His Songs are Our Songs: NEDCC Conserves Woody Guthrie Scrapbooks

In anticipation of this summer’s 100th birthday celebration of Woody Guthrie, the Northeast Document Conservation Center, in concert with the Woody Guthrie Archives, (curated by Guthrie’s daughter Nora) began the process of conserving and digitizing (made possible though a grant by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS)) six of Guthrie’s scrapbooks and notebooks. The process of conservation included cleaning, digitizing and encapsulation.

Woody Guthrie publicity photograph for his 1943 autobiography, Bound For Glory. New York, 1942.
Woody Guthrie publicity photograph for his 1943 autobiography, Bound For Glory. New York, 1942. Photograph by Robin Carson. Encapsulation of photographs and fragile scrapbook pages in polyester film provides excellent protection during handling.
One of Woody Guthrie’s notebooks from 1952.
One of Woody Guthrie’s notebooks from 1952. Nora Guthrie, Woody Guthrie’s daughter and Archives Director, personally delivered materials from the Woody Guthrie Archives to the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, MA, for conservation treatment and digitization.

These materials showcase the ideas, illustrations, and songwriting techniques of one of America’s musical treasures. All of these items are in Guthrie’s own handwriting and include lyrics, poetry, artwork, and photographs with handwritten captions. These books captured road trips that Guthrie and his family took through Oklahoma, Texas, California, Florida, and New York. The scrapbooks date back to the 1940’s and 1950’s and even include rejection letters from major record labels.

NEDCC’s process for conserving the scrapbooks included the removal of photographs for cleaning. Found on the back side of these were handwritten captions that shed light on the setting and subjects of the photos. “It has changed the way we research,” says Guthrie Archivist Tiffany Colannino. “And solved more than a few mysteries,” she added. The condition of some of the volumes was so poor that researchers at the Guthrie Archives had not been able to fully examine them. Through conserving these scrapbooks, NEDCC conservators were able to introduce new resources to the Guthrie Archives’ collection.

Included in this set was a 230-page book that contained details about Guthrie’s 27-year stay in New York City and his friends, associates, and collaborators there including Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, Allan Lomax, and Sonny Terry. This scrapbook is now a cornerstone of a book project from Nora Guthrie and the Woody Guthrie Archives entitled My Name is New York: Ramblin’ Around Woody Guthrie’s New York Town; A Walking Guide that is slated to be published by PowerHouse Books in May, 2012.

With Woody Guthrie’s indelible influence on making music to bring about change, successors like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Bruce Springsteen have kept his message alive and with this conservation project and the resulting archival discoveries, more artists will continue to follow in Woody Guthrie’s footsteps.

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