Most historians start off not with a rich vein of sources, but with some basic information and a hunch. That is where historical imagination makes its entrance.
R.G. Collingwood’s turn of phrase “historical imagination” means not fabricating, not exaggerating, but thinking creatively through what a historical figure or group might have thought or done.
In order to form a hypothesis about any event, we must first imagine what might have happened and what kinds of sources were left behind as evidence. In a way, my own recent 15 minutes of fame were a product of just such a flight of historical fancy.
It began when I was a Ph.D. student in USC Dornsife in the late 1990s taking Professor of History Steven Ross’ seminar. I was formulating my plan for dissertation research and had decided that it would include examining Woody Guthrie’s time in Los Angeles back in the 1930s. I wondered whether the political folksinger had left behind a phonograph or two while in L.A. I knew Guthrie had had a short-lived radio program and that he had most likely become politically active while in L.A.
Could Guthrie have left something behind?
My daydreams about a rich trove of recordings persisted. I imagined Guthrie making one of those mammoth 16-inch radio transcription disc recordings that were common for radio performers before and during World War II. I pictured it sitting undiscovered in an attic somewhere. Glendale? The Westside? East L.A.?
Then, doubt set in. There was evidence that Guthrie wrote columns in at least three separate political newspapers, but it seemed likely that, if he had recorded something here, it would have surfaced by then.
Still I pressed on. Professor Ross suggested I check out the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, not too far from campus, which holds a rich archive of material related to progressive politics in L.A. I contacted the library, viewed some of its materials, but didn’t uncover anything solid. But through a librarian there, I met Harry Hay.
The one-time labor activist had known Guthrie and had later gone on to help found a major and early gay rights organization.
I interviewed Hay at his home in West Hollywood. He had some recollection of a friendship among Guthrie, actor Will Geer and himself, but his memories were fuzzy. No dice, I thought. And then I threw out the question:
“Do you know if Woody Guthrie ever recorded anything while he was here in Los Angeles?” Hay drew a deep breath.
“Yes,” he said. Guthrie had made a set of demonstration recordings on two 10-inch discs while in L.A.
Hay had donated two discs among a larger of collection of commercial 78-rpm phonographs to the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research some years ago.
I made a beeline to South Central and spent a few hours looking through stacks of dusty records. Lo and behold, I found the recordings. The library staff was unaware that Guthrie’s music had been originally donated with Hay’s record collection. With this new discovery, the library was ready to preserve the two lacquer-aluminum discs in a special archive.
The recordings by Guthrie were made in L.A., most likely in 1939. The four songs on these two discs — Skid Row Serenade, Big City Ways, Ain’t Got No Home and Do-Re-Mi — have proved to be Guthrie’s oldest known recordings.
This past summer, the four tracks were released during what would have been Guthrie’s 100th birthday as part of a book and boxed set collection of Guthrie material, Woody at 100: The Centennial Collection (Smithsonian Folkways). Not only did that collection receive a Grammy nomination for Best Historical Album and win a Grammy for Best Packaging, but the set and the four early recordings I found were discussed on numerous national and regional media outlets ranging from National Public Radio to the Los Angeles Times.
They were not the huge discs of entire radio programs I envisioned sitting mysteriously in some grand attic. But, these smaller and nonetheless rare Guthrie recordings were rediscovered only after I used my historical imagination.
Peter La Chapelle graduated from USC Dornsife with a Ph.D. in history in 2002. An associate professor of history at Nevada State College in Henderson, Nev., he authored Proud to Be an Okie: Country Music, Cultural Politics and Migration to Southern California (University of California Press, 2007), based on his dissertation research.