Barry Ollman Collections

Wild About Woody

Denver collector boasts Guthrie trove

by G. Brown

Originally published in the Denver Post

Sunday, July 28, 2002 - When Barry Ollman hears the increasingly uncommon rat-tat-tat of a manual typewriter, he is instantly back in his childhood home in Milwaukee, listening late at night while his father churned out stories as the Midwest stringer for Billboard magazine.

Barry Ollman at home with some of his Woody Guthrie memorabilia. Originally published in the Denver Post.
Barry Ollman at home with some of his Woody Guthrie memorabilia.

"I went to bed every night with my dad clacking away in the next room," Ollman says. "I still love that sound.

That affection for paper and emotional bond with the written word led Ollman, 49, to what might seem an unusual avocation for a stockbroker: He has amassed the largest private collection of papers of seminal folk musician and social activist Woody Guthrie.

Guthrie, the most famous and important figure in American folk music, would have been 90 years old this month. At his home near the Denver Tech Center, Ollman reflects on Guthrie's legacy and his own fascination with him and other historical figures.

He starts trotting out the goodies he's brought over from secure off-site locations. He brandishes Guthrie's 1943 autobiography, "Bound for Glory." The book is widely available, but this is a rare first edition, with an inspirational inscription from Guthrie. Ollman grabs a copy of Guthrie's first book, "American Folk Songs," and reveals that the artist wrote and watercolored on nearly every page.

"He wrote on anything and everything he could get his hands on, if it was a roll of toilet paper or somebody else's book," Ollman says as he produces a Guthrie painting of a Southwest building.

The Guthrie correspondence keeps on coming. Here is a letter illustrated with a hand-painted self-portrait. Another is an erotic missive to one of his female friends on the back of a book sleeve.

Every item is housed neatly in custom-made boxes, sheathed in acid-free paper and plastic sleeves.

The largest Guthrie archive is the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archive in New York City, founded by Guthrie's daughter, Nora Guthrie. The Library of Congress has another collection of his papers. The Smithsonian has all of Guthrie's letters and liner notes for Folkways Records, which transferred to Washington when Folkways founder Moses Asch died.

But Ollman's archive is singularly important.

"He's been the first to offer Woody Guthrie stuff he's collected over the years for exhibits, publications and other projects," Nora Guthrie says. "I know he thinks of himself as a collector, but I always feel that his part is collecting the artifacts of history, and he's always willing to share them to educate and illuminate Woody Guthrie's place in music history."

But those artifacts are only a small percentage of what Ollman has acquired. He starts proffering a mind-boggling assortment of historical nuggets.

"My passion is handwritten letters with interesting content from famous people," he says. "It's amazing to hold a poignant, beautifully written letter from Teddy Roosevelt about the death of a friend's son."

His collection includes a letter from Rudyard Kipling discussing "The Jungle Book," and a manuscript edition of the writings of Henry David Thoreau with a handwritten page from "Walden." There is correspondence from Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, Henry Longfellow, Jules Verne, Oscar Wilde, H.G. Wells, Damon Runyan, John Steinbeck and many others.

Ollman pauses when he comes to a letter from Robert E. Lee with the annotation, "signature eaten by mice."

"That's why this stuff is rare," he muses. "Imagine what's been lost to floods and fires over the years."

The "musicians" file includes a letter Buddy Holly wrote to his mother in 1957 and a note Elvis Presley sent to a girlfriend in 1955. There's a customized Louis Armstrong autograph - "Here's Satchin Atcha." Signatures from John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Pete Seeger.

It's a mind-boggling cavalcade of history.

The source

Woody Guthrie is to American folk music what Louis Armstrong is to jazz and Elvis Presley is to rock 'n' roll - the clearest, deepest source.

Bob Dylan is unimaginable without Guthrie. He began his career in total, awestruck emulation. Popular and folk musicians such as Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bragg, Wilco, Ani DiFranco and countless others continue to draw inspiration from him, reinterpreting and reinvigorating his songs for new generations. Guthre's effect was not only profound on music. Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac, naturalist filmmakers, vernacular poets and populist politicians owe him a debt.

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born of pioneer stock on July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Okla., a small frontier town. After his childhood, he went to California with firsthand knowledge of the Dustbowl diaspora chronicled in John Steinbeck's novel "The Grapes of Wrath."

While traveling through America in the '30s, '40s and into the '50s, the Okie leftist was a remarkable, energetic activist, writing literally a thousand gritty, acoustic story songs, many of which remain folk standards to this day. They range from outlaw ballads to depictions of the Dustbowl to children's tunes to political calls-to-arms. "This Land Is Your Land" is his beautiful portrayal of America's natural glory. "Deportee" subtly depicts discrimination against migrant workers.

The astonishingly prolific composer enjoyed projecting naivete. His raw, primitive musical approach amounted to his voice and an acoustic guitar, sometimes adding a harmonica. But the quality of his simple, prophetic tunes and the intensity of his performances captured the plight of the marginalized, disenfranchised and oppressed people with whom he struggled to survive. He also created dozens of poems, exhaustive journals, novels and other autobiographical material.

Guthrie was felled by Huntington's chorea, a hereditary neurological disorder. The degenerative disease of the muscles gradually robbed him of his hard but ecstatic life. In 1954, he checked into a hospital, one of several that he would go in and out of the next 13 years. He died in Queens, N.Y., on Oct. 3, 1967, at age 55.

Guthrie's "people songs" are his most recognized contribution to American culture, but as Ollman discovered, the honesty and wit found in his prose writings exhibit his fervent belief in social, political and spiritual justice.

"I love that Guthrie stood up for the little guy," Ollman says. "When he went to California in 1937, the Okies who had weathered the dust storms were not exactly welcome. People were happy to have them pick their grapes but wouldn't let them drink their wine. Woody was a champion of his people. He was there at every turn, singing and trying to get them some recognition as being legitimate.

Ollman's fascination with Guthrie's writings began 15 years ago when he learned of a 1948 Guthrie letter that also included a self-portrait. "It just blew my mind. I couldn't believe that there was something of his on paper. It was like finding a Johnny Appleseed letter. I called the guy. He had just sold it. That really got me going. I begged the guy who had bought it to resell it. Two years later, he eventually did."

Ollman became a Guthrie aficionado.

He soon discovered that many people "saved Woody's letters, because they were very charming and funny and outrageous. They range from single-spaced typed letters to perfectly handwritten letters."

Nora Guthrie asked Ollman to be one of the first to join the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives' board of advisers, a roster which includes Dylan, Springsteen and dozens of notables.

"I met Barry at the official opening of the Archives in 1996," Nora Guthrie says. "I was at a preconcert dinner and a guy came along and stuck a check in the palm of my hand. A few weeks later I found the check in my jeans pocket. That's when I first read the name Barry Ollman.

"He's been with me ever since. He is often the eyes and ears of newly found Guthrie "stuff' - I call it stuff, he's more serious about it - like a hound on the trail."

Harold Leventhal was Woody Guthrie's manager, the guy who arranged to get Guthrie songs copyrighted and set up the Guthrie childrens' trust funds.

"Barry's been invaluable, because he's taken his admiration for Woody Guthrie to other people in the folk scene," Leventhal, 83, says. "When we have some problems or ideas of how to handle the Archives, we call upon him and throw them out for him to review. He's done the best job possible."

Leventhal sold Ollman the original handlettered poster of Bob Dylan's first major concert at Town Hall in New York. "I think they're glad to see me out there finding things. They know a lot of this material would get lost otherwise."

Guitar player at 8

Benn Ollman wrote for Billboard, the music-industry trade journal, for 25 years starting about 1950, and he turned the Ollman household into music central. Barry, the third of three sons, started playing guitar when he was 8, and he read the Billboard charts with enchantment.

"My dad wrote about everything from record distributors to concert reviews. He traveled and knew Nat King Cole and Les Paul. He took me to see Jimi Hendrix. I had a long conversation with him and Frank Zappa when I was 15. I never forgave him for not taking me to the Rolling Stones press conference in 1965, but I have the photographs, which have never been published."

About to graduate from high school a year early, Ollman quit. His father wrote a letter to the principal, saying Ollman was "leaving to seek new horizons." In 1970, Ollman was one of eight students who started the Milwaukee Independent School, covered by The New York Times as an educational experiment.

"We had 30 students by the time we opened. It was small classes, taught by volunteers in the community and some professors from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee."

Soon Ollman traveled to Colorado and never left. He started work as a real estate agent, then got into the brokerage business in 1982. He's now at Stifel, Nicolaus Inc., which recently merged with Hanifen, Imhoff, where he started 16 years ago and works as an institutional broker.

"Barry's a successful businessman, but he's very honest about it," says Ed Cray, a biographer of George C. Marshall and Earl Warren and who has a scholarly bio of Guthrie coming out next year. "I think that explains in part why so many people like and trust him. He's respected, a mensch, a stand-up guy."

Ollman had started collecting autographs as a kid, but when his folks sold their house, his collection mysteriously disappeared.

"At that point I started rebuilding it as a buyer. I went out and tried to find people who dealt in autographs, trying to reconstruct what was there. It quickly went beyond that."

Ollman dusts off an old English leatherbound autograph book, the first item he purchased. Signatures of Gerry & the Pacemakers, the Swinging Blue Jeans and other '60s acts dot the pages. And there, interspersed with Bobby Rydell and Duane Eddy, are the autographs of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

"I saw that and loved it. I realized these types of things were out there."

Ollman started calling autograph dealers around the country asking for Woody Guthrie items.

"They all chuckled. That's when I knew I was on to something good."

However, there is a focus to the material Ollman collects, a focus that meshes with his own views of social justice.

"It's along the lines of underdogs," he says of the collection. "I've come to be interested in women's material, black material, people who had to struggle. It fascinates me. I don't collect Nazis or modern athletes. I like people who fought for a cause to make the world a better place."

Three years ago, Ollman joined the board of "e-town," the environmental-themed radio program based in Boulder.

"I love the way "e-town' blends music and message. It has a lot of outreach, the ability to spread awareness of dozens of small organizations."

"Barry . . . had an understanding of how nonprofits work and the way the music business works," "e-town" chief (and musician) Nick Forster says. "He quickly became the chair of the board and made an impact."

Ollman is also an investor and partner for TransPerformance, the self-tuning guitar company in Fort Collins.

"The company has been struggling for a few years, but we're trying to pull it out of the dust," Ollman says. "A lot of great players use it - Jimmy Page, Pat Metheny, Sonny Landreth, Graham Nash."

Ollman counts rocker Nash among his closest friends, as they have a shared interest in photography.

"When I first met Barry, it was obvious that he had integrity, and a sense of community and history - and he far outplays me on the guitar," says Nash, who will perform in Denver on Sept. 26. "He's a wanna-be rock 'n' roller."

Change in the rules

In the age of cyberspace and eBay, the rules have changed, Ollman says. He's been collecting steadily for two decades, and for a long period he could buy whole collections cheap.

"It was a very inefficient market back in the day. You could have bought a Lincoln signature for $500. But now people have focused on the value of an autograph."

Friends gently tease Ollman. Forster feels "a little guilty seeing some of these things, the voyeuristic nature of looking at somebody else's intimate conversations with their friends."

But it is the stuff of history, Ollman says. "History comes largely from correspondence. Find one letter, then another, put them together and it paints a picture of a place in time, a snapshot of an era."

So what is the Holy Grail in his quest for Guthrie's essence?

"Maybe one of Woody's guitars that bore the legend "This machine kills fascists.' I've been looking forever. I've heard about one in California that was painted black, which ruined it. It's not restorable."

As Ollman packs these shards of history back into their neat boxes, he recognizes the good fortune that his passion brought him to this nexus of music and history.

"I'm grateful to be a steward of this stuff. It's wound up in the hands of someone who appreciates it. That's no accident."

Legend's legacy lingers on

A look at the life and music of Woody Guthrie:

Name: Woodrow Wilson Guthrie

Born: July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Okla., to Charles and Nora Guthrie

Died: Oct. 3, 1967, at Creedmore State Hospital, Queens, N.Y.

Key songs: "Do-Re-Mi,' "The Grand Coulee Dam,' "Pastures of Plenty,' "Pretty Boy Floyd,' "Roll On, Columbia,' "So Long (It's Been Good to Know You),' "This Land is Your Land.'

On record: Numerous collections of Guthrie's recordings have appeared since his death; one of the best is "This Land is Your Land: The Asch Recordings Vol. 1' (Smithsonian/Folkways, 1997). Three subsequent CDs in the "Asch Recordings' series focus on different aspect of Guthrie's career: covers of traditional folk tunes in Vol. 2, political songs in Vol. 3, cowboy/western music in Vol. 4. The four CDs are also available in one box.

Biographies: Guthrie's 1943 autobiography, "Bound for Glory,' was made into an Oscar-nominated movie in 1976 with David Carradine as Guthrie. Joe Klein's 1980 book "Woody Guthrie: A Life' is the definitive biography.

Did you know that: Guthrie served overseas with the U.S. merchant marine during World War II . . . He wrote numerous songs for children . . . Guthrie's son Arlo became a successful folk-rock singer . . . Rockers Billy Bragg and Wilco recently recorded two albums of Guthrie's lyrics set to new music, "Mermaid Avenue,' volumes 1 and 2.

This song is your song: The U.S. Air Force Band's Singing Sergeants released their version of this one-time communist sympathizer's song "This Land Is Your Land' on a 1999 album. Among the dozens of other artists who have recorded Guthrie's best-known song: Bruce Springsteen, the Boston Pops, Glen Campbell, the Mormon Youth Chorus & Symphony, Lee Greenwood, Harry Belafonte, Flatt & Scruggs.