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Caedmon: Recreating the Moment of Inspiration

In 1952, Barbara Holdridge and her best friend, Marianne Roney, had just graduated from college when they made a move that would forever change the literary world. Looking for a way to get into the record business, the two young women heard that Welsh poet Dylan Thomas was due to give a public reading at New York's 92nd Street Y.

They decided they would go and record him.

This year is the 50th anniversary of Caedmon Records, the company Holdridge and Roney formed to record the spoken word performances of Thomas, T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and other famous writers. The idea was a catalyst for today's $2-billion audiobook industry.

NPR's Renee Montagne reports for Morning Edition, that at the time Holdridge and Roney pursued Thomas, he was "at least as well known for his drinking as his writing."

Holdridge, who was then Barbara Cohen, tells Montagne that she and Roney went to the Y and were "snobbily turned away by the usher, who said, 'Mr. Thomas will not see you.'"

They signed a note with their first initials and last names so that Thomas "would have no inkling that we were women," Holdridge recalls. "Little did we know he would have been extremely interested if he had known that we were young and unmarried."

But the women persisted and finally did get in touch with Thomas. As Montagne reports, "Several missed recording studio appointments later, there stood Dylan Thomas, poems in hand. But not enough, it turned out, to fill a long-playing record. A catastrophe in the making, remembers Barbara Holdridge, since the B side had to have something on it, or they couldn't put out the record."

They asked the poet if he had anything else he could record. Holdridge says: "He thought for a minute, and he said, 'Well, I did this story that was published in Harper's Bazaar that was a kind of Christmas story.'" It was "A Child's Christmas in Wales."

They borrowed the only known file copy from the magazine. "That was dusting off something that undoubtedly would have remained buried and that became one of the most loved and popular stories recorded in the 20th century and certainly gave us the start that we needed to become a viable company," Holdridge says.

She describes the Thomas recording as a "momentous" experience. "We had no idea of the power and beauty of this voice. We just expected a poet with a poet's voice, but this was a full orchestral voice."

Holdridge explains the goal of the Caedmon recordings. "We did not want to do a collection of great voices or important literary voices," she says. "We wanted them to read as though they were recreating the moment of inspiration. They did exactly that. They read with a feeling, an inspiration that came through."

Today Caedmon Audio is part of HarperCollins. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Caedmon recordings, the publisher has released Dylan Thomas: The Caedmon Collection, which includes previously unavailable recordings.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.