In this issue there is a JTA Chanukah feature that centres on a current exhibit at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, which focuses on the relationship of Chanukah music and Christmas music, specifically noting contributions of Jews like Irving Berlin, the composer of “White Christmas,” to Christmas music and of non-Jews like legendary folksinger Woody Guthrie to Chanukah music.
I was particularly happy to see the mention of Guthrie in the article as I’ve been interested in Guthrie and his songs and other writings since I was a teenager. Guthrie, one of the most important and most influential folksingers of the 20th century, wrote thousands of songs in a period of about a decade-and-a-half beginning in the late-1930s, the best known of which is “This Land is Your Land.” The vast majority of those songs were never recorded. Most were unseen and unknown sets of lyrics, without sheet music, in Guthrie’s notebooks and other papers.
In the 1990s, my friend Nora Guthrie – Guthrie’s daughter – began to organize her father’s archives. Coming across these thousands of unknown and unheard songs, she began to recruit appropriate contemporary composers to set some of them to new music.
About 15 years ago, Nora told me that she’d found dozens and dozens of Jewish-themed songs in the Woody Guthrie Archives and was going to ask the Klezmatics – one of the greatest of contemporary klezmer bands – to work on some of them.
Now, I knew that Marjorie Mazia Guthrie (née Greenblatt), Woody Guthrie’s second wife, and Nora and her brother Arlo’s mother, was Jewish. And I had the two Chanukah songs that Guthrie recorded in 1949 in my CD collection. But I’d no idea of all the other Jewish-themed songs (nor did Nora until she discovered them in the archives). There were many more Chanukah songs, songs about Jewish history, spirituality and culture, and many celebrating the predominately Jewish neighbourhood of Coney Island in Brooklyn, where the Guthrie family lived in the 1940s and ’50s. One song, “Ilsa Koch,” written in 1947, was one of the first contemporary songs to ever address the horrors of the Holocaust.
Around the time she discovered those Jewish-themed songs in her father’s papers, Nora also learned that her grandmother, Aliza Greenblatt – whom she just knew and thought of as her “bubbie” – was a famed Yiddish poet and passionate Zionist. In researching these Jewish-themed songs of her father’s, as well as her grandmother’s work, she came to understand the profound influence the Ukrainian-born Yiddish poet had on the Oklahoma-born folksinger and songwriter.
The Klezmatics – who will be here in Ottawa on April 17 with singer Joshua Nelson at Centrepointe Theatre to perform their Brother Moses Smote the Water concert program – eventually, recorded two CDs of Woody Guthrie’s Jewish-themed songs. One of them, Wonder Wheel received the 2006 Grammy for Best Contemporary World Music Album.
The other CD is Happy Joyous Hanukkah, a wonderful collection of Guthrie’s Chanukah songs, which range from silly kids’ songs to “The Many and the Few,” a long ballad that is a near-perfect telling of the Chanukah legend told from the points-of-view of many of the important figures in the legend. Near the end of the song, Guthrie writes from the perspective of the City of Jerusalem in which the legend’s Chanukah miracle takes place.
“The Many and the Few” is one of the two Chanukah songs that Guthrie himself recorded in 1949, just a few months after Israel’s War of Independence, a time when Jerusalem was divided and Jews had no access to the Western Wall, the last remnant of the ancient Jewish Temple so central to the Chanukah legend.
“My name is Jerusalem where Judah came back/To build up my Temple once more/To cut down the weeds and thorny brush/That grows ‘round my windows and doors/Whole stones, whole stones, we’ll build and pray/To God as a wholehearted Jew,” Guthrie sang, implicitly linking Jerusalem, the Temple and the Jewish people to the new modern state and its capital.
This is our final print edition of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin for 2014. We return January 26 with our first issue of 2015. In the meantime, for breaking news, visit www.ottawajewishbulletin.com.