Norie Guthrie Is Preserving Houston’s Folk Scene One Reel at a Time

Meet Rice University’s fascinating special collections librarian.

By Dianna Wray December 1, 2019 Published in the December 2019 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Image: Jenn Duncan

Norie Guthrie’s fingers were light but deft as she placed the delicate magnetic tape on a reel-to-reel player, then started it spinning. The sound of Lightnin’ Hopkins pulling, twanging, aching notes from his guitar filled the room.

“Incredible, isn’t it?” said Guthrie, a special collections librarian who oversees the expansive Houston folk and blues collections at the Woodson Research Center, part of Rice University’s Fondren Library.

Guthrie listened as the famed bluesman ripped through a short set, a recording that even his most devoted fans had never heard. The tape, probably one of many Hopkins made in exchange for a little cash during the final years of his life in Houston, had been sitting forgotten in a storage box for years before Scott and Vivian Holtzman—who at one time were heavily involved in the Houston music scene—donated their entire collection to the Woodson. It was just a week prior that Guthrie had been sifting through the box and unearthed the recording.

“Sometimes I can’t believe my luck, that I get to do this for my work,” she said, almost in awe. “I’ve always loved music, but if you’d told me even 10 years ago that I would be here doing this job, I wouldn’t have believed it.”

Growing up in Oklahoma City, Guthrie was drawn to both music and books. When she wasn’t watching MTV, spending her allowance on new cassettes, or listening to her parents’ vinyl, she was reading. She majored in English at the University of Oklahoma, but music was never far from her mind: When Guthrie went on to pursue her master’s in English at OU, she wrote her thesis on the Kurt Weill song “Mack the Knife,” tracing the evolution of its meaning over time, beginning with its creation as a murder ballad for the 1928 show Threepenny Opera.

“It started out as this song about a guy who is killing all of these people and getting away with it, but by the 1980s McDonald’s was using it to sell Big Macs,” she said. “I followed every thread there was. I even talked with the ad guy who was in charge of that campaign.”

In 2008 Guthrie moved to Houston and got a job as an English teacher with HISD. Then, in 2009, she decided to enroll at Texas Woman’s University, pursuing a second master’s, in library sciences. She also started volunteering at The Menil Collection to get some experience in archive work. It was there, standing on a ladder and running her hand over filing boxes marked with names like Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, that she had an epiphany.

“There were letters to Warhol inside that box,” Guthrie remembered. “There was all of this information that most people never get to see sitting right within my grasp. I knew what I really wanted to do.”

When a subsequent internship at Fondren Library turned into a job overseeing the university’s student-life archives, Guthrie found herself embarking on a project of her own making after a visit to an offsite storage facility, where she stumbled across around 25 boxes of long-forgotten recordings that had been made starting in the 1970s, at the university’s student-run radio station, KTRU. Fascinated, she got her hands on a reel-to-reel player, found a colleague to teach her how to work it, and started listening. Soon she was taking notes on all of the famous folk musicians who’d swung through KTRU during the heyday of Houston’s folk music scene, from the 1960s through the 1980s.

“I didn’t even know Houston had this really vibrant folk music community,” she recalled, “and suddenly I was listening to some of the big names—people that everyone knows came out of Houston, like Townes Van Zandt—but also I was finding these live recordings of people who were never as famous, but were still a part of that world.”

Guthrie started putting together spreadsheets documenting the information she had, as well as the names of people who might help her track down and better understand this relatively short period in Houston music history.

Her husband, a writing professor at Rice, soon got used to her spending her nights peering at these spreadsheets or going to concerts featuring musicians she’d discovered on the KTRU reels. She’d hand them USB drives of their own music before quickly asking whether they had other materials, or even just memories to share.

“If things aren’t documented, then things are lost. People die, their kids throw things away, and the stories are forgotten,” Guthrie said. “I thought that this was something that was important, and I wanted to make sure it wouldn’t be allowed to completely disappear.”

Eventually the library officially gave Guthrie the job of documenting the folk scene. “It worked out,” she said, grinning, “since that’s what I was already doing.” Last year Guthrie put all her research together into an online project that offers a map of where events happened in Houston, along with snippets of music, photos, and soundbites and videos from oral history interviews, all drawn from the Houston Folk Music Archive that Guthrie created for, and oversees at, Rice.

“I wanted to bring back what this scene was, to recognize that the scene existed, and that it happened here,” said Guthrie. “It wasn’t just happening in Austin. Lucinda Williams actually moved here from Austin because Houston was a better scene.”

Today, while she continues to seek out opportunities to build out the folk collection—getting Williams, Nanci Griffith, or Steve Earle to sit for oral history interviews would be huge, although Lyle Lovett is her white whale—Guthrie is turning her eye to other eras in Houston’s history. She’s already working on organizing the Houston Blues Museum archive that Rice took charge of back in June, a project that could take years.

“It will be harder with this one, because with the Houston blues, a lot of the people who were really part of it are already gone,” she said. “It’s always worth the work though. Archives have a way of telling so many different stories at the same time, of giving voice to all of the people who were involved, so you get a fuller picture of what a world was like.”

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