“Howl” Unleashed

Rare audio of Allen Ginsberg’s historic 1956 reading at Reed College to be released by Omnivore Recordings.

By Chris Lydgate ’90 | January 12, 2021

The raw, powerful, first-known recording of one of the most influential American poems of the late 20th century—Allen Ginsberg’s ”Howl”—will soon be available to the public, 65 years after Ginsberg read it before an awestruck audience at Reed College.

“Howl” is widely regarded as a seminal literary work with a profound influence on the Beat Generation and the counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s. “This poem is really important,” says Prof. Pancho Savery, professor of English and Humanities at Reed. “Every few years, a new generation rediscovers it—and gets turned on by it.”

Its first public reading took place at San Francisco’s famous Six Gallery in October, 1955. Along with Ginsberg, the evening included readings by Gary Snyder ’51, Philip Whalen ’51, Philip Lamantia, and Michael McClure. Poet Kenneth Rexroth was the emcee; Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Neal Cassady were in the audience. Unfortunately, no one thought to record this historic moment. Ginberg was recorded reading the poem at Berkeley a few months later in March, 1956, and for many years literary historians thought that recording was the first.

But they were wrong. Earlier in 1956, Ginsberg and Snyder went hitchhiking through the Pacific Northwest, and arrived at Reed, where they decided to hold a poetry reading in the common room of the Anna Mann dormitory. On February 14, Ginsberg read the first section of “Howl,” still very much a work in progress. And this time, someone brought a tape recorder.

“The Reed recording of February 1956 is superb, faithful in pitch and superior in sound quality to any presently known 1950s version,” writes historian John Suiter. “Allen is miked closely, so his volume is even throughout. His enunciation is clear, his timing perfect; he never stumbles. His accent is classic North Jersey Jewish, intelligent and passionate. The poet-as-saxman metaphor comes demonstrably true as we hear Ginsberg drawing in great breaths at the anaphoric head of every line. It’s a recording to be breathed with as much as listened to.”

The reel-to-reel tape sat unnoticed in Reed’s Hauser Library for more than 50 years until Suiter rediscovered it in 2008 while researching a biography of Snyder. This discovery made waves in scholarly and literary circles, but the recording itself remained somewhat obscure. Then in 2019, Cheryl Pawelski, co-founder of Omnivore Recordings, attended a Reed rugby match with her wife, Reed President Audrey Bilger. They struck up a chance conversation on the sidelines with Gregory MacNaughton ’89, the education outreach coordinator of Reed’s Cooley Gallery, who mentioned the tape. 

Pawelski, a Grammy Award-winning record producer, has long been interested in Ginsberg’s writing and performances. Omnivore had previously released two Ginsberg projects, The Complete Songs of Innocence and Experience (2017) and The Last Word on First Blues (2016). Excited by the prospect of making the historic recording of “Howl” available on Omnivore, Pawelski obtained permission from Ginsberg’s estate to release the recording, titled Allen Ginsberg At Reed College — The First Recorded Reading Of Howl & Other Poems. 

The new release features extensive liner notes written by Prof. Savery, an authority on Beat poets, with calligraphy by MacNaughton featured on the cover. The release date is April 2.

More Press

Allen Ginsberg's First Recorded Reading of 'Howl' to Be Released. Rolling Stone, 1/12/2021

First recording of Allen Ginsberg reading his controversial epic 'Howl' took place in Portland; now it's finally being released. The Oregonian, 1/12/2021

Lost 1956 Allen Ginsberg ‘Howl’ Recording to Be Released, Thanks to Omnivore/Reed College Connection. Variety, 1/12/2021

Tags: Books, Film, Music, Performing Arts, Reed History