GUTHRIE CATALOG BOWLS OVER BROOKE
October 15, 2008
By Christopher Treacy
Feminine Mystique: Woody Guthrie’s lyrics inspired Jonatha Brooke.
For her new CD, “The Works,” singer/songwriter Jonatha Brooke managed to get in touch with Woody Guthrie’s feminine side.
The Boston-to-New York transplant - whose show tomorrow at the Wilbur Theatre was postponed (until Nov. 18 at the Paradise) late yesterday when it was announced that co-headliner Glen Phillips suffered a hand injury - began by combing through the late Dust Bowl troubadour’s archives in search of lyrics for use in a tribute concert.
But as she became better acquainted with the man through his words, the relationship took on a life of its own. Brooke, 44, became smitten. The result is the first recording of nonpublished Guthrie prose set to music by a woman.
“It really was like a love affair,” Brooke said from Manhattan. “Woody’s daughter, Nora, may have invited me in. But in the end, I was pursuing both her and her dad.
“I learned quite a bit from his words and I’m forever changed for the better,” she continued. “Getting into his psyche and witnessing his incredibly prolific, tireless, unprecious body of work was inspiring beyond my wildest imagination.”
Brooke says a large part of what attracted her to Guthrie, who died of Huntington’s disease in 1967 at the age of 55, was his unusual ability to understand relationships from the viewpoint of both genders.
“It was right there staring cw0up at me,” she said. “I think the ability to emotionally cross gender lines is in us all, to some degree. There are times when my writing is up-against-the-wall masculine. But it was so striking and unexpected to discover that aspect of Guthrie’s character since it hasn’t been brought to light before. To me, his insights about how a woman would feel are breathtakingly poetic and sexy.”
Unlike “Mermaid Avenue,” the 1998 Billy Bragg and Wilco project that also married Guthrie’s prose with original music, Brooke got permission from Nora Guthrie to combine fragmented lyrics from her father’s later years, when Huntington’s had begun taking a toll.
“It was heartbreaking to see his handwriting deteriorating on the page,” she said. “It became so labored and hard to read. And yet, he was able to see beyond the confines of his circumstances. The words became simpler, but no less deep and searching. I didn’t think Nora would allow me to cut and paste, but she loved my idea.”
Brooke, who released the CD on her own Bad Dog label, recruited a team of top-notch players for the sessions, including bassist Christian McBride, pedal steel ace Greg Leisz and keyboard player Joe Sample.
“We recorded 13 songs in two days, which was all the time I could afford for these world-class guys,” she said. “It needed to be a visceral performance, and we took a live-session, old-school approach. The songs demanded it.”
A prolific songwriter in her own right, Brooke may be working for a while to pay for the Guthrie project.
“It’s all on my MasterCard,” she said with a nervous laugh. “I’d love to keep that momentum going and continue putting out a new record each year, but we’ll have to see what happens. Maybe I need to be more like Woody, to keep it simple and be less precious with myself.”
Jonatha Brooke, with Glen Phillips, at the Paradise Nov. 18. Tickets: $25; 617-931-2000.