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Jonatha Brooke: Rediscovering Woody Guthrie

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Jonatha Brooke: Rediscovering Woody Guthrie

Jonatha Brooke: Rediscovering Woody Guthrie

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(Soundbite of vintage recording)

Mr. WOODY GUTHRIE (Folk Musician): Here's an old song here that they sang back down in that country, and almost everybody knows it. The name of this one here is "Greenback Dollar."

(Soundbite of music)

LIANE HANSEN, host:

The late troubadour Woody Guthrie has had a profound influence on American music. His song "This Land is Your Land" is now a standard. His other classics include "Deportee," "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You," "Pretty Boy Floyd," and "Vigilante Man." Artists who have recorded his songs range from Bob Dylan and Joan Baez to Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison. And Guthrie was such a prolific writer that some of his lyrics have yet to be set to music. Singer-songwriter Jonatha Brooke was given access to the Guthrie archives and recently released a new CD with previously unreleased lyrics set to original music. It's called "The Works." And Jonatha Brooke is in our New York studio. Welcome to the program.

Ms. JONATHA BROOKE (Singer-Songwriter): Thank you so much.

HANSEN: How did you get access to the archives and the right not only to put them on a record, but set them to new music?

Ms. BROOKE: I was invited by Nora Guthrie, who is Woody's daughter - she's the gatekeeper and angel of the archives - to come in and peruse for a couple of songs for a benefit concert in Philadelphia. It was to benefit the Folksong Society there and honor the Guthrie family. I kind of got smitten. I fell in love with her father and was hoping to be able to do more, but had to sort of play it by ear until the benefit was over.

HANSEN: You described the experience in the archives that it was like going to church. How so?

Ms. BROOKE: Well, I think Woody Guthrie is the quintessential singer-songwriter of all time. I mean, I think he's inspired all of us in some way. It was sacred ground. And actually leafing through the actual manuscripts and notebooks and journals. And he wrote on everything. There was a wrapping paper that was single space typed for three yards. Everything was there and in his hand, and it just felt like magic.

(Soundbite of song "New Star")

Ms. BROOKE: (Singing) There's my new star in heaven tonight, tonight. There's my new star in heaven tonight.

HANSEN: You wrote that the first lyric that took hold of you was "New Star." Explain why.

Ms. BROOKE: It was on just a simple ripped legal pad piece of paper, one of those yellow things. And it was scrawled and scribbled, and you know, you really couldn't tell hardly what the words were. And at the bottom, he had written Brooklyn State Hospital, 1954. So I imagined, and I asked Nora, he had just recently checked himself into the hospital. He was struggling with Huntington's disease, which made him somewhat spastic and unable to care for himself. And it was just this simple, plaintive, heartbreaking lyric.

(Soundbite of song "New Star")

Ms. BROOKE: (Singing) When I'm gone, I'll shine bright for you. My new star in heaven tonight.

HANSEN: Did you find that the lyrics you were looking at were more personal than you expected, or that we know about Woody Guthrie?

Ms. BROOKE: Absolutely. And I think that's something that Nora and I hit it off over. It's funny because Nora told me when I got in there, you know, you're going to find yourself in here. There's so much Woody, that everyone who comes in here finds a piece of themselves somewhere in these writings. And sure enough, I found myself drawn to the love songs, the poetic ones: "My Sweet And Bitter Bowl," which is just gorgeous love poetry, and the more spiritual deep ones like "My Battle." You know, show me how to fight my battle in life, and I'll run away with you.

(Soundbite of song "My Battle")

Ms. BROOKE: (Singing) Show me how, how to fight my battle in life. Show me how to fight, and I'll run away with you. Teach me how, how to fight my hard times in life. Teach me how to fight, and I'll run away with you. I will never dread the day I will die. Because my sunset is somebody's morning sky.

HANSEN: Much has been made of the fact that you're the first woman to do this. Billy Bragg and Wilco released an album earlier of Guthrie's lyrics set to original music. You know, it seems rather appropriate because some of these really sound like a woman wrote them.

Ms. BROOKE: Well, that was another thing that surprised me. There were songs like "My Flowers Grow Green" which he wrote absolutely from a woman's perspective. I couldn't believe it. How did he know that I would feel something like that, that I could sing that honestly, you know, from - in my heartbroken tone, that that would be the way I would speak it or the way I would have wished to say it.

HANSEN: "He held me and kissed me and swore he'd be mine."

Ms. BROOKE: Ah! "When he came back last trip from the deep salty brine."

HANSEN: You have amazing people that are playing on this: Joe Sample, Christian McBride, Derek Trucks, you know, Eric Bazilian, Keb' Mo', people like that. I have to say, "All You Gotta Do Is Touch Me" sounds like a pop song.

Ms. BROOKE: That was one of the first songs that Nora showed me when I went into the archives. And it was basically all you gotta do is touch me, all you gotta do is kiss me, all you gotta do is hold me and, you know, I'll - I mean, it's gonna be good. And at the bottom of the page - again it was another legal pad kind of song - and at the bottom it said, "Finish later." So I kind of took that as an opportunity. And I think Nora was just sort of twinkling at me thinking, all right, is she going to take this? Is she going to do it?

And then I was reading the "Art Works" book, which is this beautiful book of his paintings and musings and - he was an incredible artist as well - and on page 194, I found the rest of that song. And it was this gorgeous quote. He says, "I fully aim to get my soul known again as the maniac, the saint, the sinner, the drinker, the thinker, the queer. I am the works, the whole works, and it's not until you've called me all of these things that I feel satisfied." And I was like, well, there's the rest of that song.

(Soundbite of song "All You Gotta Do is Touch Me")

Ms. BROOKE: (Singing) 'Cause I fully aim to get my soul known again. As the maniac.

Mr. KEB' MO' (Blues Musician): (Singing) The maniac.

Ms. BROOKE: (Singing) The saint.

Mr. MO': (Singing) The sinner.

Ms. BROOKE: (Singing) The drinker, the thinker, the queer. I am the works, the whole works.

Mr. MO': (Singing) The whole works.

Ms. BROOKE: (Singing) And it's not 'til you have called me all of these things.

Mr. MO': (Singing) Not 'til you have called me all of these things.

Ms. BROOKE: (Singing) That I feel satisfied. I feel satisfied.

Mr. MO': (Singing) Satisfied. Baby, all you gotta do is touch me.

Ms. BROOKE: (Singing) Touch me.

Mr. MO': (Singing) All you gotta do is touch me good.

HANSEN: I love that there are little notes that you've put. It's almost as he gave posthumous permission.

Ms. BROOKE: Permission, yes. Yeah. There were so many great little postscripts on the manuscripts and in his notebooks, and I took full advantage of them and really did want people to see the kind of crazy stuff that he wrote.

HANSEN: What did you learn about him from doing this that surprised you?

Ms. BROOKE: I learned that he just was this full spectrum of craziness. I mean he was a lover, a thinker, a drinker. You know, he was all over the place. And my most important lesson, I think, was that he just wasn't precious about himself. He didn't censor things. He just kept doing it.

HANSEN: You had to pick and choose through this amazing library of lyrics. Are there still lyrics that you'd like to set to music and will you follow up?

Ms. BROOKE: Oh, absolutely. I actually emailed Nora last week because there are two more that just popped right out. So I can't seem to get enough.

HANSEN: Do you have a favorite on this one?

(Soundbite of Ms. Brooke gasping)

HANSEN: I know it's like asking about your favorite child. I know.

Ms. BROOKE: Oh, well, this week I'll tell you which my favorite is. It's "Sweetest Angel."

(Soundbite of song "Sweetest Angel")

Ms. BROOKE: (Singing) Every night around eight o'clock, I wind the hands of my little clock. And when I look in the crystal glass, I see a lot of faces pass, Of those I knew and those I know. You now coming and you to go. Here's a word I'd like to whisper...

Ms. BROOKE: It may be because I just did a performance in a bookstore in the middle of nowhere in New Hampshire, and this little two-year-old boy was there. And he stood in the front, and he danced the whole time through that song. And I completely lost it by the third verse, and it was overwhelming. And that song is just - it's such a lovely - it could be to a lover, it could be to a child. It's just - there's something about it that's just very powerful.

HANSEN: Jonatha Brooke's original music arrangements of Woody Guthrie's lyrics can be heard on her new CD, "The Works," on Bad Dog Records. And she joined us from our New York studio. Thanks a lot.

Ms. BROOKE: Thank you so much.

(Soundbite of song "Sweetest Angel")

Mr. GLEN PHILLIPS (Musician): (Singing): When I hold you by your hand, I'm in my happy promised land.

HANSEN: That's Glen Phillips singing with Jonatha Brooke. To hear more of her Woody Guthrie music, visit nprmusic.org. This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

(Soundbite of song "Sweetest Angel")

Ms. BROOKE and Mr. PHILIPPS: (Singing) So let me come as close as I can, And lay me down beside you.

Ms. BROOKE: (Singing) Here's a word I'd like to whisper, Like to have you listen.

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