[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to “Vinyl Prayers,” John Modern’s portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]
Recently, while doing archival research on a book project, I read a 1946 letter from Woody Guthrie to Folkways Records founder Moe Asch, in which the singer complains that he lacks the type of phonograph that would allow him to stack up a bunch of 78s rather than have to reload and reset the device every time a record finishes playing. It’s a tiny point in a much longer letter about the wealth of projects Guthrie has underway. Still, one feels tempted, as a scholar, to transform even such a small moment (the smaller the better, some might be inclined to say) into something else, into significance. It tells us Guthrie wasn’t well off, even after he’d recorded his most famous songs. It tells us he was really busy and productive in this period between his military service and the onset of the Huntington’s Disease that would end his career in a few years. It tells us that listening to music fueled his productivity. For a figure of Guthrie’s status, a figure so obviously worth studying, everything is important, so this must be. In a broader historical narrative, his letter might also tell us something about leisure, masculinity, and the impending success of the LP.