LINER NOTES: Ideas & Discoveries
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“ARCHIVE OF THE MOUTH”: Tracing Baez, Plath, Sun Ra, Sexton, Et Al Back to a Single Pivotal Recording Studio

This was supposed to be a story about one of the nation’s first “library of voices” and its phonographic instigator Frederick C. Packard, Jr. And, in many ways it remains so. But, as poet Lyn Hejinian has observed, people are collecting-experiences, and if one genuinely follows a single human being one inevitably happens on someone else who forms the fulcrum of a very different set of phenomena and occurrences. 

In this story that person is a quiet, self-taught Boston audio engineer Stephen B. Fassett (1914-1980), and this article is a preliminary attempt to honor his generative, facilitating and unsung role in the early careers of countless mid-century poets, jazz & blues musicians, and folk music revivalists as they converged on the burgeoning epicenter of 1950s and 60s Cambridge/Boston. I think you’ll be surprised to discover the voices that coalesced in his recording studio on Beacon Hill—and emanated far beyond it. In order to tell this story, I first need to situate us in the Woodberry Poetry Room, circa 1950.

In the days before “page views” and “web traffic stats,” there was the manual head-count. And, in 1950, the Woodberry Poetry Room’s head-count had all the makings of a defense of poetry. During the first four months following its move from Widener Library to Aalto-designed digs in the new Lamont Librarystudents signed for earphones in the Poetry Room over 4,000 times.” [1]

Unattributed image of Ezra Pound in the Poetry Room.

Were undergrads really queuing up to get an earful of Prof. Frederick C. Packard’s (albeit first) poetry recordings of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound?

Or, were the Poetry Room’s state-of-the-art turntables a hip new means for students to emcee and share their own discs—with what 1952 visitor Wallace Stevens quizzically called “tubes in their ears.”

Two recent surveys of the Poetry Room’s audio collection have suggested to my mind one additional explanation for this extreme spike in the listening census.

Thousands of students were listening to discs in our collection, but those discs didn’t all feature contemporary poets.

In fact, we’re beginning to realize that discs created, copied, or collected by Packard for his “vocarium” (or, “library of voices”) and deposited in the Poetry Room for playback and preservation included everything from surgeries to Shakespeare, Haitian-Creole ritual performances to Japanese-language lessons, experimental radio plays to Scottish border-ballads. In addition to the pioneering poetry-specific discs that Packard made (among them, the earliest recordings of T. S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Tennessee Williams, Vladimir Nabokov, Marianne Moore, etc.), these surveys have revealed a curious predilection for collecting and recording folk music.

As a part of his in-room use “vocarium,” Packard recorded English balladeer Richard Dyer-Bennett (“Performance of Traditional Folksongs” (1941); Brenda Engel performing “Mexican Songs with Guitar” (1941); Sara Allgood singing “Irish folksongs” (1948); and his wife Alice Mansur Packard performing “Traditional Border Ballads” (1949), a field in which she was a specialist.

Furthermore, I’m coming to respect the enthusiastic extent to which Packard and his colleague and recording collaborator John Lincoln Sweeney (curator of the Poetry Room from 1942-1969) went not only to making groundbreaking recordings themselves but also to purchasing as many early commercial recordings of poetry, theatrical and folk music performances as their post-War budget would allow. (“We deal in shoestrings,” as Packard wrote of their finances in a 1946 letter to Sweeney.)

Their self-declared curatorial scope—words spoken and sung words—was a veritable dragnet of all available spoken-word and folk music recordings at that time.

 

It was the last category—“sung poetry, the folk ballad” [2]—that first attracted Harvard undergraduate Clay Jackson, ’60, a detour that was to change the direction of his life and (ultimately) add to the rising tide of a very different revolution than the Poetry Room—founded as an indie space to celebrate contemporary poetry [3]—could have foreseen:

“For about two years after I got to Harvard, I had been doing nothing but working…. And I was getting really sick of it, and I didn’t quite know how sick of it I was getting. But I discovered in the Lamont Library that they had this room, the Woodberry Music and Poetry Listening Room [sic], and they had a bunch of folk music records, and I just stumbled across somebody called Leadbelly….

This music suddenly came to mean more to me than anything in the world. I kept on spending the same amount of time in the library, but I spent it up there listening to records.” [4]

Jackson’s semi-mangled memory of the room’s moniker (“Woodberry Music,” etc.) may well be indicative of students’ actual usage of the Poetry Room. Similar accounts of undergraduates hungry to discover traditional tunes, including Bill Wood (then a deejay for WHRB’s folk program, “Balladeers”) and future author of The Blues Line: From Leadbelly to Muddy Waters Eric Sackheim (who “wrote his Harvard thesis on folk music [and] created a whole department…. [He] got a ‘summa cum laude’ because there was no one else in the department”)—suggest the possibility that the Poetry Room was not just a Modernist poetry mecca but may also have served as an acoustical laboratory for the nascent folk music scene in Harvard Square. [5]

In 1958, the same year that Club 47 opened at 47 Mt. Auburn Street, just two blocks shy of the Poetry Room, Jackson began jamming with Sackheim and banjo-player Bob Siggins (also a Harvard student), and within a few months they had formed the Charles River Valley Boys. “One of the first urban bands to play bluegrass and old-timey music,” the Charles River Valley Boys is widely acknowledged as having helped to spark the folk revival of the early 1960s. 

As Mimi Baez recalls:

“I know precisely the moment when I got drawn into wanting to play folk music. I was thirteen. I got a call from Joanie [Joan Baez] and she said, ‘Get on a bus and get down here. There’s a group here I know you’d enjoy.’ It was the Charles River Valley Boys at Lowell House in one of their final times playing. I especially remember Clay. Every time he would do something I would look at Joanie, and we would both laugh.” [6]

 

Charles River Valley Boys at Club 47 (circa 1960). Bob Siggins, Eric Sackheim, Ethan Signer & Clay Jackson. Published in Baby, Let Me Follow You Down (Anchor Books, 1979).

Throughout the 1950s, the Poetry Room and the adjacent Forum Room were, according to Packard, “the epicenter” of aural activity on campus.

During summer school, “poetry and music record concerts” were held by students “almost every afternoon.” The Forum Room, which shares a door with the Poetry Room, was also a popular pedagogical focal point where two courses met daily in those mid-century summers: “Oral Interpretation of Literature” (taught by Frederick C. Packard, Jr.) and “American Ballads and Folk Songs.” [7]

In order to enhance the over-enrolled folk music courses, Sweeney (or so the research I’ve conducted reveals) sought out the expertise of a Florida folk music professor Alton C. Morris, who had learned his trade as a WPA folklife fieldworker (alongside friend and co-worker Zora Neale Hurston). In a series of Spring 1950 letters, Sweeney acknowledges receipt of Morris’ exuberantly long list of recommended folk-music discs and states that “we have been able to secure all” except a few by Lead Belly (which he asks Morris to bring with him to Harvard that summer to copy for the Poetry Room). [8]  Here is just a small sampling of what Sweeney purchased and what would have been available to students, such as Clay Jackson, at that time. [Click on the images to enlarge]:

 

 

Harvard professor and pioneering ballad collector Francis James Child (who aggregated and transcribed over 300 ballads in the 1880s) has often been cited by Eric Von Schmidt [9] and Joan Baez as one of the early print resources for the ballads they performed.

But the second step in that transmission was through discs themselves, when field recordings (and commercial records) began to be made of these songs in the late 1920s/early 1930s. Von Schmidt—like Pete Seeger before him—had benefited immensely from immersing himself in the extensive folk music collection housed at the Library of Congress. It’s possible that with his arrival in Cambridge in 1958, he encouraged others to do so in their own nearby libraries and record stores. “Digging up and sharing old folksongs was an essential part of the Cambridge scene. The more obscure the song, the better.” [10]

Whether the Poetry Room played a local LOC-style role in this additional dimension of transmission is uncertain. But, as I began to follow the Poetry Room discs to their next destination, I encountered a far more direct and definitive relationship between the Poetry Room and the converging communities of poetic innovators and folk musicians in that era.

Enter Stephen Fassett, stage left.

 


As the grooves on the listening copies—for poetry and music alike—began to wear out due to over-use, Sweeney and Packard started to partner with engineers beyond Harvard to transfer the discs to the new reel-to-reel format and to begin making recordings directly onto magnetic tape. [11] After a few years with Telavix and Transradio studios, they appear to have found the expertise they were looking for in musicologist and audio engineer Stephen (“Steve”) Fassett.

Courtesy of Kitty Fassett.

“In recording circles,” poet and founder of the Calliope Author Readings Lynn Sharon Schwartz recalls, “Stephen Fassett was known as the best.”

Beginning with sporadic requests as early as 1954, the collaboration between the Poetry Room and the Fassett Recording Studio gradually evolved into a 20-year creative partnership, out of which emerged some of the earliest (and arguably some of the best) extant recordings of a range of Confessional poets and poets of the so-called “Boston Renaissance.”

By all accounts, Stephen Fassett already had a stellar reputation and a very full dance-card.

A self-taught audio engineer, who began avidly collecting records as a teen (when, due to rheumatic fever, he was bedridden and confined to a wheelchair), Fassett translated his industrious energy and idiosyncratic passion into a radio gig at WQXR/New York in the 1940s. After marryinBéla Bartók scholar Agatha Illes in 1947, he moved to Boston where he created a multi-level recording studio in his brownstone at 24 Chestnut Street in Beacon Hill.

By 1954, he was advertising in the Boston Symphony Orchestra classifieds: “Fassett Recording Studio: High Quality Tape and Disc Recordings Made in an Unique Atmosphere of Privacy and Comfort.” Loyalty and Commitment might well have been additional adjectives on that list.

Roland Hayes compilation, published in 1983.

That same year, he began a 25-year-long project of recording and editing the works of African-American tenor Roland Hayes, a singer who has been credited with “shattering the color barrier in the world of classical music” and a musicologist who was crucial in preserving and arranging Afro-American folksongs.

Donald Byrd album, recorded by Fassett in 1956.

In 1956, Fassett also recorded the works of jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd, resulting in one of the best four-word titles to emerge from that Brahmin perch “Byrd Blows Beacon Hill,” and provided expert sound-editing for Sun-Ra‘s “arkestra” on the album “Sun Song.”

Clearly Fassett didn’t lack for activity—so why did he begin to add poetry to his repertoire of recordings?

According to his widow Kitty Fassett, with whom I spoke for this article, “the love of music, poetry, and literature was in Steve’s genes. He got it from his father, Jay Fassett,” an actor best known for originating the role of Dr. Gibb in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town on Broadway.

How Sweeney and Fassett first encountered one another isn’t known. It’s very possible that Sweeney (who resided at 51 Beacon Street) knew Fassett from his social circles on Beacon Hill. Fassett was also a recordist of live readings at Harvard’s Sanders Theater and MIT’s Kresge Hall in the mid-1950s, as well as the sound engineer—eventually—for folk impressario Joe Berk and his Pathways of Sound/Credo records (located at 102 Mt. Auburn Street in Cambridge).

The distance from Jack Sweeney’s apartment to Stephen Fassett’s recording studio.

 

Whatever the initial impetus, by 1957 the Poetry Room’s collaboration with Fassett was clearly an established fact. That November, Sylvia Plath (who had recently returned to Massachusetts from her first sojourn in England) was describing “Steven Fassett’s studios on Beacon Hill” as being “where all the poets record for Harvard.” [12]

A Poetry Room invoice suggests that recent transplant Ted Hughes recorded for Fassett that year. And, W. S. Merwin also made his earliest extant recording at Fassett’s studio in 1957, while on a Ford Foundation fellowship in Cambridge with the Poets’ Theatre. (Much like Club 47, the Poets’ Theatre—founded in 1951—was actively bringing together performances of poetry and folk music.) Merwin and Fassett became lifelong friends. The poet even stored his furniture with Fassett when he went abroad and had to (humorously) reject Steve and Agatha’s frequent offers of funds. Merwin writes in a Jan. 1960 letter: “I toled you once I toled you twise I do not want yore money.” As a sincere token of his affection for them, the poet dedicated the poem “Native Island” to Steve and Agatha—a poem which was subsequently selected for inclusion in Sylvia Plath‘s American Poetry Now.

 

Typescript of W. S. Merwin’s “The Native” (1958), with dedication to the Fassetts. Courtesy of the Woodberry Poetry Room, Harvard University.

By the summer of 1958 things had truly heated up, and the generative interchanges between Sweeney and Fassett began to multiply.

That June-July, Fassett recorded Robert Lowell and his Italian translator Rolando Anzilotti. Lowell was, as Kitty Fassett recalls Steve saying, “at a very low point in his bipolar cycle the day of the reading. I think his mood comes across in his understated articulation and makes it especially poignant.” Twenty years later, in a letter to Sweeney, Fassett still vividly recalled the differences between that poignant basement tape and the poems as they later appeared in print in Life Studies (in 1959). He particularly singled out this recording of “My Last Evening with Uncle Devereux Winslow”:

 

 

If you turn on your “ear-consciousness” (a word Allen Ginsberg once uttered in Fassett’s studio), you’ll find that Fassett’s observations were spot on: Lowell’s audible rendering of the poem is different than the version he published the following year and from manuscript drafts of the poem—at least, as compared with several housed at Yale, SUNY Buffalo and Harvard. [13]

 

On April 27, 1958, Sylvia Plath wrote to “blessed paternal white-haired Jack Sweeney” [14] enclosing several poems she’d “read for Lee Anderson,” with whom she’d made one of her first poetry recordings that same month. [15]  

Ted Hughes followed-up with Sweeney, closing a May 11th letter with a suggestion of a date and time for Plath to record for the Poetry Room:

“To record Sylvia, would 2 oclock, Friday 13th June be suitable? If that’s not, then any other time the same afternoon or evening? She’s looking forward to it, you can imagine.”

On the top left-hand corner of the letter, there’s a faint penciled note by Sweeney: “Fassett will record at 2pm June 13th Friday.” [16]

The June 13, 1958 recording of Plath (and Hughes)—attended by Sweeney, as was his custom—constitutes one of Plath’s earliest extant recordings. Given her brief life, it remains one of a small number of audible traces we have of her career. Due to copyright restrictions by her publisher we are not permitted to make her recordings available in their entirety online, but here is the slate of Plath announcing her recording:

 

 

Plath and Hughes clearly felt buoyed by the experience at Fassett’s studio: A day later, Ted Hughes writes to Sweeney, advocating for his support for a fellowship Plath is applying for, based on “the poems she read yesterday.” [17]

On Feb. 22, 1959, Plath returned to Fassett’s studio to make her second recording, which features many poems (and audible drafts) of the poems that would appear in her first book, The Colossus (1960).

PS3566.L27 A6 1959x. Woodberry Poetry Room, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

The relationship between Plath, Hughes and the Fassetts extended far beyond the studio: detailed accounts of dinner parties replete with lemon meringue pie (in Plath’s journals) and affectionate correspondence from Hughes (about their move to London—“the perfect super-human jungle, through which we’ve come”—and their joy at the birth of Frieda) was maintained throughout the early 1960s. Sweeney himself took great pride in the couple’s accomplishments and knew that Fassett would want to be apprised of their progress. In a July 27, 1961 letter to Fassett, he narrates their reading at the Mermaid Theatre Poetry Festival:

“Last week in London … Ted and Sylvia each read one of the commissioned poems and each read beautifully a fine poem. After the reading we had a happy supper, with yourselves in our thoughts and greetings for you from Ted & Sylvia given to me to deliver. They’re a great couple of young ones. And it was for me very moving to hear and see Sylvia — the only woman on the stage that evening and the only American on the stage! She read with great grace and clarity and command and the poem she read is a humdinger. You’ll soon hear it I hope for I’ve asked the recorders of that session to let the Poetry Room have a transcription of their tape. And Sylvia has promised to lend the Poetry Room the worksheets of the poem she read.” [18]

 

In May 1959—three months following Plath’s last recording at Fassett’s—the same Chestnut Street studio hosted an 18-year-old singer then living in Belmont, Mass.: Joan Baez. The recording was precipitated in part by her momentous premiere at Club 47 the year before.

As Baez recalls in her memoir:

Peter [Robinson], a friend of my family offered to manage me and set up a recording date in the cellar of another friend’s house. I went there with Bill Wood and Ted Alevizos to make an album. Bill was an engineering major at Harvard who hosted a folk show on the campus radio station. […] Ted Alevizos sang Greek songs and had a gorgeous timbre to his voice, had had vocal training and was a conservative. Gossip had it that Ted had tried this new drug called LSD. […] We sang some solos, some duets, and, for the finale, our own unique and special version of ‘When I’m Dead and Buried, Don’t You Weep After Me.’” [19]

It so happens that Alevizos was the chief of stacks at Widener Library, and he would go on (LSD, or no) to play a significant role in building the Poetry Room’s collection of folk music and poetry recordings after Sweeney’s departure in the early 1970s. [20]

M1629 .F65 1959x. Courtesy of the Woodberry Poetry Room, Harvard University.

Kitty Fassett reflects on the attraction of Fassett’s studio to the folk music community:

“Steve’s home at 24 Chestnut Street was a mecca to musicians like Joan Baez, who got their start performing around Harvard Square…. Steve remembered Joan Baez as always walking around barefoot. The folksingers liked Steve because he was easygoing and made them feel comfortable. Before I met him, he described himself to me in a telephone conversation as a ‘midwife,’ bringing out the best in a performer. And of course in the case of the folksingers it didn’t hurt that he sympathized with their politics.” [21]

In an oral-history interview conducted by Von Schmidt and Jim Rooney, Stephen Fassett remembered how Baez “came over one afternoon. She liked to be barefoot… When she listened down here with the other musicians and with Peter Robinson, I remember she made a note ‘sounds constipated.'” He continues:

“She [Baez] was very forthright about the quality of her work. She was patient. She had this soaring range. And at that time she used her full dynamic range when recording. The original tape has all that. I made a copy with eight or ten db compression done backwards, but still the radio stations complained about the levels. It was really one of the unique qualities of her style.”

The album that emerged from the Fassett recording session, Folksingers ‘round Harvard Square (Veritas Records, 1959), featured a range of folk ballads—some of which were never released again until the 2011 album, The Debut Album Plus: Joan Baez. Shortly after Folksingers publication, “a poster appeared on telephone poles and store windows around Harvard Square. It pictured an intense young girl in full song emerging from a background of forest-green ink. It announced to anyone who could decipher the calligraphy that the club Mt. Auburn 47 … was presenting ‘A NEW SUMMER PROGRAM/tuesdays/AN Evening of Folk Music with JOAN BAEZ” and with this “the tide had turned” [22].

 

Folksingers ’round Harvard Square (Veritas Records, 1959).

 

Two months later, Baez made her surprise debut at the Newport Folk Festival and her unscheduled appearance “catapulted” her to fame. Following quickly on the heels of her Newport performance, Baez’s first solo album was released—hailed to this day as a “folk-revival landmark.”

The first generation of the Cambridge folk revival was by many accounts (as Bobby Neuwirth observes) “a little academic, folky, Elizabeth ballads.” Even Harvard students reviewing Baez’s album proffered that “English ballads are pretty esoteric stuff. But, the same Harvard Crimson reporter acknowledges: “the record is of undeniable quality.

 

M1629.V87 1960x. Courtesy of the Woodberry Poetry Room, Harvard University. Listen to Reel 1 (of 2) below. Bob Dylan writes: “Of course we had heard about Eric Von Schmidt for many years. The name itself had become a password.”

 

 

In those late 1950/early 1960 years, Baez was not alone among folksingers to record for Fassett: the Charles River Valley Boys, Eric Von Schmidt, and Tom Rush, ’63, had the unique experience of recording with Steve. In a recent email exchange, Rush recalled his experiences with Fassett very enthusiastically:

I remember Steve—I recorded my second album, my first for a “real” label, Prestige. Paul Rothschild was the producer and we did it in Steve’s home studio on Beacon Hill. It was just me and Fritz Richmond on washtub bass.  Steve had the living room set up as the music room with one microphone in the middle. The one wire ran down the stairs to the kitchen where it plugged directly into the tape recorder, an Ampex 601. (Don’t ask me how I remember that!). Steve sat in front of the Ampex—there was no console or any of that newfangled stuff—with a set of headphones, his hand on the one knob, labeled “Volume.”

There was nothing to mix. If you wanted the washtub louder, you moved it closer to the microphone. There was no EQ. If you wanted a brighter sound, Steve would come up and roll the rug back some more. Worked great! [23]

 

Throughout the 1960s, until shortly after the end of Sweeney’s tenure at the Poetry Room, Fassett’s poetry recordings also continued in earnest.

Together Sweeney and Fassett created a viva voce time-capsule, an “archive of the mouth,” with recordings by: Anne Sexton (Dec. 8, 1959, and May 9, 1960), Denise Levertov (April 14, 1960), Robert Bly (March 6, 1961), Yvegeny Yevtushenko (May 18, 1961), John Wieners (March 29, 1962), William Everson (Feb. 16, 1963, and Nov. 6, 1965), Allen Ginsberg (Nov. 14, 1964), Robert Creeley (Oct. 23, 1964), Louis Zukofsky (Dec. 15, 1963), Jean Valentine (April 1965), Stephen Jonas (July 15, 1969), John Koethe (May 20, 1970), and Audre Lorde (May 15, 1970) to name but a few.

PS3537.E915.A6 1959x. Courtesy of the Woodberry Poetry Room, Harvard University.

 

As you’ll hear in the recordings we’ve managed to digitize, Fassett’s sessions tended to follow a distinct and prescribed format: the author states their name and the date, and proceeds to read their poems. In the case of Ginsberg’s 1964 recording, the poet appears to have omitted that ritual and was asked by Fassett (or perhaps the voice we hear is that of Peter Orlovsky, who was in the room at the time) to mention the year as an addendum to his final poem, “To Boston”

“Away we go into the sky, into the poetry of today
to Harvard….”

 

As the vital and violent decade of the 1960s drew to a close, and the folk music scene gradually outgrew the café-style intimacy that had been cultivated at Club 47, the club closed in April 1968 (subsequently reopening as Cafe Passim) and Sweeney retired from the Poetry Room in 1969.

But Sweeney’s correspondence with Fassett remained steadfast until the latter passed away in 1980.

“I look back on the years of our collaboration (if I may, in a pure way, use such a war-stained word) as some of the happiest years of my Poetry Room work.” [24]

Almost a decade later, after exchanges of countless letters, tapes and cassettes (or, “Cassies” as they called them), Sweeney writes with great affection:

The years we worked together were a ‘Golden Age’ for me also. Everything was so well attended to by you and always in a spirit of friendship which we both enjoyed as well as our laughter which was not infrequent.” [25]

 

While it risks every kind of fallacy to try to find resonances between the Cambridge-Boston folk music revival and the kaleidoscopically diverse poetry being recorded and fostered at Fassett’s studio, I thought it would be fun to close by floating the question to two poets: Katie Peterson and Fanny Howe, who kindly took me up on it.

Peterson (also a Robert Lowell scholar) focused on the implicitly confrontational underpinnings of the folk ballad and of Confessional poetry:

“I always think of the ballad aesthetics of the folk revival, those stories rewritten in more casual key by Dylan and Baez and others, as staging a confrontation between the individual and culture in which both are necessary forces. I think of the ballad conventions that Dylan saw insightfully inside his own life and the lives of others, and I am reminded that his goal wasn’t self-expression really but the dramatization of this conflict.

Confessional poetry, which stakes its claim in part on trying to reckon with things that only happened to one person—like the named, dated, placed, autobiographical portraits in Life Studiesalso sees that what happens to one person has often happened to many.”

She goes one step further to describe the intimate nature of audience and the performative aspects of Confessional poetry:

Confessional poetry’s simulated candor needs an audience to tell such things to, and chooses not the community at large but an imagined individual who might understand. I don’t think this is John Stuart Mill’s ‘overheard speech’ but something really different, that intimate trust in one other person that resembles what gets Dylan’s and Baez’s songs so intimately not just in our ears but in our hearts (and our collegiate mixtapes):

A car radio bleats,
‘Love, O careless Love. . . .’ I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat. . . .
I myself am hell;

nobody’s here—”

 

Fanny Howe, whose mother Mary Manning Howe was one of the driving forces of the Poets’ Theatre and a dear friend of Jack Sweeney’s, speculates that a possible unifying factor between Fassett’s work, the Poets’ Theatre, and the folk revival could be found in her mother’s mantra: “Back to the word”—the sung word, the spoken word. This, Howe recalled, probably stemmed from her mother’s “youth spent close to the Abbey and Gate theaters in Dublin, Ireland. Yeats was of course a playwright of poetry, but dialogue too as a form of spoken poetry would have resonated with O’Casey and Synge.”

Courtesy of Fanny Howe.

Like Peterson, Howe’s focus turned to audience as well as to the role of recording itself:

The development of recording and taping (like the hand-held camera) was what made all these connections possible between folk and poetry, going out to the countryside to find the old traditional songs and singers, being able to listen to them back at home was utterly new….  I think protests were fueled by the return to the raw past, Pete Seeger and country singers like Johnny Cash and his plain guitar brought into Folsom prison, where it could be actually recorded.

The pioneers were as much the people who rambled around the land to find traditional music and to record it as they were those singing in a club. Odetta, Josh White, and their protest songs, their soul recorded at last! Fassett was on top of that movement, no doubt, and threaded the poets together with the folk music through his recordings of them.” [26]

 

END NOTES: I want to thank Kitty Fassett for her instrumental assistance with this article, and W.S. Merwin, Lynne Sharon Schwartz and Tom Rush for their swift and generous responses to my email inquiries. I would also like to express my gratitude to all of the audio engineers we have worked with at the Poetry Room to continue this vital recording tradition: in particular the exceptional team at Harvard’s Media Production Center (Gerald MacDonald, Kevin McGowan, and Anthony DiBartolo). I would also like to acknowledge the poet Peter Gizzi whose phrase, “archive of the mouth,” helped inspire this blog post.

As with every article I write, this piece is intended to initiate research and to elicit additional information. Please feel free to use the “Comments” section below to share your own stories of Stephen Fassett or to correct any facts I may have gotten wrong.

[1] Frederick C. Packard, Jr. “Harvard Vocarium Has Attained Full Stature,” Library Journal (Vol. 75, No. 2, Jan. 15, 1950), 70.

[2] John L. Sweeney describes one of their collecting foci as “sung poetry, the folk ballad.” The Harvard Librarian, Vol. 3, No. 8 (May 1964), 4.

[3] Travis Ingham describes the original Poetry Room in Widener Library as being a “sanctum” dedicated to modern poetry, essentially “barred to faculty”—a “library of current verse [….] not books the professors think their students ought to read [but] the books the young men wish to read.” The Boston Herald (June 12, 1931).

[4] Eric Von Schmidt and Jim Rooney, Baby, Let Me Follow You Down (Anchor Books, 1979), 28.

[5] Baby, Let Me Follow You Down, 33.

[6] Baby, Let Me Follow You Down, 30.

[7] Library Journal (Jan. 15, 1950), 70.

[8] Letter from John L. Sweeney to Alton C. Morris (June 6, 1950). Woodberry Poetry Room records, MS2000-0013, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

[9] Bob Dylan, who recalls meeting Von Schmidt “in the green pastures of Harvard,” considered Von Schmidt and his work to be an early “password.” Permission to share Eric Von Schmidt’s Fassett recording (later in this post) was generously granted by Caitlin Von Schmidt.

[10] For the Love of Music: The Club 47 Folk Revival (Ezzie Films, 2013).

[11] After Harvard College Library withdrew from the commercial aspects of the Harvard Vocarium record label in 1955, the bulk of the recordings created by the Poetry Room were overseen by Sweeney and his successors. Packard continued to actively record on his own Vocarium label, though, up to and including his retirement from the University in 1966.

[12] Sylvia Plath, Letters Home: Correspondence 1950-1963 (Harper & Row, 1975), 331.

[13] Fassett writes to Sweeney: “The poem read for us that time, in my basement workroom rather than up in the studio,—the one different from the printed version in Life Studies was ‘My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow’ a marvelous reading which includes some lines he cut before it was printed. He gave me permission to keep a copy of the original of that tape….” (July 15, 1977, from the Papers of John L. Sweeney, University College Dublin, LA52/119).

[14] Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (March 14, 1958) 351-52.

[15] As several scholars have noted, Plath does somewhat mysteriously mention making a recording for Fassett as early as 1957. No material evidence exists to substantiate that this recording session occurred. Fassett’s 1957 recording session with Ted Hughes is noted in an invoice sent to Sweeney—Plath’s, on the other hand, is not. That said, in 1958 the couple did record on the same date: so it’s very possible that they did so in 1957 as well.

W. S. Merwin with whom I briefly corresponded for this article has no recollection of Plath having been recorded in 1957. To his best recollection, he believes her recording with Fassett took place “later.”

[16] Letter from Ted Hughes to John L. Sweeney (May 11, 1958), with annotations by JLS for Stephen Fassett. Papers of John L. Sweeney, University College Dublin, LA52/119.

[17] Letter from Ted Hughes to John L. Sweeney (June 14, 1958). Papers of John L. Sweeney, University College Dublin, LA52/166.

[18] Letter from John L. Sweeney to Stephen Fassett (July 27, 1961). This letter is currently being processed as a part of the Stephen B. Fassett Correspondence at the Woodberry Poetry Room, Harvard University, generously donated by Kitty Fassett.

[19] Joan Baez, And a Voice to Sing With: A Memoir (Simon & Schuster, 1987), 57.

[20] Ted Alevizos would later serve as the head of Lamont Library and assist in arranging recording sessions for the Poetry Room, when Sweeney spent his summers in Ireland and after his retirement in 1969. A specialist in Greek folk music and poetry, Alevizos was instrumental in recording Greek folksongs for the collection and in commissioning recordings by George Seferis, Lawrence Durrell, as well as the hermit poet Robert Lax on Patmos Island.

[21] Email correspondence between Kitty Fassett and Christina Davis (May 10, 2017).

[22] Baby, Let Me Follow You Down, 45.

[23] Email correspondence between Tom Rush and Christina Davis (May 22, 2017).

[24] Letter from John L. Sweeney to Stephen Fassett (Sept. 1, 1969). Courtesy of the Woodberry Poetry Room, Harvard University.

[25] Letter from John L. Sweeney to Stephen Fassett (Oct. 23, 1976). Courtesy of the Woodberry Poetry Room, Harvard University.

[26] As an endnote to the footnotes, I thought I would add a brief tale about Pete Seeger that connects various dots in our narrative. In 1949, the year that the Poetry Room opened in Lamont Library, Pete Seeger, ’40, formed The Weavers, a group that popularized/revived arrangements of Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, among others. After being brought up on contempt of Congress charges in the mid-1950s, Seeger and his work went underground. He began to earn a living by traveling to college campuses and smaller venues (like Club 47).

In May 1961, Seeger’s gig at Harvard University was abruptly canceled by conservative president Nathan Pusey. Protests ensued. But, as a curious footnote in poetry history, and as a sign of just how closely these communities were intertwined, the father of poets Fanny and Susan Howe, the great civil rights activist and Harvard Law professor Mark DeWolfe Howe, Jr.—who was supposed to introduce the Seeger event— denounced the ban as “absurd” and successfully argued that Pusey was on “very weak [legal] ground.” The university was forced to relent, and Seeger was given permission to sing. According to Folkways/Smithsonian Institution: “Many of the young people who heard Seeger ” in that era “became the leaders of the folk song revival which began later that decade.”

Christina Davis

Christina Davis

Christina Davis is the curator of the Woodberry Poetry Room, Harvard University. She is also the author of AN ETHIC (Nightboat Books) and FORTH A RAVEN (Alice James).
Christina Davis

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