Woody Guthrie, born 103 years ago today, is best known as the dust bowl balladeer who wrote many of America’s most beloved songs, including “This Land Is Your Land.” He was a free spirit and a sprite, a vagabond minstrel who spent his 55 years on earth using music to empower the common man. He wrote of the roads he traveled and the characters he met, of dusty old dust and the places he lived on the wild, windy plains. He also wrote about a land and a culture far removed from his Tom Joad roots, a place where the halvah meets the pickle, where the sour meets the sweet. Yes, folks, it turns out that Woody Guthrie had a Jewish mother-in-law! And folk culture is all richer for it.
In 1945 Woody Guthrie married his second wife, Marjorie Greenblatt Mazia, who had been a dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company in New York. The two met when a choreographer from the troupe developed a dance based on one of Woody’s many whimsical protest songs. Marjorie’s mother just happened to be Aliza Greenblatt, a well-known Yiddish poet. She lived across the street from Woody and Marjorie on Mermaid Avenue in Brooklyn’s Coney Island. Woody and his mother-in-law, known to all as Bubbie, enjoyed a close, collaborative relationship. They shared similar interests – anti-fascism, pro-labor activism, folk lore – and a desire to promote social justice through music and art. Aliza played a large role in the Guthrie household, babysitting the kids and serving Friday night Sabbath dinners. She inspired Woody’s deep appreciation for Jewish history and culture. He likened the struggles of the Jews to those of his fellow Okies and other oppressed people.
More than thirty years after Woody’s death, his daughter Nora began to dig through The Woody Guthrie Archives, resurrecting the Jewish-themed lyrical poems he had written in 1940s and 50s. These include poems such as “Honeyky Hanukah Time,” written in typically playful Woody style:
It’s Honeyky Hanukah, shaky my hand,
My candles are burning all over this land,
To light the dark road for the man passing by,
It’s Honeyky Hanukah time.
It’s Honeyky Hanukah, kissy my cheek,
The light in my window it burns for a week,
I’ll open my present and take a little peek,
It’s Honeyky Hanukah time.
Nora decided to have Woody’s words set to music, and asked The Klezmatics, an eclectic klezmer band, to carry out the project. The resulting songs were the highlight of a 2003 concert, ”Holy Ground: The Jewish Songs of Woody Guthrie,” staged on the first night of Hanukkah at the legendary 92nd Street Y in New York. In 2010, The Klezmatics released the songs on their album “Wonder Wheel,” which the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary World Music Album at the 49th Grammy awards.
Nora wants to make sure that these songs cast her father in a much broader light. She once told an interviewer, “He was a poet and lyricist who wrote about everything. I don’t want to see him turned into a freeze-dried, Dust Bowl icon representing a narrow version of what somebody thinks he was. These songs are just one more facet of his work that will add to a fuller picture of him as a songwriter.”
If I had it my way, every grade school child in America would be required to spend an entire week immersed in the life and times of Woodrow Wilson Guthrie. He was one of America’s purest souls and most accomplished folk heroes — an artist, activist, diarist, humorist, humanitarian, and rabble-rouser. If you’re a lover of music, if you believe that music has the power to incite, to inspire, and to change the world, please remember Woody today on his 103rd birthday.
Here are some delightful lyrics from another of Woody’s Jewish-themed poems, “Mermaid Avenue:”
Mermaid Avenue that’s the street
Where the lox and bagles meet,
Where the hot dog meets the mustard
Where the sour meets the sweet;
Where the beer flows to the ocean
(Where the halvah meets the pickle)
Where the wine runs to the sea;
Why they call it Mermaid Avenue
That’s more than I can see.
Please watch this beautiful video of my favorite Woody song, “So Long, It’s Been To Know You,” from the Library of Congress recording:
© Dana Spiardi, July 14, 2015