(Folkways), recorded 1946-'47.

Sacco and Vanzetti, Aug 1927

Issued in 1964 (with an additional PETE SEEGER track) as Folkways FH5485.

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At about three o'clock in the afternoon of April 15, 1920, Parmenter, a paymaster, and Berardelli, his guard, were fired upon and killed by two men armed with pistols, as they were carrying two boxes containing the pay roll of the shoe factory of Slater and Morrill, amounting to $15,776.51, from the company's office building to the factory through the main street of South Braintree, Massachusetts. As the murder was being committed, a car containing several other men drew up to the spot. The murderers threw the two boxes into the car, jumped in themselves, and were driven away at high speed across some near-by railroad tracks. Two days later this car was found abandoned in woods at a distance from the scene of the crime.

At the time of the Braintree holdup the police were investigating a similar crime in the neighboring town of Bridgewater. In both cases a gang was involved. In both they made off in a car. In both eyewitnesses believed the criminals to be Italians. In the Bridgewater holdup the car had left the scene in the direction of Cochesett. Chief Stewart of Bridgewater was therefore, at the time of the Braintree murder, on the trail of an Italian owning or driving a car in Cochesett. He found his man in one Boda, whose car was in a garage awaiting repairs. Stewart instructed the garage proprietor to telephone to the police when anyone came to fetch it.

Pursuing his theory, Stewart found that Boda had been living in Cochesett with a radical named Coacci. Now on April 16, 192O, which was the day after the Braintree murders, Stewart, at the instance of the Department of Justice, then engaged in the wholesale rounding up of Reds, had been to the house of Coacci to see why he had failed to appear at a hearing regarding his deportation. He found Coacci packing a trunk and apparently very anxious to leave. At the time, Coacci's trunk and his haste to depart for Italy were not connected in Chief Stewart's mind with the Braintree affair. But when, subsequently, the tracks of a smaller car were found near the murder car, he surmised that this car was Boda's; and in the light of his later discoveries he jumped to the conclusion that Coacci, Boda's pal, had "skipped with the swag." As a matter of fact, the contents of the trunk were found eventually to be wholly innocent. In the meantime, however, Chief Stewart continued to work on his theory that whosoever called for Boda's car at Johnson's garage would be suspect of the Braintree crime. On the night of May 5, Boda and three other Italians did in fact call. To explain how they came to do so we must go back a few days.

During the proceedings for the wholesale deportation of Reds under Attorney General Palmer in the spring of l920, one Salsedo was held incommunicado in a room in the New York offices of the Department of Justice, on the fourteenth floor of a Park Row building. This Salsedo was a radical friend of Boda and his companions. On May 4 these friends learned that Salsedo had been found dead on the sidewalk outside the Park Row building. Already frightened by the Red raids, they bestirred themselves to "hide the literature and notify the friends against the federal police." For this purpose an automobile was needed, and they turned to Boda.

Such were the circumstances under which the four Italians appeared on the evening of May 5 at the Johnson garage. Two of them were Sacco and Vanzetti. The car was not available and the Italians left, but the police were notified. Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested on a street car, Boda escaped, and the fourth, Orciani, was arrested the next day.

Felix Frankfurter, The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti, Atlantic Monthly, March 1927.

When Woody returned from the army, Asch offered him several hundred dollars to write a series of ballads about an event that still was a painful memory to many American leftists (including Asch himself) twenty years after the fact -- the Sacco and Vanzetti case.

Woody took the job gladly and ruminated -- uncharacteristically -- at length about how he might convey the anguish of the two Italian immigrants, wrongfully commited of murder and robbery, awaiting death in the electric chair. He called the assignment "the most important dozen songs I've ever worked on," and began filling a notebook with ideas in March of 1946, trying to imagine how the two must have felt arriving in America:

"I can just see you walking into our big Eastern cities for your first time. I guess you walked along a good bit faster than I did, this is because I always did walk awful slow and look around a lot..."
He saw them passing through a chamber of horrors in the streets that were supposed to be paved with gold, and their anger rising as they saw:
"Faces against walls, an eye gone, an ear missing, no teeth, open boils, sores of the syph and you heard there was no cure. There was no cure known, and the words whirled and spun around in your head. No cure for the people. No cure for the streets."
But despite Woody's ability to identify with their alienation and also, perhaps, their martyrdom, the songs wouldn't come... at least no real memorable songs came. The old country tunes, which had served so well for the Dust Bowl Ballads and the Columbia River songs and all the others, seemed unnatural and trite when applied to the agony of Sacco and Vanzetti; the results were superficial and forced. Woody recorded some of his attempts for Asch in 1946, but never was quite satisfied with them. After traveling to Boston and Plymouth in November of that year, hoping that a firsthand look at the various sites of the case might help, he implied failure in a letter to Asch:
"I feel like the trip to Boston was just a little bit hurried and hasty. I did not get to go to all the spots plainly mentioned in the pamphlets and books.... So I say, let's forget about the Sacco and Vanzetti album for the time being. It will be lots better when I can get a car and my own way of traveling from one scene to the other one. I'm drunk as hell today, been that way for several days.... I refuse to write these songs while I'm drunk and it looks like I'll be drunk for a long time."
Years later, Asch released an inferior collection of the songs Woody recorded before he gave up on the project, with the inscription: "Commissioned by Moses Asch -- 1945. Composed and sung by Woody Guthrie -- 1946-47."

Joe Klein, Woody Guthrie: A Life, London/Boston, 1988, pp. 313-314.


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