It was on a Friday night that Jeff Place finally heard Woody Guthrie’s missing verse.
This was no small thing. “This Land Is Your Land” is the most storied folk song in American history. The verse, scribbled on paper but never thought to have been recorded by the legendary songwriter, suddenly popped up on one of the endless stacks of Smithsonian Folkways discs that Place screens as curator and senior archivist of the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections.
There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.
Sign was painted, it said private property.
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing.
This land was made for you and me.
Excited, Place ran out of his office at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage to tell someone. Except no one was there.
“Sometimes I get carried away,” Place says with a laugh as he recalls the moment, explaining why he was still at work on a Friday night.
You probably haven’t heard of Place, but it’s likely that you’ve heard his work. Over the past three decades, Place has been the central figure researching, organizing and ultimately releasing the recordings represented in one of the world’s most important collections of 20th- century music. The Rinzler archives includes the 12 record labels now collectively known as Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, with the original Folkways acquisition featuring the key works of Guthrie, Pete Seeger and, of course, Lead Belly. The bluesman’s recordings — “Cotton Fields,” “The Midnight Special,” “Black Betty,” “House of the Rising Sun” — have been covered by countless mainstream artists, including the Animals, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Van Morrison, Led Zeppelin and Nirvana. Place has helped connect the name of the man who inspired those hits with the classic rock blasting out of FM radios.
Since 1989, Place has been producing a stream of Lead Belly releases, rescuing songs from fragile 75-year-old master discs made of glass. He also has been an invaluable resource, whether helping Wilco and Billy Bragg locate Guthrie lyrics for their “Mermaid Avenue” project in 1998 or tracking down obscure African American artists for award-winning author Elizabeth Partridge’s “Marching for Freedom.”
“I’ll tell you one thing,” says Ian MacKaye, the former Minor Threat and Fugazi frontman who has gotten to know Place. “There is no app that can replace that brain.”
This year has been all about Lead Belly, including a 108-song box set produced by Place and Grammy Museum executive director Robert Santelli, a documentary that features Place as an expert and a tribute concert to be held Saturday night at the Kennedy Center with Robert Plant, Alison Krauss, Lucinda Williams and many other performers (see related article).
On a recent weekday, Place stood in the Rinzler vault — a windowless room stacked with recordings from 19th-century wax cylinders to 8-tracks. He carefully slid a glass disc out of a paper sleeve and held it up to show the black film — the area where sound had been recorded — peeling like a bad sunburn. This Lead Belly radio recording, dating to the 1940s, could no longer be played. But there was good news. Place had copied and digitized it years ago.
“You sneeze, and they break,” he says. “The whole idea is you want to take these in and get them out to the public. We don’t want to hoard these things. We want to get this stuff out of this room.”
Place, 60, is a sturdy but not imposing figure. He has a thick beard, but not the trendy sort you might find Jon Hamm modeling in GQ. He’s an easy talker and loves to tell stories, particularly those that offer something unexpected about American history. He grew up in Los Angeles and Falls Church, Va., surrounded by music, a child of the great folk boom of the 1960s. When Place was a boy, his father, a geography professor, and his mother, a librarian who played guitar, took him to see Joan Baez, the Clancy Brothers and Peter, Paul and Mary. At Kenyon College in rural Ohio, Place spent much of his time as a DJ at the campus radio station. One of his shows came on so early every morning that his only requests came from farmers.
In 1979, Place graduated with a psychology degree, but it wasn’t long before he was working at Discount Book and Record Shop in Dupont Circle. (He remained there after it became Olsson’s in the early 1980s.) Eventually, he headed to graduate school at the University of Maryland, studying library science with a specialty in media archives.
“I was tired of making minimum wage,” Place says. “And one of my favorite things in the record store was putting all the records in alphanumerical order. I thought maybe I’d become a music librarian. Maybe I’d end up in Podunk.”
Then, in 1987, the Smithsonian made a deal to buy Folkways after the death of the label’s founder, Moses Asch. Place scored an interview and got the archivist job.
“Folkways was huge,” recalls Tony Seeger, Pete’s nephew and an ethnomusicologist who worked as curator alongside Place until 2000. “Moses Asch had all this artwork very carefully stored and 2,168 LPs. For each of those there was a file. We knew we couldn’t do it in a day, but Jeff’s a fairly unstoppable person. He also brought a pretty good knowledge of American folk music. He knew what it meant when he found something special.”
For Place, identifying an important piece became just the first step. His mission would be to get that music — not only the Folkways material, but also the works from other labels acquired by the Smithsonian over the years — out to the public. There would be such high-profile projects as 1994’s “Woody Guthrie’s Long Ways to Travel: The Unreleased Folkways Masters” or the 1997 reissue of the “Anthology of American Folk Music.” There also would be the more obscure: Banjo compilations. Railroad songs. Even a disc of the sounds of medical procedures.
That’s the beauty of working at a nonprofit. You don’t need hits. You just need to break even.
“And I would say [Place] does not see this as viable in a monetary sense. He sees it as viable in a cultural sense, the mark of a true archivist,” says MacKaye, who remembered Place from his record store days and has since struck up a friendship.
Place never met Asch, who died in 1986, but he does share part of his philosophy. Asch, he learned, wasn’t desperate for hit records. In fact, a hit would disrupt the Folkways formula by putting undue pressure on the label to press and distribute albums. Asch simply wanted to record as much good music as he could and reach those who were passionate about it.
Place feels the same way. Take the way he sequences songs. Historically significant tracks need to be included in a five-disc set. But there’s no reason to lead off with a scratchy acetate.
On the Lead Belly set, for example, the previously unreleased “Been So Long (Bellevue Hospital Blues)” is the 23rd track on the third disc. The set opens with a familiar song, a crisp recording of Lead Belly’s “Irene (Goodnight Irene).”
“You want it to be a pleasurable experience,” Place says. “It’s not like studying. You want somebody to play it and enjoy the whole experience.”
Walking through the Smithsonian offices, Place points out the activity. One person is converting fast-dissolving master recordings; another is scanning slides from a music festival into the computer system. There’s a room where anyone can make an appointment and come in and listen to records. There’s also a disc-burning machine — “the robot,” Place calls it — through which visitors can order discs long out of print that have been digitized, such as the aforementioned “Sounds of Medicine,” a 1955 album featuring “stethoscope sounds” from a variety of ailing patients, as well as the 1982 release “Cable Car Soundscapes.”
Last fall, Place stepped down as full-time archivist to become the Rinzler curator, which is really what he has been doing the past few years. He likes to work out of his house in Mayo, Md., on the Chesapeake Bay, which he shares with his wife, Barrie, and his collection of about 20,000 records.
Still, Place remains the ultimate authority on Folkways and doesn’t sound ready to retire. A Pete Seeger box and book — the third in a trilogy that began with Guthrie in 2012 and Lead Belly this year — should be out in 2016. There’s also work to be done on the music of the banjo-playing lawyer Bascom Lamar Lunsford.
“This is the stuff,” Place says, still wide-eyed as he stands in front of rows of Lead Belly, Guthrie and Seeger masters. “You look in this room. All these tapes, these records. Every one of them has a story. Every time you take one out and copy it, you’re in for it.”
Lead Belly at 125:
A Tribute to an American Songster
April 25 at 8 p.m. at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, 2700 F St. NW. Tickets: $29-$99. 202-467-4600. www.kennedy-center.org.