Finding Judaism

James Levy

It appears now more than ever that folk singer icon Woody Guthrie was something of an anachronism — a dust weed blowing in the face of the storm. Not only is it said that the populist raconteur played folk music before folk even existed, but as his daughter Nora and a popular Klezmer band have demonstrated with a new project, “Holy Ground,” he also developed an intimate interest in Judaism more than a half century before Madonna knotted her first kabbalah string.

Guthrie, who wrote some of America’s most celebrated songs, including “This Land is Your Land,” will once again be celebrated, but the theme of the project might surprise folk aficionados.

Containing selections from thousands of songs that Guthrie previously never recorded, “Happy Joyous Hanuka” is the musical product of Guthrie’s residence in Coney Island, formerly a heavily Jewish part of New York where Guthrie’s mother-in-law, Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt, lived. In recording the CD, The Klezmatics employed a range of sacred and secular musical influences.

Celebrating the release of “Happy Joyous Hanuka,” Guthrie’s daughter Nora, director of the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives, will present and speak about the project at the Spertus Institute, 618 S. Michigan Ave., on Jan. 30. Joining her are Woody’s son Arlo and Irish folk vocalist Susan McKeown. Reservations must be made in advance by calling 312-322-1743.

Although Nora had been aware of Hanukkah songs in Woody’s archives, it was only through his artwork that she came across her father’s absorption of Jewish tradition.

“He had made an illustration based on ‘Ten Chickens and a Duck,’ which was a song my grandmother had written,” she said. “And then I kept finding more and more correspondence between them.”

After more than a year of research, Nora found a tape of Woody interviewing her grandparents about Judaism and their experience in Russia.

“Religions in general were the most long lasting interest that he had,” Guthrie said.

Having been raised in a broad-minded Protestant household, Woody explored other traditions as he grew up and studied Buddhist literature and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. On documents of the time that asked for a pronounced religion, Woody always wrote “all or none,” a lucid illustration of Guthrie’s spiritual approach to the world.

According to Nora, Guthrie believed in a common human wellspring of love and inspiration. “‘All paths lead to the same well’ was something he truly believed,” Nora said. “And he lived his life accordingly.”

Guthrie didn’t have the luxury of recording music often, between fighting in World War II, frequently moving, and being hospitalized on and off with Huntington’s chorea — a degenerative nervous disorder — for the last 13 years of his life. In fact, most of his popular recordings were created in a period of days — it was not unusual for him to record more than 50 or 60 songs at a time.

Having penned more than 3,000 original songs, Guthrie was not just a musician. He was a journalist, but instead of using a typewriter he preferred his guitar, famously painted with the slogan, “this machine kills fascists.”

While some of his songs somberly spoke of oppression and murder, the Hanukkah songs are almost uniformly festive. On “Happy Joyous Hanuka,” for example, Guthrie writes: “How many candles do I light? / Happy joyous Hanuka! / Eight are the candles you should light / For a happy joyous Hanuka!”

Nora Guthrie would simply like to see the spirit of her father’s work pervade. “I’ve just tried to take after my father’s example,” she said. “I’m just working today, one song at a time.”4

Medill freshman James Levy is a PLAY writer. He can be reached at [email protected].