Until recently, I had never been to a real live klezmer concert (Jewish weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs don’t really count, right?), although I grew up playing both the clarinet and saxophone. But I stuck to classical and jazz; no klezmer. And neither of my parents ever played an instrument, let alone listened to klezmer music. So it wasn’t part of my upbringing. I did live in the same neighborhood as the Klezmatics for years — the East Village, New York City — but I never wandered into one of their shows.
And I certainly never thought of the legendary folksinger and composer Woody Guthrie as a klezmer musician. When I hear his name, I may start humming his song “This Land is Your Land.” (Hey, that could almost be the theme song for Israel, right?) But I’ve never been a big Woody Guthrie follower. His name brings to mind images of chain smokers in the Dust Bowl — certainly not Judaism.
But was I in for a surprise!
I invite a very cute Israeli to see the Klezmatics perform “Holy Ground: The Jewish Songs of Woody Guthrie” at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center.
“But Woody Guthrie wasn’t Jewish,” he says as we roll across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.
“No, but his mother-in-law was,” I say. “And you know how those Jewish mother-in-laws can be.”
Uh-oh. I’ve already insulted his mother. And all I was trying to do was show off the research I had done that afternoon. Apparently, Guthrie’s mother-in-law, Aliza Greenblatt, a Yiddish poet, made quite an impression on him when he married her daughter, Marjorie Mazia, a professional dancer.
No, Guthrie wasn’t Jewish at all. He simply married into a Jewish family and got involved.
My date and I find our seats in the JCC auditorium. It’s packed with more than 400 well-dressed guests. My date wonders what we could have done to get one of those little candlelit tables, but I’m just excited to be out for the evening, off the hook for bedtime with my daughter.
At the start of the show, Klezmatic founding singer Lorin Sklamberg fills in the audience with a bit of history. We learn that in 1942, Guthrie settled in Brooklyn with his new wife, and soon, thanks to his mother-in-law, he became involved with the Coney Island Jewish community. He wrote songs about Jewish history and spiritual life, Chanukah and the Holocaust.
After his death in 1967, Guthrie’s Jewish lyrics sat in archives, where they were lost for almost 30 years. It was his daughter, Nora Guthrie, who discovered them in 1998 and asked the Klezmatics to write new music for the lyrics. The songs had never been performed before the Klezmatics set them to music.
When the seven-member band launches into its first song, “Brooklyn Towne,” it’s a lively tune, just as I imagined could have been sung by some traveler wandering through a village.
Sklamberg belts out the lyrics: “I’m going down to Brooklyn Towne, bye, bye, bye,” as trumpeter/composer Frank London belts out harmonies from the other side of the stage. Even my date is clapping his hands.
As the night progresses, the set slows down, becoming more bluegrass and folksy, with soloist Susan McKeown singing “Mermaid’s Avenue.” The audience roars with laughter at Guthrie’s lyrics about Coney Island, “where the lox and bagel meet, where the challah meets the pickle.”
Although the audience is predominately 50 or older, the Klezmatics perform a number of Guthrie’s children’s songs. My daughter would love “I Want to Ride,” about riding the merry-go-round on Coney Island.
At the end of the night, I like what I’ve heard, although I’m not sure if it’s authentic klezmer. On the way home, my date says, “No, that wasn’t real klezmer at all.” (You know how firm and opinionated those Israelis can be!)
For those of you who wonder, as I did, what makes that klezmer sound, it’s the use of the fourth and fifth modes of the harmonic minor scale. But according to the Klezmatics, the only parameters they use in setting the songs to music is their knowledge of klezmer and the lyrics themselves.
So, in my book, Woody Guthrie has, in fact, been “klezmerized.”