The relationship between Woody Guthrie and Folkways Records founder Moses Asch was as rich in love and hate as often exists between devoted paramours. They each had what the other wanted–Asch desired to record “American folk music without frills,” according to Joe Klein in his masterful biography Woody Guthrie: A Life; Woody, who wrote “American folk music without frills,” wanted to make records. Starting in 1940 they did make American folk music without frills, hundreds of songs of all stripes: social protest songs chronicling the plight of lower class Americans; topical songs addressing cultural issues of the day; children’s songs that, as Guthrie authority Guy Logsden has noted, “have helped parents and teachers rear, entertain, and challenge young people for decaides”; documentary songs illuminating the plight of the disenfranchised during the Dust Bowl years and the Great Depression, as well as the batch of songs he was commissioned to write by the Bonneville Power Administration to promote the positive effects of the new Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River.
Guthrie learned of Moses Asch through Alan Lomax while rehearsing the latter’s folk opera (intended for radio broadcast) based on the legendary feuding hill country families, The Martins and The McCoys. Repairing to the small studio on West 46th Street in Manhattan where the Asch Record Company was located, Woody, says Klein, “plopped himself on the floor, and announced, ‘I’m Woody Guthrie,’ as if that was supposed to have some tremendous effect on the dark, burly man sitting at the recording panel/desk of the miniature recording studio/office.
A profile of Moses Asch: ‘A difficult man, a stubborn man…and only a man just like Moses Asch could have done or would have done what he did. And what he did was remarkable: what he did was unprecedented in the brief history of recorded music. He compiled, as Smithsonian Magazine put it, ‘the largest collection of folk music records ever made available to the buying public.’
“‘So?” Moses Asch replied, in typical fashion. He was a grumbly, ersine man with an eclectic cultural background. His father was Sholem Asch, a prominent Yiddish writer, and he had spent much of his youth bouncing back and forth between Europe and America. He’d studied electronics in Germany, was a pioneer in the use of microphones and recording technology, and had fallen in love with American folk music one day in the early 1920s when he’d picked up a first-edition copy of John Lomax’s Cowboy Songs on the Quay in Paris. “It was the words that were always most important,” he’d recall. “More than the music, before I’d even heard the music, the words.”
“Moses Asch considered himself an intuitive judge of talent. He would later claim that he’d never heard of Woody Guthrie before, but sensed his genius from the moment the little man plopped himself down on the studio floor, dressed in what might charitably be called rags, with a berserk mop of hair and a full bear (which he’d cultivated at sea), and, after announcing his name, quickly added: ‘I’m a Communist, y’know.’
“‘I want to make some records.’
“‘When do you want to start?“During the course of the next week or so, Woody and Cisco Houston–joined intermittently by Sonny Terry, Lead Belly, Bess Lomax, and others–committed hundreds of songs to acetate master discs. They included both traditional songs and Woody’s own, and constituted, without doubt, one of the most memorable series of recording sessions in the history of American folk music.”
Woody Guthrie and Sonny Terry, ‘All You Fascists Bound to Lose’ (1944)
By 1950 Asch was pretty much at his wit’s end with Woody, though. In his liner notes to Long Way to Travel: The Unreleased Folkways Masters, 1944-1949, Guy Logsden summarizes up the story of the latter years:
Asch believed that Woody’s escapades with women and his middle class Jewish home life slowly eroded his creativity. He was unaware, as were Woody and (wife) Marjorie, that Huntington’s disease was affecting Woody’s creativity, productivity, and life. Asch placed Woody on his imaginary creative pedestal, and as Woody slowly became less reliable in that relationship, Asch became critical and unsympathetic. Woody’s records also made money for the company, and he wanted Woody to focus his creative attention on projects. Asch’s anger and frustration were vented in a letter to Woody dated October 29, 1950, in which he angrily wrote, “…you fornicating bastard…”–a description that Woody probably took as a compliment.
At that time Asch thought that Woody was running away from life “because he saw no sense, all his work and everything else meant nothing because to him the world hadn’t been changed.” And he believed that Woody wanted to re-live his life when he traveled freely about the country as “a vaga-bond, an individualist, you see. On the Road and Kerouac, the revolution of the young people going on the road, doing their own thing, came later.”
From the documentary To Hear Your Banjo Play, rare footage of Woody performing “Greenback Dollar/East Virginia” (with Baldwin Hawes) and “John Henry” (with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee). This story of Pete Seeger and the birth of banjo music in the south was written by Alan Lomax and directed by Irving Lerner.
The last recordings that Woody made with Asch cannot be considered a serious session. It was late 1953, possibly early 1954; as with so many of Asch’s recordings, there is no session log to indicate the exact date. Woody, Jack Elliott and Sonny Terry had been drinking and decided they needed to record some songs. They went to Asch’s studio with no particular songs in mind. Woody’s arm was stiff from a serious burn that occurred on a trip to Florida; he could barely play the guitar; fortunately, Sonny Terry did not have to tune the harmonica. The tapes are in the Asch/Folkways collection, but not a single song is worthy of publication. Asch became more critical of Woody.
“His arm was stiff. To me, I felt if he had the power and the will, he could use that arm again to play. But he used that arm as a crutch. He would show that he couldn’t move this arm. And I felt that this was a defeatist attitude. I didn’t know about the disease. I felt that he lost a will of positiveness about him, that the great sacrifice of World War II was in vain.”
Woody Guthrie, ‘This Land Is Your Land.’ In his early ‘40s recordings, Woody included the following ‘Copyright Warning’: ‘This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright # 154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do. Currently the copyright in much of Woody’s songs is claimed by a number of different organizations.’
About Woody’s writing style, Asch reflected: “You couldn’t change him, you couldn’t do anything. This was the way he wrote, the way he spoke, and the way he did it. He never changed anything except in the discussion. I’d say that this line does not really mean what I think you want it to mean, why don’t you change it? That was just discussion.” And when questioned about Woody’s performance style, he replied:
“He was more honest with himself than not. Now I saw him put on an act when he could sing to a group of people where he woud become a real professional Okie. I saw that happen, because he felt that the kind of audience–‘this is what they want from me, okay, I’ll give it to them. They weren’t honest with me, I’m not going to be honest with them.’ Very often that happened. He came to New York and I think he felt he had to put on this act in order to get by. But he became much more mature in New York. Yet when he would get before an audience, I saw it–[Okie] professionalism came out. Cisco never gave a damn, never was this, always was against this, and lost out because of that. He helped Woody in the sense that he didn’t have to be a professional folk singer when he had Cisco with him. They could play duets and do whatever they wanted to do as humans.”
Asch’s relationship with Woody was that of a person with whom he could discuss ideas and topics and theories dealing with creativity. He respected Woody’s creativity and saw Woody as a man who “was able to communicate with all strata of society.” His father, Sholem Asch, thought Woody’s song “Jesus Christ” to be “one of the greatest American folk creative songs that had deepest meaning.” But Moses Asch never forgave Woody for falling short of his expectations.
“I think Woody Guthrie was one of the great American poets. And I think as time goes on people will start to realize that he was a poet; he was a great American creative person. I never doubted this from the moment I met him and talked with him, and his discussion with me of how he sees things and what he is doing. There was never, never any question. He knew it; this is great because if you don’t know it and you try to assume it, that’s one thing. But he knew that he himself was this. This is why I hated him when he gave up. When he gave up, you know, you’re a son of a bitch. You’re not allowed to do that. The moment you heard his songs, not the reconstructed old songs, but his creative songs, you knew that this was a man who had some meaning. I don’t know how strong I can make that.”
Woody Guthrie, ‘Jesus Christ’: Moses Asch considered the song Woody’s most political statement.
About Woody’s political views, Asch reflected that “his was a social radicalism.” He believed that Woody’s most political statement was the song “Jesus Christ,” which was “not a destructive song. Woody was not a member of the Communist party; he couldn’t take the regimentation of being told what to do, how to say, and follow a line.”
In 1950, Woody’s home life, creative activities, and health started to fall apart, and he and Asch had limited contact from that time on. Asch was not only disappointed and angered by Woody’s failure to continue being the creative genius producing new material almost daily, but also was concerned that he was losing an income-producing songwriter. Asch did keep Woody’s recordings available for public consumption, and he continued to issue material that he pulled from the files of unreleased masters. Moses Asch played a major role in preserving and disseminating the songs of Woody Guthrie.