Woody Guthrie is an icon of folk music and progressive politics, and in the years since his 1967 death, he has also become something of a cliché. But the simplified view of the Oklahoma-born singer — the earnest folkie who rode the rails and sang truth to power — was challenged by the 1998 release of “Mermaid Avenue,” through which British protest singer Billy Bragg and alternative rock band Wilco showed that the somber, guitar-strumming voice of the Dust Bowl was a more prolific, open-minded and rowdy songwriter than anyone had suspected. While roughly 300 of Guthrie’s compositions were recorded during his lifetime, he left behind nearly 10 times that number, most of which have still not seen the light of day. And he had a lot more on his mind than just the labor movement and the plight of the farmers. The author of “This Land Is Your Land” and “Tom Joad” also wrote about baseball, UFOs and his lust for Ingrid Bergman.
On December 20 at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, yet another aspect of Guthrie will come to light. Folk specialists the Klezmatics, along with Arlo Guthrie and Phoebe Snow, will present “Holy Ground: The Jewish Songs of Woody Guthrie,” a concert that includes 16 previously unheard Guthrie songs. “Holy Ground” repeats the formula that worked so well on “Mermaid Avenue”: contemporary musicians take Guthrie’s all-but-forgotten lyrics and set them to music. Only this time the tunes are drawn from the Jewish folk heritage, and the songs range from Chanukah singalongs to Holocaust blues.
In 1942, after years of wandering, Guthrie settled down in the hectic community of Seagate on Coney Island. He came there with his second wife, Marjorie Mazia, a young dancer with the Martha Graham Company, and they moved into a small apartment across the street from Mazia’s father and mother, the Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt.
In Coney Island, Guthrie found a world of Yiddish speakers, Sabbath dinners and left-wing passions. Greenblatt was an established author (her lyrics remain a staple of the Yiddish song repertoire) and she shared her new son-in-law’s faith in progressive causes. When Guthrie and Mazia’s children started to arrive — Kathy in 1943, Arlo in 1947, Joady in 1948 and Nora in 1952 — Greenblatt helped raise them (in fact, the liner notes for Arlo Guthrie’s debut album, “Alice’s Restaurant,” include a lengthy description of his “folk bar mitzvah”).
“The reason reason we were living in Coney Island at the time was because my grandparents were there,” his daughter Nora Guthrie, the director of the Woody Guthrie Foundation and the driving force behind “Holy Ground,” recounted in an interview with the Forward. “Sometimes Woody was on the road, and often my mother was on tour with Martha Graham. So it was crucial to have the grandparents there to help. There were a lot of times when my dad was home and my grandmother would come over.” The two discovered a creative affinity and began sharing poems and songs. “They critiqued each other’s stuff. They spoke about each other’s work and were very respectful of each other. Woody was just such a sponge. He soaked up the words and the sounds of the language and you can see it in the compositions coming out during that time.”
Many of these were children’s songs or one-off tunes he wrote for Chanukah parties or community center meetings. The musical tones of Yiddish and Yiddish-inflected English fit perfectly with Guthrie’s love of rhymes and wordplay, and resulted in songs like “Honeyky Hanukkah” and “Lolly Lo.” But he also wrote more adult fare, applying the skill for reportage so evident in his Dust Bowl songs, detailing the minutiae of life on Coney Island — from the kosher food shops along Mermaid Avenue to the women in babushkas who shopped at them. He wrote long narrative ballads based on material from the Bible, like “The Many And The Few,” a long “Tom Joad”-like song about the revolt of the Maccabees and the reconsecration of the Temple. No doubt he saw in the trials of the Jews a mirror of the suffering of his beloved Okies, and this identification with Jewish life gave him a fresh perspective from which to express his anti-fascist fury. One of the most powerful songs from this period is a slow blues song about Ilsa Koch, the “Bitch of Buchenwald,” who was tried after the war but set free. Taking the details from a contemporary newspaper, Guthrie wrote a lament for the horrors of the extermination camps that is all the more harrowing for its plain-spoken simplicity.
It was songs like “The Many and the Few” and “Ilsa Koch” that convinced the Klezmatics to take on the “Holy Ground” project. “We liked the idea of combining Woody Guthrie and klezmer,” said Klezmatic Frank London. “But we thought that if we made a big deal about it, and it was just the Chanukah songs, it would have been seen as too much hype. Then Nora brought up these other songs, and we realized that there was a much deeper story.”
The band drew from strict klezmer melodies, Yiddish folk tunes and wordless chasidic niggunim . Guthrie’s Dust Bowl music had the least influence, says London, though it still worked its way in by unexpected paths. “On one of the songs, we used a type of niggun which has major modes — as opposed to the minor, Oriental modes of typically Jewish music,” London said. “So it sounds American, even though it comes from the heart of the European chasidic tradition.” In other instances, the band added new dimensions to the lyrics through the choice of melody, as on “Going Away To Sea.”
“That’s an example where the words have nothing to do with being Jewish,” London said. “It’s about fighting fascism and Hitler. But the rhythm of the words and their jauntiness led us to a completely klezmer melody.” Thus a song that was probably inspired by Guthrie’s stint in the Merchant Marine becomes the lament of an American Jew joining the Navy and leaving home to fight in World War II.
Guthrie never actually converted to Judaism, though he seemed to regard it with the same open-ended inclusiveness he applied to all religions, seeing in its history the same ideals of universal brotherhood that had attracted him to the labor and socialist movements. “He was discovering Jewish culture and writing about it as he went along,” said Nora Guthrie. “These songs aren’t religiously Jewish — they’re culturally Jewish. They reflect Woody’s world and his perception of what the Jewish story is.”
Jon Moskowitz’s work has appeared in Interview, the New York Press and Playboy.