When Jonatha Brooke took on a co-writer for her album, The Works, she didn’t mess around. She got Woody Guthrie.
How? In 2007 Brooke was invited by Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, to write a song for a benefit concert using unpublished lyrics, notes and poems from her father’s archives in New York. Nora was so pleased with the results she threw open the collection to Brooke.
Over three months that fall, the New York-based songstress edited, pared, sliced and diced Woody’s lyrics, then set them to her own new music. In a furious two-day session in February 2008, Brooke and a crack band consisting of drummer Steve Gadd, guitarist Greg Leisz, bassist Christian McBride and keyboardist Joe Sample laid down some of her most melodic and adventurous music to date. Brooke uncovered a surprisingly romantic side of Guthrie, and the folk-music legend—who died from Huntington’s Disease in 1967 at the age of 55—sounds positively au courant alongside Brooke’s idiosyncratic brand of folk-pop.
We caught up with Brooke on tour in Germany, where she was still giddy with excitement over her once-in-a-lifetime collaboration.
Do you feel like this is Woody’s album, in a way?
No, not at all. I feel like it’s absolutely mine. Somehow it’s quintessential me, even though it’s Woody Guthrie’s words. Maybe it’s because I spent a lot of time in the archives, and I was able to pick and choose and edit. I pulled some things from the notebooks and journals, and was able to insert those into lyrics that already existed but weren’t quite completed. So I really had some leeway there.
How did you get access to them?
You have to be invited in, and you have to be on Nora Guthrie’s radar. She’s the gatekeeper.
And how did you get past the gate?
WXPN radio and the Philadelphia Folksong Society were involved in a big concert in Philly, a benefit for the society, but they were also taking the occasion to honor the Guthrie family. So they invited a few artists—me, John Gorka, Chris Smither—to go to the archives and choose a couple of songs we would premiere at this event.
I was only supposed to do a couple, but I got obsessed and begged Nora to let me do more. She said, “Well, let’s just wait and see how this goes,” because I don’t think she was that familiar with my music. I was auditioning, for sure (laughs). And then when she started crying at the concert during “New Star,” I was like, “OK, this is a good sign.” When I first saw that song, I started to cry, because his handwriting was so messed up you could barely read it, and at the bottom of the page it said, “Brooklyn State Hospital 1954.” I thought, “My God, what must have been going through his head when he wrote this?” So Nora came up to me immediately after the show and said, “Yes, yes, yes, let’s do more. We have to do a record!”
Seeing his handwriting, did it start to become intimidating?
Somehow for me it wasn’t, and it might be because I was woefully ignorant of all of his songs and his history. I knew, of course, he was the champion of the workers, and he wrote these amazing Dust Bowl ballads and “This Land Is Your Land.” But it wasn’t part of my vocabulary, really. I wasn’t freaked out, I just went, “Wow, this is a cool guy, let me get more!” There are all these facets to him that maybe no one has found before, or no one who’s been in here has been drawn to these types of songs, and they were right up my alley.
These are much more romantic than people think of from Woody …
Absolutely. And also, there are lyrics that are really feminine, that have this soulful kind of woman’s perspective. “My Sweet and Bitter Bowl” is one of the sexiest lyrics I’ve ever seen. Nora told me this story about the first night Woody and his wife Marjorie, Nora’s mother, ever slept together. He didn’t touch her; they just held hands all night long. Her telling that story gave me chills. This is Woody writing about Marjorie and her tentative physicality. She hadn’t opened up as a woman yet, and I started getting a vivid picture of this very sexual, very spiritual guy, the guy that we really didn’t meet in “This Land Is Your Land.”
Or the guy Dylan visited in the hospital …
Yes, little Bobby Zimmerman … Nora told me that by the time Dylan and all these other people were visiting Woody and paying him homage, he was really, really struggling with Huntington’s. He was already becoming a little spastic, and he wasn’t able to control his physical movements. So when he would sing, it was very blustery, and he would go, (in an early-Dylan wheeze) “Uhh-UHH, uhh-UHH!” That’s what people would start to imitate, rather than her healthy father who had been a meticulous speaker. He chose his words incredibly carefully. He would re-type lyrics four or five times until he got them perfect and punctuated correctly. And yet people were imitating the disease more than his actual cadence.
Did you get more inspired writing your music to these lyrics?
I don’t think I’ve ever been more inspired, or for such a long stretch. It felt like this freight train was coming through, and I’d better just get on and ride it, because I couldn’t stop. I was happy; a lot of times when I go into writing mode I have to go into this dark, torturous place (laughs), then come back up and find the next thing. But this was unbridled, joyful creation, and it started last October. It was incredible; each day I would sift through 60 or 80 lyrics that Nora let me pilfer from the archives. Usually within 10 or 15 minutes the melody would be obvious. When I found there was a missing piece, I would sort through prose or poetry or notebooks, or things from his art book I had marked off. And I’d go, “Oh, OK, there’s the missing piece. That’s the bridge!” I found it incredibly pain-free (laughs).
These sound like Jonatha Brooke songs, not the three-chord melodies we’re used to hearing in Woody’s songs.
I have to give Nora credit for trusting me with modifying things in ways that felt more like the way I would write a song. I didn’t want to sing 20 verses in a row, so I had to cut seven verses, and make it verse-chorus-verse-chorus, and she was like “Cool, go for it.”
But I dare say no one has ever put a Woody Guthrie song in 5/8 time …
(Laughs) Well, that’s my specialty—something had to be in 5/8! I was a little worried going in because the way he wrote was so straight—rhyme, rhyme, rhyme, 12 lines. But it was a great challenge to find my own musical joy in a straighter lyric.
How much input did the band have?
They were a huge part of how it turned out musically. I was really prepared with the charts, the songs and my part. I was excited and ready to record immediately, but these guys would hear them once or twice, and they would bring their own vast experience and genius to the tracks. So I didn’t really tell them what to do at all, and they just knocked me out on every single song.
You were surrounded by an impressive group of musical collaborators, after all.
Yeah, what am I going to say? “No, that’s not quite right, Joe Sample.” I was just thrilled to be in the room with them. I was trying to keep up my part so they wouldn’t kick my ass. We basically recorded everything in two days and then did a few overdubs; we were cooking. When Nora showed up at the studio and we started playing what we had done, she burst into tears. She couldn’t believe it was so soulful, and that her dad’s words could sound like this. It’s really been lovely having her championing the whole project.
There’s a line in “Sweetest Angel,” “Let me bring my scattered pages”—that’s a perfect songwriter’s line.
I know, that was my favorite one. That song is a hybrid; I took those lyrics from four different sources. One was just a scribble on a page somewhere, the other was half of a paragraph of something else, and then there was actually a song called “Sweetest Angel,” but I only took the chorus out of that, then found another couple lines from somewhere else.
It was so romantic; I love it. Nora’s daughter Anna called and said, “I know Grandpa wrote this song for me and my baby girl.” So it’s the kind of song that could be for a lover or a baby. It’s a lovely, romantic ballad.
So is this the favorite of your albums?
I love all my records; they’re like your children. But there’s something so honest and immediate about this one. You get in the zone, and you realize the vibe trumps perfect pitch and perfect time. We didn’t line up the drums; we didn’t use a click track; we didn’t fix the pitch; it had a thing, and we didn’t mess with it. Playing with these musicians was beyond my wildest dreams, and to be that inspired for that amount of time, and to be as in love today with the record as I was the day I was writing each song—I don’t remember feeling this passionate about a record.
Interview by Bob Cannon from Performing Songwriter Issue 112
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Note from Lydia: If you want other suggestions of CDs to buy while you’re visiting her site, I highly recommend “Plumb” — another of my all-time favorites. And also check out “The Angel In The House” that she and Jennifer Kimball released as The Story in 1993. That album is one of the Top 5 I couldn’t live without.
Category: Be Heard Jukebox Archive