Where the Borscht Sounds Like the Sea

Another Side of Woody Guthrie

By Jay Michaelson

Published February 09, 2007, issue of February 09, 2007.
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What a great idea! Most people who know of Woody Guthrie associate him with Dust Bowl ballads of economic hardship, or with the lefty patriotism of “This Land Is Your Land” (like many such songs, its political bite has been dulled by repetition). But not many know that, from 1942 until his slow decline into Huntington’s disease in the 1950s and ’60s, Guthrie lived with his family in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, mixing with New York City’s vibrant folk and blues scene, connecting with union organizers and left-wing political activists, marrying a Jewish dancer (and daughter of one of those activists) named Marjorie Greenblatt, becoming a part of the Jewish community of 1940s Brooklyn — and writing hundreds of songs that have never been recorded.

Enter the Klezmatics, who have made New Jewish Music since before the idea was cool, and who, thanks to the invitation of Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, now bring new life to these forgotten songs, many of them already soaked in the Jewish flavor of Coney Island, “where the smokefish meets the pretzel/where the borscht sounds like the sea” (“Mermaid Avenue”). The Klezmatics are the perfect match for these songs: Lorin Sklamberg’s quivering lead vocals evoke Guthrie without imitating him, and the band’s eclecticism enables not just the sounds of Guthrie’s Coney Island but those from today’s, as well, to inflect many of these unknown gems. The Klezmatics wisely opted not to make a “Woody Guthrie klezmer album” (an earlier concert to that effect left many in the audience, including Guthrie’s well-known musician son Arlo, a bit cold), instead setting his words in folk, salsa, klezmer and even pop contexts.

Not just a great idea — but a great album, too. Music industry-connected readers of the Forward take note: “Wonder Wheel” has been nominated for a Grammy (for best world music album — a surprising category at first, but Brooklyn klezmer-salsa-folk music is as much a part of the world’s diverse cultural heritage as any other). Like the explosive success of Matisyahu, the “Wonder Wheel” nomination confirms that New Jewish Music really has arrived.

“Wonder Wheel” kicks off with one of the many eerily prescient Guthrie songs, a war ballad called “Come When I Call You.” The song has a classic format: a counting song that starts with the familiar (“two for the love of me and you”) but then turns to the sad markers of living in wartime (“five for the warplanes that fly/four for the guns of this war”). Written in 1949, the song may have as much to do with the death of Guthrie’s first child in a fire (“one’s for the baby that’s born, born, born and gone away”) as it does with World War II — but it resonates strongly today, as the daily casualty counts from Iraq have become a part of our cultural geography. (The rabbi at one synagogue I visited recently lists the weekly death counts before the Mourner’s Kaddish on the Sabbath — a deeply moving moment.)
From the get-go, the synergy between the Klezmatics and Guthrie’s songs is immediate. “Come When I Call You” is mainly played on traditional folk instruments, and in a traditional folk mode reminiscent of the twangy Hanukkah songs Guthrie composed in the same period. But there are little twists — a diminished chord here, a short clarinet phrase there — that depict the song just as one can imagine Guthrie himself: a folkie settled in Jewish Brooklyn, bringing together the political and personal ethos of the American heartland with the values and flavors of immigrant Judaism.

“Mermaid Avenue,” the second track, is the catchiest, and the easiest to quote as to why “Wonder Wheel” is such a natural:

Mermaid Avenue, that’s the street
Where the lox and bagels meet,
Where the halvah meets the pickle,
Where the sour meets the sweet

In a nod to the present Mermaid Avenue, Klezmatics horn player (and general Jewish musical genius) Frank London and production team GoodandEvil set these words to Latin rhythms and instrumentation. The ingredients are varied, but the recipe works: It tastes just like Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn, today’s even more than his own.

Really, none of the first four tracks misses — always a good sign. The sweet lullaby “Headdy Down,” written for Guthrie’s son Joady and sung by Sklamberg and by guest vocalist Susan McKeown, is intimate and Yiddish inflected (“Joady, lay your head down/Keppy down, keppela… Joady Ben, Joadeleh”). And “Gonna Get Through This World” is, in a subtle, musical way, a hauntingly apt depiction of immigrant hopefulness, ideals and pain. On the surface, the words are straight Guthrie: “Well I’m gonna get through the world/The best I can, if I can…. Well I’m gonna clean up this world/The best I can, if I can.” But Lisa Gutkin’s heartbreaking music brings out the sadness in the song. The key tries to move from minor to major, but doesn’t quite do it. The melody almost leaves behind the Jewish for the “American,” but is pulled back by the poetic intonations of klezmer. And by the end of the song, it’s hard to tell whether it’s Guthrie’s socialist ethos or the Jewish prophetic call, the hope or the hardship, that is the dominant note.

Of course, not every song hits it out of the park, and Sklamberg’s tenor doesn’t have enough emotive range to quite capture the subtleties of some of them — “Goin’ Away to Sea,” another war song (actually penned by Guthrie’s friend Butch Hawes, but thought until recently to be Guthrie’s), falls flat, as Sklamberg’s jaunty delivery lacks the ambivalence that gives other songs their poetic beauty. And sometimes the straighter klezmer numbers, like “Wheel of Life,” feel too much like what one might expect the album to be — the Klezmatics doing Woody Guthrie.

Most of the time, however, “Wonder Wheel” feels like something altogether different: the Klezmatics discovering Guthrie, and transforming how all of us relate to this master of 20th-century American music. That’s what all great interpreters do: They show you something you didn’t know about the original.

The album also tells us something important about Jewish American culture. Fifteen years after most of its songs were written, Robert Zimmerman (aka Bob Dylan) would follow Guthrie from the Midwest to New York City, his “Song to Woody” in hand, another Jew creating a myth of American identity. But Guthrie’s Jewishness (though he never formally converted, his son Arlo did have a bar mitzvah) is actually the opposite of Dylan’s, and a reversal of the long tradition, from the founding of Hollywood to the present, of Jews creating secular “American” icons and cultural forms — sometimes in a deliberate attempt to escape the past. Here, it is a non-Jewish American embracing the particularities of Jewish culture.

Guthrie was multicultural before the word existed — something I would never have known but for the Klezmatics’ own sonic experimentation, no doubt abetted by the producing duo GoodandEvil, who produce and perform everything from drum and bass to jazz. Whether or not the album wins the Grammy next week, what the Klezmatics have done with “Wonder Wheel” is what great revisionist art always does: make the new seem familiar, and the familiar seem utterly new.

Jay Michaelson will be appearing February 25 in “From Babel to Babylon: Words From, By, and About Israel,” at the Manhattan JCC.

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