Jewish songs expand image of Dust Bowl balladeer

Friday, December 3rd 2004, 2:03 pm
By: News On 6

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) _ Woody Guthrie was a dust bowl drifter, a guitar strummer and a proto-folkie who wrote enduring songs about America's workers and underdogs. He also was a longtime New York City resident who relished Jewish culture and wrote pages of unpublished lyrics about Hanukkah, Jewish history and spirituality.

That ``other'' Guthrie is now in the spotlight, decades after his death.

A batch of his Jewish lyrics has been dusted off, set to music and recorded by the Klezmatics, a New York City band that puts its unique spin on traditional Jewish klezmer music. The recently released ``Happy Joyous Hanuka'' CD includes loopy lines about dancing around the Hanukkah tree and a serious treatment of the Jews' bloody history.

Arlo Guthrie, who's joining the Klezmatics to perform the songs in concert, said they show his father's musical vision was broader than the Great Plains and freight trains. Woody Guthrie, it seems, was equally comfortable writing about Tom Joad or Judah Maccabee.

``The more time that goes by, the bigger a picture we get of the guy,'' Arlo Guthrie said. ``This is just another element to a picture that's still developing.''

Grafting new melodies on Woody Guthrie's old lyrics has been done before. Nora Guthrie, keeper of the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives, has been selectively doling out lyrics by her dad for years to artists from Janis Ian to punk veterans Dropkick Murphys. She will stash away interesting lyrics until she meets an artist with just the right sensibility.

``I feel like I have a divining rod inside me,'' she said.

Most notably, Billy Bragg and Wilco set old Guthrie lyrics to music for two commercially and critically successful albums, ``Mermaid Avenue'' and ``Mermaid Avenue Vol. II.''

That pairing made sense. Bragg, an overtly political British singer songwriter, can seem like Guthrie with a Cockney accent. And Wilco, despite recent electronic flirtations, has deep roots in American music.

The ``Mermaid'' songs cover subjects ranging from love to age to Ingrid Bergman. Like the Jewish songs, Nora Guthrie chose the lyrics to nudge listeners into a broader understanding of her father, who died in 1967 after years of suffering from Huntington's chorea.

Woody Guthrie had moved from the West to New York City by 1940. He met and married a Jewish girl, dancer Marjorie Mazia, and settled in Coney Island.

Known for his empathetic tales of Okies, Guthrie found common ground with his Jewish neighbors. In particular, he found a kindred spirit in his mother-in-law, Aliza Greenblatt, a Yiddish poet with a matching streak of social consciousness.

Woody Guthrie dove into Judaism and churned out lyrics reflecting his passion. He wrote one song about Ilsa Koch, the infamous ``Witch of Buchenwald'' concentration camp, from the point of view of a prisoner seeing chimney smoke, ``bones in piles'' and ``lamp shades made from skins.''

``He put himself in the camp,'' Nora Guthrie said. ``This is really fascinating to me _ that he suddenly became a Jew, in his own way.''

Nora Guthrie remembers seeing Jewish-themed lyrics in the archive. But she never thought much about them until about six years ago as she listened to a concert by the Klezmatics and violinist Itzhak Perlman at Tanglewood in Massachusetts.

The songs were in Yiddish, and her thoughts floated to Greenblatt _ her ``Bubbie'' _ scratching her back and singing her to sleep as a child. She only found out later she was listening to songs by her own grandmother.

Giving new thought to her dad's Jewish lyrics, she asked the Klezmatics to record them.

Setting a legend's words to music can be intimidating _ like being asked to spruce up old John Lennon lyrics. But Klezmatics' trumpeter Frank London said the lyrics were inspiring too. He especially loved the sense of Coney Island Guthrie evoked through lines like ``where the halvah meets the pickle, where the sour meets the sweet.''

``His words are really easy to set to music, because there's always a rhythm to them,'' London said. ``There's always something to latch on to.''

The Klezmatics' Hanukkah CD is be the first of two. Songs on the next CD will touch on broader spiritual and historic themes.

Nora Guthrie hopes it all will help erase the two-dimensional image of her father as a sort of precursor to Bob Dylan, which can frustrate her. She recalled going to a Woody Guthrie conference in the '90s where an ``expert'' said he never wrote love songs. Nora sat in the back row thinking: ``It's not true!''

She wants to avoid a repeat of that scene at the next conference.

``I just want to get it right, to the best of my ability,'' she said. ``I think he's just much more vast than people know.''