Perhaps nowhere was the joy more heartfelt than here at the Forward this week, when the Klezmatics won a Grammy award for “Wonder Wheel,” their tour-de-force rendering of Woody Guthrie’s Brooklyn songs.
The award was a well-deserved tribute to the band and to the old-new music that it champions — and pushes to ever-more surprising limits of breadth and imagination. It was, too, a fitting recognition of klezmer music’s astonishing resurgence as a living, breathing art here on American soil, generations after the destruction of its European birthplace.
It was also, of course, a long-overdue recognition of Woody Guthrie — the artist, activist, bard of the American folk and one of the most powerful and least acknowledged influences on contemporary American popular music. In honoring Woody, the music industry was acknowledging a piece of itself that it had too long denied.
That said, it was hard not to feel just a bit bemused at the musical category in which “Wonder Wheel” was honored: Contemporary World Music. It’s a catchall Grammy for exotic acts from far-off, unknown places that Americans might not regularly encounter. This year’s runners-up, for instance, hail from Cameroon, Mali and South Africa. The winning act, of course, hails from the exotic Lower East Side of Manhattan. Their album celebrates the unexplored culture of Coney Island on the distant shores of Brooklyn, the place where, as the Barry Sisters once sang, “There’s garlic and cheese on the evening breeze.”
To be sure, there is a ring of truth in the image of klezmer as a world music par excellence. It’s the melody of a wandering Diaspora, born in the ghettos and shtetls of a dozen countries, from Lithuania on the Baltic to Romania on the Black Sea, where a homeless people once made their home. Today, though, it’s been revived as a profoundly American phenomenon. Yes, the new wave is catching on in clubs and basements in Warsaw and Prague, but it’s firmly rooted in urban America. It’s the sound of the old Lower East Side re-imagined on the new Lower East Side, via New Orleans, Memphis and Miami. It is, in its way, as American as jazz.
“Wonder Wheel” fuses the new American genius of the Klezmatics with the older American genius of Woody Guthrie, the voice of the Dust Bowl. It’s a fusion of Odessa and Oklahoma, colliding with mythic force in Coney Island. And no, you don’t need a passport to get there.
Why, then, was “Wonder Wheel” nominated as “world music”? Mostly because the music industry wouldn’t have known what else to do with it. The Grammys, once a straightforward celebration of pop music, have been sliced and diced into so many categories — 107 at last count, from Traditional Blues to Metal, Merengue, Polka and Large Jazz Ensemble — that there’s hardly a place anymore for genuine originality.
Some folks up in Boston have come up with the idea of giving klezmer its own niche in the canon. They want the recording industry to introduce a new Grammy category next year, explicitly for Jewish music. JVibe magazine, which is circulating the petition, argues that there are hundreds of acts now performing a wide range of Jewish music, and it’s time they got some recognition. It makes sense.
But the solution raises a host of new dilemmas. How widely is the Jewish music net to be cast? Is it limited to traditional Jewish modalities, such as klezmer, Sephardic Romancero and Hasidic boys’ choirs? Could a Romanian Gypsy band enter with a tune last heard at a Jewish wedding? What about the increasingly popular genre of synagogue liturgy set in pure American folk idiom, with solo voice and twanging guitar? What about pop tunes that simply tell the tales of Jewish lives and struggles, as Bob Dylan and Paul Simon sometimes offer? If that qualifies, what about the rest of Dylan’s haunting, prophetic work? Or must the song speak explicitly of Jews living out Jewish dramas? And if so, does “Silent Night” count?
And what do we do with Irving Berlin? Couldn’t the argument be made (as Philip Roth has done) that “White Christmas” is the greatest Jewish song of all time?
J.J. Goldberg is editor emeritus of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).