House Carpenter: A Song's Journey Through the Archives
By Tom Tierney,
Director, Sony Music Archives Library
Somewhere in the middle of the November 1961 recording sessions that produced Bob Dylan’s first Columbia Records release, the song “House Carpenter” was retrieved from Bob’s repertoire and set to tape: it was not ultimately selected for the album’s final tracklist, but the performance easily equaled if not surpassed that of other songs put on the record.
Where did the 20-year old find this ancient ballad? Well, for one, he almost certainly heard it for the first time on the “Ballads” volume of “The Anthology Of American Folk Music,” compiled by Harry Smith for Folkways in 1952. The version used there (without permission, incidentally) was a Columbia Records recording from 1930, by the one-eyed clawhammer banjo player Clarence “Tom” Ashley.
This card from the Sony Music Archives documents the release of “House Carpenter.” The song’s matrix number, W194982, is the unique indentifying number assigned to the master by Columbia, and 15654-D the number of the record itself (the 15000 block of numbers is the label’s legendary “hillbilly” series). The song, recorded on April 14, 1930, was released in May 1931 with an initial order from the Bridgeport (“Bpt.) factory for 765 copies, with an additional (and unbelievably paltry) 35 for the west coast from the Oakland, California, plant. The handwritten “588” and “30” usually indicate sales figures per month, but mysteriously, these numbers were written in boxes that would indicate sales prior to the release of the song. Human error or some arcane clerical shorthand lost to history?
At any rate, the song received its most famous recording 31 years later: here’s a Columbia Records “job sheet” cataloging that day’s events at Studio A in New York City:
The man with the blue pen was John Hammond, and he oversaw this, the second session for “Bob Dylan,” November 22, 1961, from 2:30 to 5:25pm. (With nine songs laid down, that’s a hair under 20 minutes per song on average.) The “CO” numbers assigned to each song are unique identifiers for each Columbia Records session master in New York (Hollywood recordings received an HCO number, Nashville NCO, etc.) And there’s a card for those too:
The CBS Artist Contract Cards (which are neither contracts nor cards: discuss) also list Columbia recording session data, but from more of an a&r and release schedule perspective than from a recording studio perspective.
These documents were created by the Columbia A&R department prior to release: a pencil strikethrough indicated that the master was released on album or single (entries for masters left in the can were left unmolested). The two songs on this page that made it to “Bob Dylan,” “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” and “Fixin’ To Die,” have mono and stereo lp numbers (and release date) entered to the far left of “Grave,” and the mono and stereo matrix numbers of the lp to the near left.
Thankfully, no one at Columbia in 1991 went back and added strikethroughs to the songs that were released for the first time on Volume One of “The Bootleg Series”: likewise, we promise to refrain from any future note-taking on any vintage company documentation.
Note: Clarence Ashley's recording of "The House Carpenter" was compiled by the legendary Harry Smith on the first of the Anthology of American Folk Music LP sets released by Folkways in 1952. Enormously influential on a generation of musicians since then, the Anthology is currently in print and available, and strongly recommended.
Bob Dylan's recording of "House Carpenter" is found on "The Bootleg Series, vol. 1-3: Rare and Unreleased 1961-1991"