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Md. archivist releases book on Woody Guthrie

MAYO — Go ahead and point to an album on Jeff Place’s crowded basement shelves.

Ask him to identify it. Just try and stump him.

It won’t work, even though a splash of color and a few words are all that’s visible on the spine. He identifies the record — one of more than 12,000 — in seconds.

Maybe it’s because he works somewhere with a collection dwarfing his own.

Place is an archivist at Smithsonian Folklife Collections, which has more than 70,000 recordings, as well as photographs, correspondence and other material filling 7,000 square feet of space.

Over a quarter century, he’s produced 50 compilations of music, which resulted in two Grammys, numerous other nominations for the award, and a gold record. Yet, because the 57-year-old Mayo resident generally works behind the scenes, he’s nowhere near as well-known as the artists he writes about and studies.

“Jeff’s a walking encyclopedia,” said Richard James Burgess, who is a neighbor and colleague, serving as director of marketing and sales for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. “He’s the local celebrity no one knows about.”

That might change with the release of Place’s latest project, a coffee table book with three CDs in commemoration of Woody Guthrie’s centennial. The book’s official publication date was Saturday, which was Guthrie’s birthday.

Place did the lion’s share of work on “Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection,” though he had a co-author, Robert Santelli. The project was Santelli’s idea and he wrote the introduction and helped select the music.

The book is part biography and part discography, with rare drawings, letters, and even handwritten lyrics by Guthrie mixed in. The vast majority of the material is kept in the Smithsonian archives, and hasn’t been seen by the general public. Place said the items paint a fuller picture of Guthrie than his songs alone.

“There’s a personality that comes into play,” said the music historian.

Place spent more than two months at his beach house writing the material for the book, and another several months compiling the images and graphics. “I’ve had all this stuff stuck in my head,” he said. “This was a chance to download my brain.”

He compared Woody Guthrie to musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Robert Johnson and Hank Williams — performers who burst onto the scene for a short time and changed music. “He was one of those guys, figures who come along like a solar flare.”

Guthrie was most productive in a 10-year span, Place said. After that, Huntington’s disease began eroding his skills. Guthrie died in 1967 at age 55.

“Woody Guthrie, in my opinion, is America’s greatest and most important folk singer,” said Santelli, who has written another book on Guthrie and worked with Place on a variety of projects, including serving as advisers on the folk and roots music exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

Santelli, the executive director of the GRAMMY Museum in Los Angeles, said many of Guthrie’s songs are both works of art and examples of how music can be an agent for change.

Guthrie is most well-known for “This Land is Your Land,” which is Santelli’s favorite. Place also likes “Pastures of Plenty,” which is about migrant workers. “I just like the imagery,” he said. “It paints a picture.”

The CDs in the book have 57 tracks, including 21 previously unreleased performances and six never-before-heard songs. Other favorites of Place’s in the collection include “Riding in My Car,” the World War II song “What are We Waiting On?” and “Philadelphia Lawyer.”

“One hundred years after his birth, this boxed set… shows the incredible diversity of (his) genius,” Santelli said.

Place was first introduced to folk music by his parents, who listened to performers like Peter Paul & Mary and Joan Baez, and took him to shows.

He already had 2,000 records by the time he left high school. “I’ve always been a collector,” he said.

At Kenyon College in Ohio, Place worked at the school radio station. He had the 5 to 10 a.m. slot playing folk music.

Not sure of what to do after graduating, the he took a job at a Washington, D.C. record store and eventually became the manager. He didn’t want to make it a career, though, so as he approached 30 he decided to go to library school. His mother was a children’s librarian.

While getting his masters in library science at the University of Maryland, Place got an internship at the Library of Congress American Folklife Center. When he graduated, the job at the archives opened up.

Place thinks his retail knowledge helped get him hired, since the Smithsonian just acquired Folkways Recordings. “I had record business experience and contacts with wholesalers,” he said.

The archives aren’t just confined to folk music. There are all kinds of recordings, from presidential speeches to railroad sounds. Place catalogs and organizes the material, which is probably why he knows his own albums so well, and makes records from it.

Prior to the Woody Guthrie book, Place worked on the acclaimed 1997 re-issue of the “Anthology of American Folk Music,” many of the Smithsonian Folkways Classic Series recordings, the Lead Belly Legacy Series, and “The Best of Broadside” which was about Broadside Magazine and the songs it published. He’s currently working on a banjo collection.

Place said he likes the energy of folk music, and its “do-it-yourself” spirit. But it’s not the only kind of music he listens to. His music collection — which totals about 20,000 recordings when cassettes and CDs are added in — has plenty of folk, but also rock, country, bluegrass, world music and reggae.

Not everyone knows Place isn’t all folk, all the time.

Ellzabeth Sappington of Riva was worried about what kind of music to put on when she first had him over to her house. “I was happy to learn my vintage Bee Gees were (OK),” she said.

They met through their children. Place’s son and Sappington’s daughter were in the middle school band together and are now both in the Chesapeake Youth Symphony Orchestra. Lee Place attends South River High School. Place’s wife, Barrie, is a former elementary school teacher.

“It’s pretty fun to sit by him (at a concert),” Sappington said. “When the flute choir plays Irish songs, he’ll know who first wrote them, and when they were recorded. In my next life, I’m going to come back and have his job. It sounds pretty fun.”

Place still thinks so.

“Every day, I’m learning something new, that’s the main thing,” he said. “I get tons of reference questions from all over the world. I’m always looking in the back room, it’s like treasure hunting.”