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Woody Guthrie was never known as a lyrical provocateur but he wrote about everything from A to Z. (Bettmann / Corbis)

Woody Guthrie's Music Lives On

More than 40 years after the celebrated folk singer's death, a trove of 3,000 unrecorded songs is inspiring musicians to lay new tracks

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Singer-songwriter Jonatha Brooke saw an impish grin, and a twinkle in Nora Guthrie’s eye as Guthrie handed her the sheet with lyrics Woody Guthrie penned nearly 50 years ago. At the bottom was the notation to “finish later.” He never got the chance.

All ya gotta do is touch me easy
All ya gotta do is touch me slow
All ya gotta do is hug me squeeze me
All ya gotta do is let me know

Brooke figured it was some kind of test. This wasn’t what she expected from the author of Dust Bowl ballads and rousing working-man blues. She’d been invited to the midtown Manhattan offices of the Woody Guthrie Archives, administered by Nora Guthrie, his daughter, to set a few of his lyrics to music for a 2007 benefit.

“I said, yeah, maybe I could do something with that,” she recalls, laughing. “Maybe that’s going to be Woody’s first disco song.”

Guthrie knew then she’d made the right match. Woody Guthrie may have been known mostly as a lyrical provocateur, but he wrote about everything from A to Z, from diapers to sex, and she’d been looking for someone to bring his romantic side alive.

Brooke was “pretty ignorant” of Woody Guthrie’s life before she spent three days a week for a month poring over 26 folders organized alphabetically by title. “You’re just stunned by what you’re looking at,” she says. “The original ‘This Land Is Your Land' or the Coulee Dam song.”

She quickly started plotting how to transform the invitation into a larger project, succeeding when she brought Guthrie to tears with a performance of “All You Gotta Do” at the Philadelphia Folksong Society benefit in 2007. (When Guthrie heard “All You Gotta Do” at the benefit, it cemented the opportunity for Brooke to return and look through more lyrics to do a full album.) “The Works,” featuring ten tracks composed by Brooke but with Woody’s lyrics, was released last year. Over the days with Woody, Brooke developed a crush. “I said, ‘I’m in love with your father’,” she recalls telling Nora. “‘It’s a little bit morbid and kinda strange. Are you cool with this? She’d be like, ‘Oh yeah, everybody falls in love with Woody.’”

“I think Nora was tickled I was drawn to the really romantic and spiritual songs. It wasn’t topical or political to me,” Brooke says. “It was personal.”

Brooke is one of a few dozen contemporary songwriters who have been invited to put music to Woody Guthrie’s words, words he left behind in notebooks and on napkins, onion paper, gift-wrap, and even place mats. Huntington’s disease cut short his performing career in the late 1940s, leaving nearly 3,000 songs never recorded (he died in 1967). One of the most acclaimed covers of the unrecorded works was the collaboration between British neo-folkie Billy Bragg and alt-country rockers Wilco for “Mermaid Avenue,” released in 1998.

In recent years, contemporary folkies like Ellis Paul, Slaid Cleaves and Eliza Gilkyson have released songs mined from the archives. “Ribbon of Highway -- Endless Skyway,” an annual musical production celebrating Woody Guthrie’s songs and life travels, annually features Jimmy LaFave, a Texas-based singer-songwriter, and a changing cast of other performers including Sarah Lee Guthrie, Woody’s granddaughter, and her husband, Johnny Irion. She recently released “Go Waggaloo,” a children’s album featuring three songs with her grandfather’s lyrics on the Smithsonian Folkways label (which also maintains an archive of original Woody Guthrie recordings, lyrics, artwork and correspondence.

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About Jim Morrison
Jim Morrison

Jim Morrison is a freelance writer whose stories, reported from two dozen countries, have appeared in numerous publications including Smithsonian.com, the New York Times, and National Wildlife.

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