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A German Twist on Woody Guthrie

Wenzel: "My vocabulary is only Woody Guthrie songs."
Astrid Riecken for NPR News
Wenzel: "My vocabulary is only Woody Guthrie songs."
Woody Guthrie's daughter Nora is executive director of the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives.
Astrid Riecken for NPR News /
Woody Guthrie's daughter Nora is executive director of the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives.
Hans Eckhardt Wenzel performs one of Woody Guthrie's songs.
Astrid Riecken for NPR News /
Hans Eckhardt Wenzel performs one of Woody Guthrie's songs.

When folk songwriting legend Woody Guthrie died in 1967, he left behind more than 3,000 songs, most of them unpublished and unrecorded.

His daughter Nora maintains an archive of this material, and every so often, she hand-picks a musician to set some of these lyrics to music. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports on Nora Guthrie's unlikely selection for the latest anointed artist — a German cabaret star and former clown, and the first non-English speaker given full access to the famed folk singer's huge archive of songs.

Nora Guthrie could have asked anyone to record her father's old lyrics. "Billy Brag and the roots band Wilco were obvious choices. Hans Eckhardt Wenzel is not," Ulaby says.

With help from Nora Guthrie, Wenzel chose 14 songs, translated them into German, and composed music for them in the style of classic Weimar cabaret — complete with a tuba and brass section. It's a huge departure from how Woody Guthrie delivered his message, alone with just a voice and an acoustic guitar — as Nora Guthrie characterizes her father, "our little lone acoustic Dustbowl balladeer."

Nora Guthrie says she doesn't think her father's songs should be pigeonholed, and believes that instruments other than acoustic guitars and harmonicas can do them justice. And Wenzel says Nora Guthrie encouraged him to interpret the songs in his own way.

"When I meet the first lyric from Woody, I falled in love with his lyrics — it is a friend of me," Wenzel says in halting English. A native of the former East Germany, Wenzel also speaks Russian and his skills in English were only recently acquired. "My vocabulary is only Woody Guthrie songs.

"And I don't know if possible, a German musician... compose American folk lyric man. (But) Nora says it's OK, you can do it."

Nora Guthrie's ancestors left Central and Eastern Europe during the 19th century. Wenzel says he is bringing Woody Guthrie's music back home, completing a circle. It's an act, he says, that unites the histories of Americans and Europeans.

Throughout the 1980s, Wenzel was a political dissident. His cabaret shows mocked the East German government and the secret police. His performances were canceled, his recordings suppressed and he was briefly jailed.

Wenzel says audiences in Germany were skeptical about his decision to record an album of Woody Guthrie songs. But Wenzel shrugs off the criticism with a newly learned phrase in English: "No risk, no fun."

"Wenzel says he feels he's joined what he calls a spirit club with Woody Guthrie — they share what the Germans call a geist," Ulaby says. "And like Woody, he feels his mission is to keep singing simple songs about some of the most difficult things in the world."

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Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.
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