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The Jewish folk music band the Klezmatics is trying to change all that. Its energetic album Woody Guthrie's Happy Joyous Hanuka features lyrics donated by the first family of American folk music. The Klezmatics, along with Woody's son, singer Arlo Guthrie, will perform Saturday at the Kravis Center in the last concert of their holiday tour, "Holy Ground: The Spiritual Music of Woody Guthrie."
Although the Happy Joyous Hanuka tunes were written just last year, their words and spirit are drawn from the far-removed Coney Island neighborhoods of the 1940s and 1950s where Woody Guthrie and his family lived. Famously known for "This Land Is Your Land" and Depression-era Dust Bowl ballads, Guthrie was a writing machine who also penned World War II songs and ballads about the damming of the Columbia River. He was as comfortable writing children's ditties as he was composing the social protest songs that helped define the Pete Seeger era of folk music.
When Woody died in 1967 from Huntington's Disease, he left behind some 3,500 tuneless lyrics. "If there were tunes or melodies to these songs, they are long lost," Arlo says. However, since 1996, Arlo's sister Nora Guthrie has been steering the New York-based Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives in the careful matching of musicians to those words. So far, the result has been the release of the sharp Mermaid Avenue (1998) and Mermaid Avenue II (2000) in collaboration with Billy Bragg and Wilco. And now comes the Klezmatics' turn. The songs on the band's album represent Woody's itinerant range, mixing jolly celebrations (like "Happy Joyous Hanuka") with concerned social ballads (like the dark tale about the Buchenwald concentration camp, "Ilsa Koch"). Stylistically, the Klezmatics imbue some songs with echoes of traditional Jewish klezmer, while others lean toward a Celtic or Eastern European sound.
"Woody had a really identifiable style of writing, which makes it delightful to compose music to," says Lorin Sklamberg, Klezmatics vocalist and accordionist. "The language is warm, plainspoken, and human."
But why did the famous Okie write Jewish songs? The genesis of the Hanukkah lyrics dates to the early '40s, when Woody met his future wife, dancer Marjorie Mazia. "He was your typical Oklahoman, and he ran into my mother, who was the typical Jewish girl from Philadelphia," Arlo says. "What attracted them to each other were the parts of their traditions that were a positive influence, the parts that included working with your neighbors."
Inspiration also came from Woody's mother-in-law, Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt, and her teachings on Jewish traditions. "My dad went to great lengths to immerse himself in the culture," Arlo says. "My grandmother was a big help. She had a poet's heart." In the 1950s, as Woody's health deteriorated, Greenblatt returned from retirement in Israel to help care for young Arlo and his siblings. "She was the real force behind me believing that I could be me," Arlo says.
Woody wrote about his times -- the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, World War II -- and has since taken on mythical status. Living icons like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen continue to telegraph Woody's signal forward into time, highlighting his influence (think Dylan's "Song to Woody," with its tribute, "I'm seein' your world of people and things, your paupers and peasants and princes and kings") and recording covers of songs like "This Land Is Your Land" and "Pretty Boy Floyd."
Through the work of Nora Guthrie and the archives, Woody's lyrics are being carefully unspooled into the future in a unique way. The new songs aren't simple covers -- created by artists born long after his death, the collaborations lend new musical relevance to words of a different era. Even though modern recordings clearly reveal Woody's straightforward singing voice, there's still something righteous in the way Bragg and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy channel Woody on Mermaid Avenue. The lyrics still make sense today.
And there's also something righteous about a collaboration with the Klezmatics, a band dedicated to the kind of sharing tradition so reflective of the marriage of Woody to Marjorie. "The band started off as a way to make extra money playing weddings," Sklamberg says about the Klezmatics' early days in the mid-'80s. "What we're doing now has been to work with a lot of interesting other artists." Next year, the Klezmatics plan to record more Guthrie material for the next holiday season. The band is also working on a project due out in March, Brother Moses Smote the Water, born from a 2004 Passover concert at New York's Museum of Jewish Heritage that combined Jewish music with African-American spirituals. "We know a lot of the spirituals draw on Jewish biblical themes -- the search for freedom and human rights," Sklamberg says. "It's something we share."
As for the Guthrie family, its music continues to draw on family and sharing. "We've been working like hell this year," laughs Arlo, most recognized for his 1960s classic "Alice's Restaurant." In June, he and his clan will launch the "Alice's Restaurant 40th Anniversary Massacree Tour." He had already recorded a 1995 update. "I thought that would be the end of it," he confesses. "Who would have thought it would still have legs?" He concedes, though, that times now seem a lot like the times in the 1960s. "We're in the same strangely familiar place we were in 40 years ago."