Bootleg Woody Guthrie concert restored
February 8, 2008 7:40 PM   Subscribe

... a small, heavy package wrapped in brown paper arrived in the mail at the Woody Guthrie Archives in New York City. Inside was a mess of wires. It wasn't a bomb - it turned out to be the only live recording of Woody Guthrie known to exist. The wire was fragile, bent, stretched and twisted. Jamie Howarth applied some algorithms he had developed to restore old recordings, and the result has been nominated for a Grammy.
posted by dylanjames (43 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
ooh, awesome. thanks for pointing to this!
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 7:45 PM on February 8, 2008

Whoops: Dr. Kevin Short actually developed the algorithms applied by Jamie Howarth in this project.
posted by dylanjames at 7:46 PM on February 8, 2008

And quite a nice explanation of the restoration techniques!
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 7:49 PM on February 8, 2008

Very cool thanks for sharing dylanjames.

Does anyone have any more information on the device(s) that would have originally played this wire?
posted by boubelium at 7:51 PM on February 8, 2008

Wikipedia on wire recordings
posted by !Jim at 7:57 PM on February 8, 2008

Fortunately, math can help.

As someone who probably knows a lot more math than you do, not that I'm particularly good with it, this is very often true. However, like making a deal with the devil, maybe you don't want math's help.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 7:58 PM on February 8, 2008 [3 favorites]

So, are you saying the package wasn't a bomb, but it was the bomb?
posted by papakwanz at 7:59 PM on February 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

boubelium: wikipedia
posted by Sys Rq at 8:00 PM on February 8, 2008

way to preview, Sys Rq
posted by Sys Rq at 8:00 PM on February 8, 2008

I like simple sharp explanations that article provided. Hear hear!
posted by not_on_display at 8:10 PM on February 8, 2008

Whoa. Cool.
posted by rtha at 8:12 PM on February 8, 2008

Many guitarists are wired when they perform.
posted by Tube at 8:14 PM on February 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Magnetic recording and early wire machines are nicely explained in the Video Recorder episode of Tim Hunkin's The Secret Life of Machines. It's in three parts on youtube, part one covers wire recording, including a demonstration of electrical pulses recorded on the blade of a band saw. Here are parts two and three for good measure.

According to Mr. Hunkin, steel wire recorders are still used in airplane black boxes, where their resistance to heat is an important feature.
posted by hydrophonic at 10:26 PM on February 8, 2008

This totally sucks. Now I have to go buy another album. Thanks a lot, dylanjames.
posted by Foam Pants at 11:00 PM on February 8, 2008

Thanks so much for this post!

boubelium: It's really difficult to find sourced and cited-type histories of stuff like this, but I like this history of recording technology site - here's the section on wire recordings. This site may also help explain the playback technology..
posted by ethel at 11:05 PM on February 8, 2008

This has Bobby Zimmerman written all over it.
posted by joe lisboa at 11:06 PM on February 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

I haven't even listened to the music yet and this is amazing.
posted by swift at 11:10 PM on February 8, 2008

Wow, I've never heard of a wire recorder. Very cool!
posted by The Light Fantastic at 11:32 PM on February 8, 2008

Ok, that is cool.
posted by eclectist at 11:43 PM on February 8, 2008

Someone mentioned The Secret Life Of Machines, so now I have to chime in and mention the torrent I made of the whole series, after good-quality iPhone-format episodes of it were briefly made available for download by the Exploratorium.

And yes, this is all perfectly legal. Tim Hunkin wants you to download it.

So you'd better do it right away.
posted by dansdata at 4:20 AM on February 9, 2008 [3 favorites]

Who is that Guthrie guy?
posted by Postroad at 6:17 AM on February 9, 2008

Wow. Better Living Through Technology, definitely.
posted by JanetLand at 6:38 AM on February 9, 2008

Willy Loman's boss had a wire recorder. That's the only other time I've ever heard of one.
posted by GrammarMoses at 6:47 AM on February 9, 2008

This post kills fascists
posted by AdamFlybot at 6:51 AM on February 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

In just sixty years, we've gone from saving folk on wire, to burning metal on water. (Really an amazing story. Music + Math = Awesomeness!)
posted by steef at 7:10 AM on February 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Some more backstory on the recording.
It apparently had sat for decades in the closet of the late Paul Braverman, who was a Rutgers University student when he lugged his recorder to Fuld Hall in Newark one night for a concert by Guthrie.

"He mailed it to the archives in 2001," Guthrie's daughter says. "He was cleaning out his closet because he was moving."
posted by smackfu at 8:31 AM on February 9, 2008

I don't understand how they can publish this let alone be eligible for a grammy. Doesn't the copyright of the recording belong to someone?

On preview the origin isn't a mystery. I guess the copyright would be held by the Braverman estate unless they transfered it.
posted by Mitheral at 8:56 AM on February 9, 2008

This machine fixes concerts that killed fascists. Sweet.

I saw one of Woody's guitars at a local museum. He had his name scratched on the back of it. It was really cool for me to see something that had been used by him, an instrument that helped him change the face of American music.

I think anyone who wonders how well his music translates into the modern world just needs to listen to the Mermaid Avenue albums. It may not be Woody singing, but the lyrics are all his.
posted by caution live frogs at 9:27 AM on February 9, 2008

The most amazing thing here to me is that you youngons have never heard of wire recording. Why, in my day, we didn’t even have wire. We had to record everything on dental floss, and we had to play it back on rocks. And, we liked it.
posted by langedon at 10:00 AM on February 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

What plugin do I need to play these files?
posted by wsg at 11:49 AM on February 9, 2008

/pedant on

What's a "live recording"?

/pedant off
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:51 AM on February 9, 2008

Wow, this is seriously awesome. I had never heard of wire recording. It's like the electromagnetic equivalent of papyrus.
posted by xthlc at 11:54 AM on February 9, 2008

I just got back from a week of stargazing and astronomy, and this is exactly the kind of post one hopes to see upon returning to MeFi from time off.

And to have the music available along with the clips of the music before and after, to boot? Priceless, indeed.

The best kind of post, dylanjames, you did fine with this one.
posted by humannaire at 11:56 AM on February 9, 2008

Wow, awesome story. How great that they guy thought to mail it to the archive and didn't just toss it.
posted by octothorpe at 12:04 PM on February 9, 2008

Bugg quoted Woody with: "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 dont give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, thats all we wanted to do."

I'm not a particularly big fan, but those words above make me love him and his music even though I've never heard Arlo Guthrie play.

Now I don't want to listen to the wire recording in question, for fear it might change my opinion of Woody Guthrie. I like to imagine if he lived today, Woody would lead the charge of storming the RIAA castle, and the big corporate mucketty mucks would all fall to their knees and beg forgiveness, for the sole reason that it was Woody Guthrie staring them down.

I'd rather pretend Woody was definitely much better than his son, and leave it at that.
posted by ZachsMind at 12:24 PM on February 9, 2008

No one has said it, so this is nicely eponysterical.

Cool story. And hydrophonic, thanks very much for those links.
posted by fourcheesemac at 12:32 PM on February 9, 2008

But wait, if music wants to be free, how come the WG archive wants $30 for this thing with a book included? Hun? Can you answer me that? WTF open source culture!
posted by fourcheesemac at 12:33 PM on February 9, 2008

This is amazing. Thanks for posting it.
posted by desuetude at 5:54 PM on February 9, 2008

Little known recording technology factoid #12,671:

Before the advent of mechanical analog recording devices (say, wax cylinder) or analog magnetic recording devices (wire, bands, tapes) - inventors briefly experimented with a crude 4 bit digital recording medium implemented on weaving-loom card readers and mechanical logic devices.

On paper, the theory was brilliant.

However, the velocities required for the punch-cards and hand-tooled brass bits vastly exceeded the thermal dissipation properties of the available materials and technologies.

Which is to say that, indeed, it instantly burst into flames with the brightness of a thousand suns.

The experiment, however, was not a total loss. It was from this research that the concepts of a "data buffer" as well as "parallel processing" were born, in the form of 1,000 specially trained graphical transcriptionists who would each take one piece of a very long pen-plot graph representing the analog data output of a recording, transcribing it efficiently into punchcards.

I'll leave the mechanics of the playback to your imagination, or another time - but I will tell you that, yes, even then nerdy audiophiles of the day complained about the "artifacts" introduced by the segmented, subjective nature of the sampling and transcription.

Can someone please tell me what format the samples are in? Is it quicktime or RealAudio or something? Are they direct-linkable?
posted by loquacious at 6:17 PM on February 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

The samples are in AIFF.

Before Processing.

After Processing.
posted by concrete at 10:34 PM on February 9, 2008

This is great.
posted by OmieWise at 6:45 AM on February 11, 2008

Since no one's mentioned it, it did win the Grammy for Best Historical Album yesterday.
posted by dw at 7:41 AM on February 11, 2008

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