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Hanukkah Songs By Woody Guthrie, Reinterpreted

For some reason this year has produced a bumper crop of Hanukkah-themed CDs. Why? And are any of them any good? We got young adult novelist Matthue Roth to investigate. Check back all week for more reviews. Under Consideration: The … Read More

By / December 7, 2007

For some reason this year has produced a bumper crop of Hanukkah-themed CDs. Why? And are any of them any good? We got young adult novelist Matthue Roth to investigate. Check back all week for more reviews.

Under Consideration: The Klezmatics, Woody Guthrie's Happy Joyous Hanukkah

My new novel, Candy in Action (out this week!), is an attempt to create a non-Jewish Jewish story—a story where the main character is Jewish and the plot has elements of the Jewish experience (trying to hold onto your individuality while climbing to the top of a culture that’s trying to crush it)—but there’s nothing explicitly Jewish about the story. It’s about supermodels who know kung-fu. Woody Guthrie, on the other hand, was trying to accomplish the exact opposite with his Chanukah songs. A genius songwriter and American musical pioneer, he wasn’t Jewish himself, but his wife was, and his kids were. Captivated by his immigrant mother-in-law’s Jewish rituals and by her stories, Guthrie wanted to pass them on to her grandchildren, and these lyrics are what came out of it. A few years ago, Billy Bragg and Wilco wrote new music to accompany some of the 400 song lyrics left behind by Guthrie. The project was attempted a few more times, both by the original collaborators and others—but nothing was able to capture the original joy and chaos quite so perfectly as the original Mermaid Avenue. The closest anyone got was the Klezmatics, whose album Wonder Wheel won a Grammy last year, and whose adaptations of several-hundred-year-old lyrics make adapting Guthrie’s scribbled notes no problem. These songs succeed sometimes because of Guthrie’s lyrics, and sometimes in spite of them. Lead singer Lorin Sklamberg sounds something less than genuine when he sings:

“It’s Honeykie Hanukah, huggy me tight It’s Hanukah day and Hanukah night”

In his defense, though, I don’t know many people over the age of eleven who can sound genuine singing the words “It’s Hanukie Hanukah time.” I do kind of wish they’d gotten Woody’s son Arlo, who has a natural childlike sparkle to his voice, to sing that song….but that’s just me, I guess.

If the songs sound a bit, well, Christmaslike, it’s no accident—Guthrie was a Christian who miscegenated with a Jewess and, after being enthralled by his immigrant mother-in-law’s stories, wanted to instill a bit of cultural pride in his kids. His deft writing and playful lyrics work lend themselves to radical adaptations—hell, his lyrics are so skeletal that it’s basically a new adaptation every time that somebody new plays one of his songs.

The Klezmatics, meanwhile, excel at their craft. They could cover the sound of breaking glass and it would sound like a dance party. That is, a dance party in Galicia, where beats per minute are counted on violin and bass strings instead of keyboards and Pro Tools. When the two forces work together in harmony, such as they do on the title track—a countdown song whose lyrics run along the lines of “One Little Goat” (“Five for the brothers Maccabee/Six for the tricks the King did play”)—except it swings and rocks and gets merry like…well, you know what. And its Lyle Lovett-like electric guitar chorus is classic. The four instrumental songs interspersed through the album, thrown on to beef up the content and CD length, don’t feel like filler at all, even if that’s what they are. Other times, though, the lyrics and music don’t mesh quite so jubilantly, as on the draggy “Hanukkah Bell” and the bizarre choice of adapting an Irish accent to sing the history lesson-laden “The Many and the Few,” a six-and-a-half-minute ballad that, with only a drone in the background, retells the story of Chanuka. It’s interesting enough to listen to, once, and it’s prettily done, but I really can’t imagine anyone listening to it more than once. Ever. And, randomly: it’s really cool that Guthrie makes references, several of them, to Ezra, who is connected in tradition and scholarship to Chanukah, but who hardly ever gets props in contemporary Jewish culture—let alone, in contemporary Jewish folk music.

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