For Jonatha Brooke, the feeble scrawls of Woody Guthrie in his twilight are a city thing.
After all, she’s a city girl, and Guthrie played out his final years in the low-rise Gotham that seems determined to shove Coney Island out into the Lower New York Bay. So when Brooke spent two weeks of five-hour days poring over the music icon’s archives, scouring his material for an album she recorded last year, she was naturally drawn to the “curb of the city pavement, by the ash and garbage cans.”
She had never been “way down yonder in the Indian Nation,” but that will change when Brooke ” who currently lives in New York ” joins the folk faithful at the 12th annual, eponymous festival in Guthrie’s hometown of Okemah.
“I’m a little nervous that I’m a newbie, and I don’t want to offend anybody if I don’t know every detail of Woody’s life,” Brooke said. “I just know the Woody that I found. I went into the archives a little bit ignorant on purpose. I really wanted to find my own version of him.”
With her album “The Works,” she is the first female to record a full-length release featuring lyrics penned by the legendary Okie troubadour. In songs like “Madonna on the Curb,” Brooke spins Guthrie’s yarns into tightly woven pop songs sprinkled with concise solos and precise choruses.
She would do well to brush up on her Woody history as she joins dozens of folk connoisseurs and seasoned performers for the festival, which begins today and runs through to a collective Sunday “hootenanny.”
Performers at the well-established gathering include new faces like Brooke’s, as well as festival staples like Jimmy LaFave, Ellis Paul, Terri Hendrix, Lloyd Maines and Oklahoma native Stoney LaRue, who will make his second appearance with a 10:30 p.m. Thursday solo set.
SONGS AND SECRETS
For the first time, the folk festival will feature lectures from the chief Woody Guthrie archivist, Tiffany Colannino, and Anna Canoni, Guthrie’s granddaughter.
Colannino will offer a multimedia presentation, “Secrets of the Archives,” that includes Guthrie’s personal album collection, complete with handwritten annotations and early songs the folk singer recorded on wire reels, which were included in “The Live Wire,” a 2007 release that earned a Grammy for best historical album.
Canoni will retrace the resurgence of his music through the efforts of his daughter, Nora Guthrie, over the last 17 years. She has worked to push her father’s lyrics into the hands of popular musicians like Brooke or the Chicago rock outfit Wilco, hoping that the famed songwriter’s work will appeal to new legions of fans.
“Woody was always more more of a lyricist than a songwriter,” Canoni said. “He always said that if he could use someone else’s tune, then people would already kind of know the song.”
This year’s festival marks Canoni’s second trip to Okemah and her first in six years. Last time, she was treated to a grand tour by her uncle Arlo.
POPULIST AND GENDERLESS
Nora Guthrie opened the lyrical vault to Brooke after a charity performance in Philadelphia, where Brooke played two of Woody’s songs. Brooke said she was encouraged to tinker with the tunes and make them her own, including changing the gender of the narrator in the album’s final track.
Oddly enough, some of the songs had already been written from a woman’s perspective, and they automatically resonated with the 45-year-old folk singer. Shuffling through pages of yellow legal pads, she was drawn to work from his final years, which were plagued by Huntington’s disease.
“Many of the songs that I pulled and that I was responding to were from later, from when he was living in Coney Island, and actually three or four are from when he was already confined to the hospital,” she said. “They were barely legible. You couldn’t read his writing, but they were so plaintive and so yearning and kind of spiritual and simple.”
Canino said that Guthrie’s songs are malleable enough to fit a female pop vocalist or the more caustic tenor of British singer and activist Billy Bragg, because the songwriter touched on themes with a cyclical resonance.
In May, Wilco released its version of the Guthrie tune “Jolly Banker,” and offered it up for a free download with a suggested donation to the Woody Guthrie Foundation. The song ” all Oklahoma and no city ” strikes a populist chord that resonates even in today’s lean times:
“When the bugs get your cotton, the times they are rotten, I’m jolly banker, jolly banker am I / I’ll come down and help you, I’ll rake you and scalp you / Singin’ I’m a jolly banker, jolly banker am I.”
Woody Guthrie Folk Festival featuring Jonatha Brooke, Jimmy LaFave, Stoney LaRue and more perform Wednesday-Sunday in Okemah. “Grant Slater