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Guthrie's klezmer clan

Who knew Woody Guthrie wrote a trove of Jewish-themed songs? His son Arlo, for one.

December 04, 2004|Steve Hochman | Special to The Times

The story of Arlo Guthrie's "hootenanny bar mitzvah" is a colorful episode in folk music mythology, perhaps more so than the singer would like at this point.

"It was not typical," he acknowledges, noting that the event had more to do with his father, musical giant Woody Guthrie, who was hospitalized for the Huntington's chorea of which he would die seven years later.

The 1960 New York gathering featured such fellow folkies as Pete Seeger and radical rabbi Meir Kahane, who had been the boy's instructor.

"It was mostly a bunch of guys having fun, mostly my dad's peers who had shown up," Guthrie says. "My dad was brought in from the hospital. Luckily for me the attention was on him, so I was spared."

Today, Guthrie, 57, has again been exploring his Jewish roots -- and once more the attention is on his father. Guthrie will be joining New York klezmer band the Klezmatics and his son Abe for "Holy Ground: The Jewish and Spiritual Songs of Woody Guthrie" at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Monday.

The thing is, Woody Guthrie wasn't Jewish. His second wife, and Arlo's mother, Marjorie Mazia Guthrie, was. But in recent years, explorations of Woody's archives overseen by Arlo's sister Nora have revealed a wealth of lyrics for unrecorded songs dealing with Jewish themes.

The man best known for "This Land Is Your Land," Depression-era Dust Bowl ballads and such songs of social protest as "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos" had also written songs ranging from children's holidays ditties ("Hanukkah Tree") to contemplations of Old Testament and Talmudic matters ("What Will It Profit a Man?").

"The songs range from the point of view of people in concentration camps during the war to children's songs," Arlo says.

This material comes from the period when the Guthries lived near Coney Island in Brooklyn, where Arlo was born. Some reflects the great influence of -- and even collaborations with -- Marjorie's mother, noted Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt.

"They had a kinship of spirit, which I also had with her," Arlo Guthrie says. "She was the poet of the family, and her spirit was very close to mine"

Arlo grew up with an awareness of the Jewish roots on his mother's side, but in practice the family was not aligned with any one religion. He retells an anecdote dealing with Woody and Marjorie's first child, Kathy, who died after being in a fire a year before Arlo was born.

"She was brought to the hospital, still alive, and my mother rushed in and the nurse said, 'Mrs. Guthrie, you filled in everything but what religion the child is,' " he says. "She said, 'All.' The nurse said, 'We can't put that.' So she said to put 'none.'

"Twenty minutes later my father came in and, thinking to get around the confusion, the nurse said, 'You need to fill in the religion.' He said, 'Put "all." She said, 'We can't do that.' So he said, 'Put "none." ' "

Arlo himself connected more with Judaism while in boarding high school in Stockbridge, Mass., at first using synagogue attendance as a way to get excused trips off campus but soon developing a real interest in its teachings. As an adult, he embraced Franciscan Catholic beliefs and also studied Eastern religions while maintaining his connection to Judaism as well.

That Woody Guthrie would have written about Jewish themes is no surprise to him, though. Nothing in the archives would likely surprise him now, given the first rounds of archival projects in which music was written and recorded by Billy Bragg and Wilco for Guthrie lyrics dealing with such subject matters as UFOs and Joe DiMaggio, as well as the more expected matters of social justice.

"There's about 3,500 songs in there," Arlo says. "Some are better than others. My dad would write everything. Pieces of lyrics, little collections, long ballads and everything in between -- little prayers, historic ballads, personal love songs, whatever.

"These particular songs started around 1944 or '45 and go through '52, '53, '54," Guthrie says. "He met my mom in '42 or '43, and by 1954 he'd entered the hospital, so these songs run from songs written when he was first in love with my mom to songs written in the hospital."

Originally, Arlo was not involved in the Jewish songs project. He's focused in recent years on his own music, reissuing old albums on his own label and recording new music, including an updated "30th Anniversary Edition" in 1997 of "Alice's Restaurant." He also oversees philanthropic work via the Guthrie Center and Guthrie Foundation.

Instead, Nora had recruited the Klezmatics to compose music for the songs she had selected, which led to the recording of an album. The band later called Arlo and asked him to participate in a concert last year at the 92nd Street Y in New York.

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