The Klezmatics uncover the Jewish Woody Guthrie

The Klezmatics

by Seth Rogovoy

(PITTSFIELD, Mass., December 5, 2003) – A chance backstage encounter at Tanglewood a few years ago between Nora Guthrie and Itzhak Perlman has had cultural, artistic and personal ramifications far beyond what anyone could have imagined at the time.

As a result of that accidental meeting between Woody Guthrie’s daughter and the famed violinist, Guthrie saw her own family history and lineage in an entirely new light, and was moved to explore it both personally and professionally in her work as the keeper of the Woody Guthrie Archives.

The result will play out publicly at the 92nd Street Y in New York on December 20 when The Klezmatics premiere their new project, “Holy Ground: The Jewish Songs of Woody Guthrie,” featuring mostly unknown song lyrics with Jewish themes written by Woody Guthrie, set to new music by the band. Arlo Guthrie and Phoebe Snow are also on the concert bill.

It took The Klezmatics – the modern klezmer band that performs on Saturday night at the Berkshire Museum (413-443-7171) – to reveal to Nora Guthrie and other members of the Guthrie clan that in addition to being descendants of the greatest American folksinger of the 20th century, they were also descendants of an esteemed Yiddish poet and lyricist. To them, grandma was simply “Bubbie” – the Yiddish name for grandmother – but to those who grew up in the Yiddish world, Aliza Greenblatt was a leading literary figure of the mid-century Yiddish revival.

When Perlman brought his “In the Fiddler’s House” all-star klezmer tour to Tanglewood, the Klezmatics, who were on the bill, performed their version of Greenblatt’s lyric, “Fisherlid.” Nora Guthrie was sitting in the audience that night, but she had no idea the song was written by her grandmother until she was introduced to Perlman after the show, and he asked her how she liked the version of her grandmother’s song.

“I almost fell through the floor,” recounts Guthrie in a story posted on the website of the Woody Guthrie Archives. “I never knew she wrote songs – I always thought she was just my Bubbie.”

In learning more about grandma Greenblatt -- the mother of Martha Graham dancer Marjorie Mazia, who eventually became Mrs. Woody Guthrie and Nora and Arlo’s mother -- Nora also learned that her father had a very close, special relationship with his mother-in-law. The two of them swapped lyrics and poems, and shared political and social leanings that at the time were part and parcel of Greenblatt’s Jewish background. Guthrie was both curious about and attracted to that culture, and eventually, as with anything that interested him, Jewish themes made their way into his songs.

In recent years, Nora Guthrie has worked to pair appropriate musicians with some of the hundreds of her father’s song lyrics that have never been seen or heard, such as the critically-acclaimed “Mermaid Avenue” albums by Billy Bragg and Wilco. As Guthrie got to learn more about her father’s Jewish work, and more about The Klezmatics’ Guthrie-like commitment to social justice, it became clear that they were the perfect group to tackle his Jewish texts.

In a recent phone interview, trumpeter/composer Frank London, a co-founder of The Klezmatics, spoke about the challenges of putting Woody Guthrie’s Jewish songs to new music.

“There are a bunch of Hanukah songs, about eight or ten of them, and some are silly in a typically Woody Guthrie way, but a couple of them border into another subject important for Woody -- he was a deeply, profoundly spiritual person,” said London. “And his spirituality was really a non-denominational spirituality. Sometimes there are specific Jewish references -- a couple of songs tell the history of the Jews, like ‘The Many and the Few’ – and he also did an adaptation of an old Carter Family song called ‘Little Moses.’”

“There are also a bunch of songs that are basically about life in Brooklyn, about Coney Island. One of them is called ‘Mermaid’s Avenue’ – ‘the place where the lox and the bagels meet…where the prettiest of the meydeles leave their legprints in the sand’,” quoted London, using the Yiddish word for girls.

London said the members of the group, all of whom are composers, divvied up the Guthrie texts and worked them into songs using a variety of approaches.

“Each person tried to find the intersection between Woody Guthrie and The Klezmatics,” he said, “and everyone found a different way. That’s The Klezmatics at our best. That’s our approach to everything.

“Almost everything we do shows that diversity. You have everything from songs that have no klezmer influences at all to songs that are totally klezmer. But very few of that extreme -- most have different views of the meeting point, because each of us went back to our own musical influences, which include klezmer and other things.”

There is talk of turning the Guthrie “Holy Ground” program into an album, perhaps the next Klezmatics recording. Also on the horizon for the group are a symphonic project, a gospel collaboration with Amina Myers and Joshua Nelson called “Freedom Sounds,” and a concert with Neil Sedaka, who recently recorded an album of Yiddish songs, to take place at Carnegie Hall next summer.

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on December 5, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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