The Klezmatics - Wonder Wheel and Woody Guthrie's Happy Joyous Hanukkah
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cd cover The Klezmatics
Wonder Wheel
Woody Guthrie's Happy Joyous Hanukkah
Both titles: Jewish Music Group (

In the years before World War II, thousands came from all over the world, elbowing their way into the bumptious and beautiful babel of Brooklyn. In 1942, an unlikely chronicler came from an unlikely place, falling in love with a woman, a family and a community.

Woody Guthrie, known for writing "This Land is Your Land" and songs of the American West, also lived in Brooklyn in the 1940s. Now unrecorded lyrics he wrote during his years there have been put to music by The Klezmatics.

Guthrie grew up in Okemah, Oklahoma, but left after a series of family tragedies. He went to Texas and then to California, traveling with the ragtag Okies looking for new lives during the 1930s Dust Bowl droughts. He traveled the country and wrote about what he saw, his lyrics turning more political over time. He fell in love with a dancer with the Martha Graham Company and found himself amid the bosom of a progressive Jewish family in Coney Island. Having had a difficult family life himself, Guthrie took to his new life.

"He literally ate it up," said his daughter Nora Guthrie, noting that the singer loved the blintzes and latkes of her maternal grandmother, Aliza Greenblatt, herself a Yiddish poet and social activist.

Nora Guthrie, who is director of the Woody Guthrie Archives, approached The Klezmatics a few years ago, asking them if they were interested in looking at some unrecorded Jewish-themed songs that her father had written. Frank London, The Klezmatics' trumpet player, said the band members pored over the Jewish songs, then decided to go deeper into the Guthrie Archives, coming up with songs that had a "universal spirituality," albeit with a Brooklyn accent.

"He loved all the nobodies - all the people you wouldn't think 'worthy' of writing about," said Nora Guthrie. "That was his muse - it was the people....One by one, he writes these songs, then falls in love with the people - they're all love songs."

Happy Joyous Hanukkah is the more traditional album, with a distinct klezmer flavor. Several songs celebrate the simple familial joys of the holiday. In the sweet "Hanuka Dance," the narrator sings: "Clap clap hands, my little stroodler."

Nora Guthrie said while she was "exposed to Judaism," her parents strove to teach them about other religions as well. Nora recalled that her parents response to what religion they were was "God is love." The story goes that the children's birth certificates designate their religion as "all or none." Nevertheless, the Presbyterian-born Guthrie was charmed by the Jewish life he experienced at their bubbe's apartment. In addition to the playful tunes, Guthrie wrote the poignant "The Many and the Few," which tells the history of the holiday.

On Wonder Wheel, The Klezmatics move away from klezmer on many of the cuts, even using an electric guitar to create a variety of contemporary sounds. The songs evoke Guthrie's experience in Brooklyn, an immigrant coming from the other direction, finding himself among European emigres, as well as blacks, Latinos and Asians.

In the breezy pop of "Mermaid's Avenue," he writes: "Mermaid Avenue that's the street/Where all color of goodfolks meet; where the smokefish meets the pretzel/where the borscht sounds like the sea; this is where hot Mexican chili/meets chop suey and meatballs sweet."

In the anthemic "Heaven" Guthrie imagines a workingman's utopia on Earth: "Every hand works in hand with the other and not for power nor greed; every hand works to its fullest ability and is paid in its deepest of need/No cancer, no tuberculosis, no paralysis nor asylums are here/No bowery nor skid row or homeless, no eye blinded by tears."

Like John Lennon's "Imagine," the song demonstrates the power of Guthrie's empathetic artistry and his ability to remind us that our different tongues just articulate the strivings of a singular soul. - Marty Lipp

CD available from cdroots

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