ON APRIL 16,1944, a slight, wiry-haired man with a guitar and harmonica wandered into Moe Asch's little recording studio on West 46th Street off New York's Times Square. His sidekick, who played guitar and sang cowboy harmonies, joined him. They were between merchant marine voyages across the Atlantic, where they dodged U-boats and carried Allied supplies. With tall, lanky Cisco Houston, Woody Guthrie spent days in front of Asch's microphones, spilling out hundreds of the thousands of songs he'd collected or written during the preceding decade.
With Cisco's nasal high harmonies, simple almost haphazard lines running parallel to the melody, and energetic guitar, the duo sounded raw and homey, as if they spent their time playing saloons or roadhouses or dockside taverns. And that, along with a dizzying clutch of union and political rallies, is a lot of what Guthrie had been doing. Bumming around by himself, with Houston, with young Peter Seeger, he incarnated America's mythical wanderlust and noncomformity, lighting out for the territory in ways that inspired generations of road warriors, hitchhikers, trainspotters, pop stars, Beatniks, folk heroes, buddy-movie makers, and con artists.
On and off over the next three years, Guthrie returned to Asch's studio, performing alone and with various partners, as he unspooled the Memorex of material in his head. Asch, whose introduction to folk music was a copy of John A. Lomax's 1910 compendium Cowboy Songs, adored Guthrie. He first recorded Lead Belly in 1941, then watched his circle of artists expand: Pete Seeger, Josh White, Burl Ives. From this grew Folkways Records, whose treasures are regularly reissued on Smithsonian/ Folkways.
By the time Guthrie surfaced at Asch's place, he'd long since been enshrined as the minstrel of the American left. He found his calling in Los Angeles, the highly polarized magnet for Okies during the Dust Bowl. Dust hadn't driven him to LA; family ties and ambition to be an entertainer did. But Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, born in Okemah, Oklahoma, in 1912 on Bastille Day (which he was as proud of as Louis Armstrong was of his claim