Flatbush concert celebrates Woody Guthrie’s Jewish, Coney songs

Flatbush concert celebrates Woody Guthrie’s Jewish, Coney songs
Chuck Fishman

We all knew Woody Guthrie was a mensch.

Eastern European Jewish band the Klezmatics will perform a concert of Guthrie’s songs at the Brooklyn Performing Arts Center on March 8. But don’t expect to hear “This Land is Your Land” — the show will focus on tunes that convey his connections to Jewish culture and his life on Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island.

Guthrie was not Jewish, but his in-laws — who lived nearby in Sea Gate at the time — were, and his daughter said the food they made was what first got him interested in the culture.

“My grandmother was a great cook, and she introduced my dad to Jewish foods he never had before and loved,” said Nora Guthrie, who is also her father’s archivist. “He really loved her blintzes.”

Guthrie became close with his mother-in-law Aliza Greenblatt, who was a Yiddish poet, after the family moved to the area in the early 1940s. She taught him about Judaism and the culture surrounding it through a shared love of words. Woody also made a connection between his own political views and those held by many of the Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn during the time, Nora Guthrie said.

“He realized that the Jewish people had a long history of progressive politics going back to the Russian Revolution,” she said. “The commonality made him even more interested.”

So Guthrie started writing lyrics about the religion and about the life he lived with his family in Coney Island. Some focussed on the history of Judaism and on holidays such as Hanukkah, while others dealt with the multiculturalism found along the boardwalk. Most of these songs went unrecorded until Nora Guthrie asked the Klezmatics if they wanted to set them to music, since the band plays traditional Jewish klezmer music but with a modern twist.

“It was the perfect project for the Klezmatics,” she said. “We didn’t want it to sound historic, we wanted it to sound contemporary.”

The band recorded two albums worth of material from the lyrics, winning a Grammy in 2006 for “Wonder Wheel.” One of the band’s founding members said it was an honor to set the folk icon’s words to their music.

“Writing with his lyrics is great. He has such a strong voice,” said lead vocalist Lorin Sklamberg.

The concert at the Brooklyn Performing Arts Center will be mostly composed of Guthrie songs, but will also feature some original Klezmatics songs, including some off of a forthcoming album. Before the show, Nora Guthrie will talk about Woody’s Jewish roots and his life in Kings County.

The Klezmatics Woody Guthrie’s Wonder Wheel Tour at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts at Brooklyn College [2900 Campus Rd. at Hillel Place in Flatbush, (718) 9514500, www.brooklyncenter.org]. March 8, talk at noon, concert at 3 pm. $30.

Reach reporter Matthew Perlman at (718) 260–8310. E-mail him at mperlman@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjperlman.
Family man: Guthrie moved to Brooklyn to escape the bustle of Manhattan, and enjoyed playing on the beach at Coney Island with his kids.
Marjorie Guthrie / Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc.