A “lost” recording of Allen Ginsberg reading his then-fresh epic poem “Howl” in 1956 will be released for the first time in April, thanks to a personal connection between Reed College, where the performance was recorded 65 years ago, and the archivally oriented label Omnivore Recordings.
“Allen Ginsberg at Reed College — The First Recorded Reading of Howl and Other Poems” is set for release April 21 on Omnivore on digital, CD and vinyl formats … including a limited “Reed-red” LP edition celebrating the school color of the original host site, which will be available in the Reed College bookstore as well as the label’s website.
The recording is the oldest one existing of Ginsberg reading the 1955 work that established beat poetry as a household term and informed the ’60s counterculture to come. It was put down on tape on Valentine’s Day, 1956, on the second of a two-day appearance by Ginsberg at the esteemed Oregon school.
The tape went forgotten until 2007, when author John Suiter found it in a box at Reed’s Hauser Memorial Library while doing research on another poet who read at the college that day, Gary Snyder. Its discovery made the news after being verified the following year. But it was to still go unheard to the general public until a Hollywood-Oregon connection made its release inevitable.
Reed named Dr. Audrey Bilger its president in 2019. Bilger happens to be married to Cheryl Pawelski, the Grammy-winning co-founder of Omnivore Recordings, who had moved to Oregon herself upon Bilger’s appointment. Omnivore already had history with Ginsberg, having released “The Complete Songs of Innocence and Experience” in 2017 and “The Last Word on First Blues” in 2016. Using her existing connections with the Ginsberg estate, Pawelski sent the tape to Grammy Award-winning engineer Michael Graves to have it transferred, restored and mastered.
“It was wonderful to discover that a tape existed of Ginsberg’s reading of Howl at Reed College,” Pawelski tells Variety. “The fact that it is the first-ever recorded reading, and that I could be helpful in bringing this historic recording to a broader audience, is thrilling. It feels like it was meant to be, since Omnivore had previously worked with the Ginsberg estate.”
Says Bilger, “I’m pleased that this important literary work has a place in Reed College’s history, and I was honored to be able to assist in the editing of the liner notes by Reed College professor, Pancho Savery.”
The first public reading of “Howl” took place in San Francisco in 1955, and went unrecorded. A reading at Berkeley in March 1956 did emerge on tape, but it only came to light upon Suiter’s 2007 discovery that it was not the first version recorded.
Beyond Savery’s liner notes, Gregory MacNaughton of the Calligraphy Initiative in Honor of Lloyd J. Reynolds was commissioned to create an album jacket designed to look like what a campus poster might have in 1956.
The label says the soon-to-be-released recording is “crystal clear; you can not only hear Ginsberg turning the pages, but taking breaths after each long line. The audience is pin-drop quiet except for a few places in the reading, for instance, one moment when someone in the audience says something that can’t be heard that elicits laughter, to which Ginsberg responds, ‘I don’t want to corrupt the youth.'”