They are down-home recordings, these six old acetate discs with the voice of Woody Guthrie. Some are pretty bad. You can hear a door slam in the background of one.
Yesterday the Bonneville Power Administration turned over to the National Archives the unique records containing 12 Guthrie songs, four of them previously unpublished. The ceremony was brief and brisk. A story goes with it.
Guthrie, beloved author of "This Land Is Your Land," was hired in 1941 to write some songs for a movie about the Bonneville Dam, to be called "Columbia." It was a 30-day job, for which he was paid $266.40. In that time he wrote 26 songs.
They put him in the basement of the power administration building in Portland, Ore., because he would keep banging out his rhythms on the side of his steel desk, and it drove the other workers nuts.
There's "Roll, Columbia," the movie's theme, and "Washington Talkin' Blues," a great find, and "Ramblin' Blues" and "It Takes a Married Man to Sing a Worried Song," all sung to the guitar in that light, fresh, unaccented voice.
He was 28. His application for the job has been rousted out of some file, written in his angular hand. "Dependents: 4, Wife 23, girl 5, girl 3, Boy 1 1/2." That last would be Arlo. He was invited to the ceremony but couldn't make it. Neither could Pete Seeger, who sang folk songs with both father and son.
According to the form, the applicant was 5 feet 7, 125 pounds, physically sound.
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie's first job was as night clerk and porter at $1 per day at the Meadors Hotel in Okemah, Okla., where he was born. He moved up to $3 a day at Marvin Johnson's root beer stand in Pampa, Tex. Then a drugstore, a market, a cowboy band. By 1937 he was singing folk songs on the radio in Los Angeles -- at $1 a day.
The break came in 1940, when he moved to New York to write scripts, act and sing for CBS radio's "American School of the Air," directed by the late Nicholas Ray. The pay went up, to $228 a month and finally to $600 a month. His references casually included actor Will Geer, filmmaker Pare Lorenz and folk song collector Alan Lomax.
"Have you ever been arrested or otherwise charged with a crime or misdemeanor?" the application sternly inquired. Answer: "Yes. Working without city permit. Released next day."
Of the 26 songs, three were used in the film and 12 were recorded. The originals were promptly lost, but three people -- a Bonneville employe, a reporter and a Guthrie fan -- saved copies, and it is these six discs that William Murlin, another Bonneville worker, who sings folk songs himself, dug up. The power administration, now 50 years old, has released an album and book of Guthrie songs.
Parts of "Columbia" and a documentary on Guthrie, who died at 55 in 1967, will be shown at the Archives theater Nov. 12 at noon.
It will be nice to see Woody again: the slight, wiry figure, the lean face, not very well shaven, the clear, kind eyes and the slightly sardonic mouth. And to hear the songs. They sound a little old-fashioned these days, with their working people and their rolled-up sleeves and their jackhammers and their grand rolling rivers and prairies.
He put his anger in there along with the love, and to this day some of his verses are customarily scrubbed out. "We hung every Indian with smoke in his gun ..." -- that's in "Roll On, Columbia," and most Americans have never heard it. He used the word "we" a lot. That's getting to sound old-fashioned too, these days