By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Perhaps it's not easy to imagine Woody Guthrie, dusty poet of Okies and union workers everywhere, scarfing down a bagel in a boxcar. Or saying prayers during Rosh Hashana (which begins at sundown Friday). Or managing to secure a flimsy yarmulke to the untamed, wiry shrub that was his hair.
But in the latest project to emerge from the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives, now in its 10th year of maintaining and redeploying the late folk singer's immense body of work, we are reminded that the man we think of as the quintessential Okie actually spent the bulk of his life based and living in New York City — specifically out on Coney Island with his wife, Marjorie, and their three children, Nora, Arlo and Joady. It was there the insatiably curious songwriter hung out with the community's immigrant Jews and spent Fridays eating Sabbath dinners at the home of his mother-in-law, renowned Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt.
As a result, among the piles and boxes of scrawled and typed lyrics in the Guthrie archives are numerous ruminations on Jewish life, namely a carefree bunch of Hanukkah songs — "Honeyky Hanuka," "(Do the) Latke Flip-Flip," "Spin Dreydl Spin," among others — and other observations. The song "Mermaid's Avenue," a possessive spin on the Coney Island street where the Guthries lived, describes the spot as "where the lox and bagels meet / where the halvah meets the pickle / where the sour meets the sweet."
And just as the "Mermaid Avenue" albums in the late '90s by British folk-rocker Billy Bragg and the now Chicago-based band Wilco reinvigorated two batches of lost, tuneless Guthrie lyrics, these Jewish-inspired songs now find new tunes and new life on another two records by a single band: "Wonder Wheel" and "Happy Joyous Hanukkah" by the Klezmatics, America's premier klezmer group, both released this month.
What is the common reaction to news that the latest Woody Guthrie record is a set of klezmer music? Nora Guthrie, who runs the Archives, says she gets a lot of, "Oy vey! Vat are you, meshuganah?!"
Keep in mind, Woody — raised in Protestant Oklahoma, self-taught the works of Kalil Gibran and the sayings of Buddah, then plopped down in a fiercely Jewish neighborhood in New York — was a catholic (lowercase, not uppercase) believer. In the '30s and '40s, paperwork at hospitals and in the armed services still had blanks where one filled in one's particular religion; Woody, ever the populist, inevitably wrote down, "All or none."
"So, in this sense," Nora wrote, in an e-mail exchange last week from Germany, where she's touring with Arlo, "this is just another soundtrack to 'growing up Guthrie.' We also lived down the block from the Gotti family in Howard Beach, as well, where Sammy the Bull and Louie the Beard were regulars on the block. Victoria, too! So we probably could have included a little 'Return to Sorrento,' as well, ha ha. OK, for my next album: ' "The Sopranos" Sing Woody Guthrie.' "
She jokes, but this has been Nora's serious mission with the archives. She seeks not to obliterate the primary cultural image of her father, but simply to broaden it, deepen it, color it.
Klezmatics singer Lorin Sklamberg, himself a sound archivist at New York's Yivo Institute for Jewish Research, said in a phone interview last week, "Most people think he's the Dust Bowl balladeer, and his songs have this color associated with them — everything in sepia. It makes me think of how Jews have been represented in films. From 'Yentl' to 'A Stranger Among Us' and 'The Chosen,' Jews are always lit with this eerie, brownish, golden glow. A friend of mine talked about how every time she opens a book [in 'Yentl'] 10,000 watts of light comes out. ... These songs of Woody's are more technicolor."
On a full stomach
Life in the '40s among the immigrants on Coney Island was naturally colorful. As Vivien Goldman writes in the liner notes to "Wonder Wheel," Woody would take Nora on "morning walks down the boardwalk to have breakfast at Nathan's with her father, who usually wore his favorite white T-shirt. The affable fruit peddler tossed her a plum as she passed, and greetings were exchanged with the owner of the corner store, whose phone was used by the whole neighborhood. It was all enchanting to Woody — the old men playing chess and arguing in Yiddish, the Jewish meydeles splashing in the chilly waves."
The song "Mermaid's Avenue," the lead track on "Wonder Wheel," celebrates the joyous, carnival-like atmosphere of Coney Island, describing people eating German, Jewish and American food all along the historic boardwalk.
The culinary focus is key for Nora's memories of the Jewish side of her upbringing.
"Jewish [to us] meant eating!" Nora wrote. "Friday night, Sabbath, home-cooked dinners at Bubbie's [their nickname for grandma Greenblatt], with blintzes, latkes, sweet and sour meatballs, herring, matzah ... So we knew about the food, the holidays. We celebrated Hanukkah with the 'Hanukkah fairy,' which my parents made up. She went around with Santa delivering the presents. We would leave a large plate of cookies and milk for Santa, and a teeny-tiny little plate with a cookie for the Hanukkah fairy ... and we had a Hanukkah Tree, a k a, a Christmas tree."
The seed for this surprising collaboration germinated after Nora met the Klezmatics at the Tanglewood music festival in Boston.
"The way I remember it," Sklamberg said, "we were playing at Tanglewood with Itzhak Perlman about seven years ago. Afterwards, I recognized Nora in the crowd and introduced myself. I said, 'We play one of your grandmother's songs,' and she didn't know that. I asked her if she'd like to meet Itzhak, and she came onto the stage and I introduced them. I said, 'She's the granddaughter of Aliza Greenblatt' — which she found funny because all her life she's been Arlo's sister or Woody's daughter."
Nora mentioned that, while organizing Woody's papers for what was then the new archives, she'd discovered several Jewish songs. Later, she sent some to the Klezmatics to review.
"She sent us not just Hanukkah songs but songs about the cultural life in Coney Island, anti-fascism things, other stuff she thought would be good match for us," Sklamberg said. "One song I was interested in was called 'Headdy Down,' a lullaby for Arlo and [the other brother] Joady. It has these Yiddishisms in the song that are really cool. You don't expect to see Yiddishized words in a Woody Guthrie song, but there they were."
He means taking the name Joady and making it "Jodulah," as Woody did in these lyrics. "Joady, lay your head down," the song goes, "Keppy down, Kepula." "All these Yiddish diminutives — the only way he would have known them is from Marjorie's mother," he said.
"He turned one version of the Christmas song 'Children Go Where I Send Thee' into 'Happy Joyous Hanuka,' taking all these characters from the Bible — some having to do with Hanukkah, others having absolutely nothing to do with it — and he puts them all into this song. 'One for Moses on the Mount,' he wrote, which has nothing to do with Hanukkah. ... It's this funny, endearing kind of outsider's attempt at making a Jewish song."
With La Mar Enfortuna
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: Park West, 322 W. Armitage
Call: (312) 559-1212
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.