boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe

Klezmatics celebrate Guthrie's Jewish heritage

The Klezmatics, (from left) Frank London, Lisa Gutkin, guest Boo Reiners, Lorin Sklamberg, Matt Darriau, guest Susan McKeown, and Paul Morrissett, put lyrics by Woody Guthrie to music.

Woody Guthrie's iconic status as a Dust Bowl troubadour ready to hop a freight train or serenade a picket line has been fixed in the American imagination for more than half a century.

So it comes as something of a shock to discover that the Okie folkie was also a longtime New Yorker who celebrated Hanukkah and doted on his mother-in-law Aliza Greenblatt, a revered Yiddish poet.

In a remarkable feat of resuscitation, the Klezmatics have breathed new life into the lyrics that Guthrie wrote but never recorded while living across the street from Greenblatt in Brooklyn, songs in which he celebrates his Jewish family life and the polyglot cultural mix of his immigrant neighborhood.

The adventurous klezmer ensemble won a Grammy last month for its recent album of Guthrie's songs, "Wonder Wheel," voted best contemporary world music album.

The Klezmatics perform Guthrie's words set to their original music on Sunday at the MFA, with Irish vocalist Susan McKeown as special guest. The event is copresented by the Boston Jewish Film Festival.

"Wonder Wheel" is the latest chapter in an ongoing collaboration between the Woody Guthrie Archives and the Klezmatics, a band that has joined forces with a remarkable menagerie of creative figures over the years, including John Zorn, Pilobolus Dance Theatre, Allen Ginsberg, the Master Musicians of Jajouka, and Itzhak Perlman. It was a concert with the violin virtuoso that first led to the Klezmatics' connection with the Woody Guthrie Archives.

Following a 1997 performance at Tangelwood, the group's lead vocalist, Lorin Sklamberg, noticed Woody's daughter Nora Guthrie in the audience and introduced her to Perlman as Aliza Greenblatt's granddaughter. Unaware of her grandmother's reputation in Yiddish literary circles, Guthrie was amazed to discover that the concert she had just heard included the song "Fisherlid," based on a poem by Greenblatt that the Klezmatics recorded on their 1995 album, "Rhythm & Jews."

"There are too many people in my family to keep track of," says Nora Guthrie from her Manhattan office in the Woody Guthrie Archives. "My mother is a parallel universe in dance. She spent years with Martha Graham and was Merce Cunningham's teacher. So it wasn't until I was backstage with Lorin at Tanglewood that I started to make connections between things I'd seen in the archives. I started searching and here's something that Bubbie wrote about Woody and here's a song that Woody wrote about Bubbie," she says, using the Yiddish word for grandmother.

The first installment of the Klezmatics' Guthrie project, "Holy Ground," premiered in 2003 at Manhattan's 92nd Street Y, revealing the creative impact of Guthrie's Jewish family life. As a champion of unions and the author of the unofficial American anthem "This Land Is Your Land," Guthrie was already considered an honorary member of the tribe as far as many progressive Jews are concerned. Discovering the Brooklyn connection will only deepen the attachment.

"The truth is that his image is continuously changing," says Arlo Guthrie of his father, who died at the age of 55 in 1967. "Back in the '40s, he was simply a Dust Bowl character, a John Steinbeckian, almost fictional version of himself, one that was caught up in the drama of the times.

"A little later, you find his image in the struggle for the everyday working guy, when he was singing in the union halls and showing up at the docks. People also remember him a little later as the guy who wrote all these children's songs. But we grew up celebrating Shabbat and Hanukkah, and now that aspect of his life is coming out in his music."

Guthrie ended up in Brooklyn because he fell in love with Graham dancer Marjorie Mazia, whom he married in 1945. The daughter of Aliza Greenblatt and the mother of Arlo and Nora, Mazia settled with Guthrie in Coney Island, where the family held annual Hanukkah parties. Guthrie fully engaged with the vibrant cultural and political world of Brooklyn's Jewish community and often conferred with Greenblatt, who saw him as a kindred spirit. This previously little-known period of Guthrie's life is thoroughly covered in "Ramblin' Man," an incisive 2004 biography by Ed Cray.

Since Guthrie didn't know how to write music, his unrecorded work survives as lyric sheets, often with notes he scribbled in the margins.

Born in Okemah, Okla., in 1912, he was an amazingly prolific artist until he was immobilized by Huntington's disease in the mid-'50s. He left behind thousands of songs that in recent years have flowed like wine from the seemingly bottomless Woody Guthrie Archives. The treasure trove gained widespread attention in 1998 with the two-volume "Mermaid Avenue" project, pairing British protest singer Billy Bragg with the band Wilco. More recently, the Dropkick Murphys' version of Guthrie's "I'm Shipping Up to Boston" was featured on the soundtrack of Martin Scorsese's "The Departed."

In combing through the archives, Nora Guthrie discovered dozens of lyrics with Jewish references. She sent them to the Klezmatics, who went about composing music for the pieces. In some cases, they wrote recognizably Jewish melodies for specifically Jewish songs, but they also composed many pieces drawing more on jazz and folk themes, like the dramatic survival anthem "Gonna Get Through This World." More than anything, they were amazed at the vast range of topics he covered.

"If he's reading the newspaper and something bothers him, he writes a song," says Klezmatics trumpeter Frank London. "If there's a Hanukkah celebration, he writes a song. Woody was a really spiritual person, and there are some songs that reflect that. In 'Holy Ground,' he wrote, 'Every spot is holy ground. Every speck of dirt is holy ground. Everywhere I walk is holy ground.'

"Then there's a lot of songs about New York and Brooklyn, so while they may not be specifically Jewish, they feel Jewish. On 'Mermaid Avenue' -- a different song than the one covered by Wilco -- he wrote that it's 'The place where lox and bagels meet/ Where the borscht sounds like the sea.' I love that line."

The Klezmatics are at the Museum of Fine Arts’ Remis Auditorium Sunday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25. Call 617-369-3306 or go to mfa.org.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES