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Jonatha Brooke: Rediscovering Woody Guthrie

The late folksinger and icon 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." Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen, Wilco and Van Morrison, among countless others, have all covered his songs.

Guthrie was such a prolific writer that some of his lyrics have yet to be set to music. Singer-songwriter Jonatha Brooke, having been given access to the Guthrie archives, recently released a new CD (The Works), which adapts previously unreleased Guthrie lyrics.

After Guthrie's daughter Nora invited Brooke to look through the archives for a benefit in Philadelphia, Brooke says she "kind of got smitten" with Guthrie's work. But she had to wait until the benefit was over to go back for more.

She says the experience of going through Guthrie's archives was like "going to church."

"I think Woody Guthrie is the quintessential singer-songwriter of all-time. I think he's inspired all of us, in some way. It was sacred ground," Brooke says. "It just felt like magic."

Brooke, formerly of the band The Story, says the lyrics she discovered were much more personal than she expected.

"I think that's something Nora and I hit it off over," Brooke says. "Nora told me when I got in there, '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.' "

Brooke says she found herself drawn to poetic love songs like "My Sweet and Bitter Bowl" and the more spiritual, deep ones, like "My Battle."

Throughout the process of going through the archives, Brooke says she's taken away some important observations about Guthrie's persona.

"I learned that he was just this full spectrum of craziness. He was all over the place," she says. "My most important lesson was that he just wasn't precious about himself. He didn't censor things; he just kept doing it."

Brooke says she wants to adapt more Guthrie lyrics from the archives.

"I actually e-mailed Nora last week, because there are two more that just popped right out," she says. "I can't seem to get enough."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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