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reed magazine logoAutumn 2008

Lost & Found by John Suiter

A recovered 1956 tape reveals the earliest voice recording of Gary Snyder ’51







Last spring, the earliest-known analog recording of Allen Ginsberg reading his iconic Beat poem “Howl” was discovered in the basement of Reed’s Hauser Library. John Suiter, a writer doing research for a biography of Gary Snyder ’51, happened upon the single reel of audiotape quite accidentally. [See “When the Beats Came Back,” by John Suiter, Reed, Winter 2008.] Labeled “Tape 2,” the reel lay in an archival box marked, simply, “Snyder Ginsberg 1956.”


Gary Snyder at twenty, during the time of “The Dimensions of a Myth” and “Songs for a Four-Crowned Dancing Hat”
II:3:13, Gary Snyder Papers, D-050, Special Collections, University of California, Davis

The two poets, Suiter knew, had hitchhiked through Portland in February of that year and had given readings on campus. (Jack Kerouac referred fictionally to the trip in The Dharma Bums, and there were several letters between Snyder, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Philip Whalen ’51 in various archives that mentioned the trip.) From his interviews with Reedites of that era, Suiter had heard that Ginsberg read “Howl” on that visit, and he guessed hopefully that a recording of the reading might be on the tape. If so, he knew it to be a significant find, because the earliest-known audio of “Howl,” until then, was from a Berkeley reading in March 1956, five weeks after the poets had visited Reed, and not of very good quality.

As it turned out, the Reed tape did capture a pristine and powerful recording of Ginsberg reading “Howl” and several of his early poems. The sound quality was so good that Reed, with permission from the Ginsberg estate, posted streaming audio of the poems on the college’s multimedia site.

Meanwhile, what of Snyder’s half of the 1956 reading? Beside Ginsberg’s reel was a note that contained disappointing news: “Tape #1 Missing.” An extensive (and continuing) search of the archives—Reed has many thousands of old tape reels—has failed to turn up the missing acetate. When the story of Reed’s “Howl” tape broke—and scores of newspapers around the world reported on it—Reedies wondered, along with Suiter, at the apparent loss of Tape 1. One couldn’t help but feel that a piece of Reed’s literary tradition had slipped through the cracks.

Then, the morning after the “Howl” story appeared in Portland’s Oregonian, Steven Halpern ’85, a Portland-based photographer, showed up at the door of Reed’s special collections with an audiocassette copy of the missing tape. He had made the copy 25 years before as an English major doing research on Snyder’s friend and fellow-poet Lew Welch ’50. Tape 1 contained Snyder’s reading. Furthermore, Halpern had meticulously transferred from the original reel all the labeling information, which not only confirmed the exact date of the reading—February 14, 1956—but also included this note:

Poetry Reading made in the school year ’55–1956 at Reed College [when] Snyder was on a trip North from San Francisco that is briefly described in Dharma Bums trip with Allen Ginsberg. Snyder talks about his lookout experiences and early poetry writing.

Although the original reel has yet to surface, Halpern’s cassette is a superb copy—virtually equal in sound quality to the Ginsberg companion reel—and is more than twice as long, containing a lengthy selection of 46 Snyder poems.

Following is Suiter’s assessment of the find.

audio iconListen to the earliest-known recording of Gary Snyder ’51 reading his work—from a poetry reading at Reed in 1956. Go to Reed's Multimedia Site.

pdf iconExcerpts from Gary Snyder's journals and letters are used in this article with his permission, and may not be reproduced in any form. Click here to download a pdf of the article that includes footnotes and sources.

reed magazine logoAutumn 2008