereby offered to you with apologies understood. I sincerely believe that this will not compete with your commercial records, even if you decide to record the same song for commercial companies, and I hope you will feel able to tell us to go ahead. If not, I will understand perfectly the reasons why you decided not to."

From Letter from Alan Lomax to Woody Guthrie, January 21, 1942 (page 1).

  • How were sound recordings made in the early 1940s? What kinds of materials and technology were used?
  • What did Lomax mean when he wrote Guthrie that he was making his offer with "apologies understood?"
  • Why does Lomax think that Guthrie might not allow the Library to use "Gypsy Davy" on their new record?
  • What other government agency is mentioned in these letters as having recorded Guthrie's songs? How were these recordings used?
  • Why might the government have been one of the earliest producers of sound recordings?
  • What might this suggest about early concepts of the value of sound recordings?