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Unearthing an Unexpected Musical Treasure

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Unearthing an Unexpected Musical Treasure


Unearthing an Unexpected Musical Treasure

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Here's a story of discovery. It starts with the legend of singer Gram Parsons. In the late 1960's, Parsons fused rock music with country music. You could call him an alternative country music pioneer.

(Soundbite of Gram Parsons)

Mr. GRAM PARSONS (Musician): (Singing) Ooh, Las Vegas, ain't no place for a poor boy like me. Ooh, Las Vegas, ain't no place for a poor boy like me. Every time I hit your crystal city I know you're going make a man out of me.

SIEGEL: Thirty-three years ago today Gram Parsons died. He was still in his twenties. Since then his musical legend has grown. This year alone there is a DVD documentary on Parsons's life and a reissue of his two solo LPs.

Our story is from Mitch Myers. Myers is the nephew of children's author and songwriter Shel Silverstein. And when Silverstein died in 1999, Myers was in charge of organizing his Uncle Shel's archives. He discovered a box of old recording tapes and two tape boxes were labeled Gram Parsons demos.

MITCH MYERS: I couldn't believe it. Forty-year-old audio tapes supposively recorded by Gram Parsons.

(Soundbite of Gram Parsons)

MYERS: Gram Parsons cut a romantic figure in the 1960's. He was the guy who moved The Byrds towards country music. You can hear his influence on their album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Gram died of a drug overdose in 1973. He was only 26. His story got even stranger after his death. His friend and road manager, Phil Kauffman, stole his body and cremated Gram Parsons out in the desert of Joshua Tree, California.

(Soundbite of Gram Parsons)

MYERS: When I first found these old tapes I knew they could be a big deal. So I started my detective work by calling people familiar with Parsons musical history. I determined that the tapes could have been from the summer of '64 when Gram and one of his earliest groups, The Shilohs, did some demo recordings in Manhattan with folk singer Dick Weissman. The main clue was that Dick Weissman's name was listed on the tape boxes along with Gram's.

I still hadn't heard the Parsons recordings because the tapes were at least 40 years old and quite fragile. But that didn't stop me from negotiating with a record label executive. The label guy said that if the tapes turned out to be authentic, he had the connections to release Gram's music commercially.

Even my NPR producer wanted to document the first listening of these tapes. Somebody on his production team thought it would be funny if the recordings turned out to be blank. Kind of like Heraldo Rivera's entry into Al Copone's vaults. I declined my producer's offer.

Months pasted with no progress in getting a record deal. I had to know what was on these tapes so I booked some time at a professional recording studio. I told my friend Ben that I was going to play the tapes once and for all. Ben's a huge music fanatic and he offered to document the event with his camcorder. By this time I was pretty confident that I had the missing 1964 recordings of Gram Parsons, so I agreed.

The day finally came and Ben and I went into the studio. Now besides the Parsons recordings, I brought two other tapes with me. They were demos I found in the same crate of tapes as the Parsons stuff, except these had my Uncle Shel Silverstein's name written on them. I figured that we would just digitally copy everything and I'd have enough rare recordings to keep me in the music business for quite some time.

Ben and I watched the studio engineers examine the brittle old tapes. Then the engineer connected an old fashioned tape player to his digital recording system. Ben turned on his camcorder, the engineer pressed play on the tape machine and the old reel started to roll. We waited nervously for the long lost music of Gram Parsons to fill the air.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: The lights are all out and the gas is turned off because you did not pay the bill.

MYERS: Ben and I looked at each other in complete confusion. We didn't recognize the artist we were hearing, but it sure wasn't Gram Parsons. The tapes seemed to contain nothing but bad generic pop music. The engineer fast-forwarded the tape a bit.

(Soundbite of music)

MYERS: Still no Gram. I couldn't believe it. I mean, I had these tape boxes with Gram Parsons's name and songs listed on them. But no Gram Parsons music? The only explanation was that someone must have needed a blank tape and had simply recorded over the old demos. They couldn't have known four decades later that Gram's work would be so valuable. The engineer kept fast forwarding the tape and playing more bad pop and I was just sick about the whole thing.

Meanwhile Ben was recording the entire incident on video. Dude, turn that thing off, I said to him. You're killing me. Finally I conceded that there was no Gram Parsons left on the tapes. So in hopes of salvaging the session, we turned our attention to the other tape boxes I had brought with me, the ones with Shel Silverstein's name written on them.

Did I mention I found the Silverstein tapes in the same crate as the Parsons stuff? Well, guess what happened. The same thing. Shel's music had been taped over with these boring pop tunes. I was totally dejected. But we were almost done, so we went through the final contents of our last reel of tape. As we neared the end of our very last reel, a thin reedy voice emerged from the studio speakers.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. WOODY GUTHRIE (Singer): (Singing) See your oily wreckage that washes to my shore. Lots of people tell me now I'll see you nevermore.

MYERS: It was a voice that Ben and I both recognized. No, it wasn't Shel Silverstein and it wasn't Gram Parsons either. It was the godfather of American folk music, Woody Guthrie.

Mr. GUTHRIE (Singing) One day my wild ways whispered to me as I walked along my ocean sand today.

MYERS: This was sensational. We'd actually stumbled onto four unknown performances by the outspoken folk singer from Oklahoma. We were coming even closer to the end of our last reel of tape and heard this.

(Soundbite of song, "This Land is Your Land")

Mr. GUTHRIE: (Singing) This land is your land and this land is my land. From the Redwood forests to the New York island. Canadian mountains down to the Gulf Stream waters. This land is made for you and made.

Mr. MYERS: Now history tells us that Woody Guthrie wrote This Land is Your Land as a populous respond to Irving Berlin's God Bless America. And while there is a standard version of this iconic folk song, Woody had been known to add an extra verse or two as he performed the song repeatedly over the years.

So as our new found version of This Land is Your Land played out, my friend Ben wondered if it might contain one of those great lost verses that Woody occasionally sang. We listened and held our breath. But the old tape ran out before Woody finished singing. We just had to laugh. We'd come so close. One minute we had nothing but bad pop music and the next we had the most famous folk song of the last century.

We found some small differences in the first part of Woody's tune, but we'd never know if there was another never before heard verse to Guthrie's most endearing composition. Still, the old tapes had provided us with some extremely rare recordings and we donated them to the Woody Guthrie archives in Manhattan.

Our friends at the archives think that Woody's performances may have been recorded by the legendary Mo Ash, perhaps even before Mo stared Folk Way Records back in 1948. Anyway, no rare Gram Parsons demos and no cool record deal, but Smithsonian Institute, here we come.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. GUTHRIE: (Singing) I have kissed your eyes and lips in the dark here on my ship, part of the reason why I love you more. When I come back from the sea, when I find my country free like I dreamed of when I went away to war.

SIEGEL: Commentator Mitch Myers. To hear more of his Woody Guthrie discovery, you can go to

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