Folk ‘Festival’: Klezmer band plays Woody Guthrie tunes at Hanukkah party

Stage lights: The Klezmatics will play musical versions of Woody Guthrie’s Yiddish poems at its Dec. 2 “Happy Joyous Hanukkah Party” in Prospect Heights.
Joshua Kessler

This party is going to be lit!

Jewish roots band the Klezmatics will throw a wild Hanukkah party inspired by an American folk singer at Murmrrr in Prospect Heights on Dec. 2. “Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanukkah” will feature the band’s musical take on some of Guthrie’s Yiddish poems. The folk singer’s deep roots in Kings County make his tunes perfect for a party celebrating the Festival of Lights, according to the group’s trumpet player.

“Everyone thinks of [Guthrie] as being this hillbilly from Oklahoma, but he lived most of his life in Brooklyn — he married a Jewish woman and lived out in Coney Island,” said Frank London, who grew up in Brooklyn Heights and now calls the distant isle of Manhattan home.

The American folk singer penned his Yiddish poems while living on Mermaid Avenue with his wife Marjorie in the 1940s. Guthrie was not Jewish, but became interested in the faith and its culture after becoming close with his Jewish in-laws, who lived in nearby Sea Gate. He bonded with his mother-in-law, Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt, over their mutual love of language, according to his daughter, Nora Guthrie.

The Klezmatics adapted Guthrie’s verses on its 2006 “Happy Joyous Hanukkah” album, and — accompanied by Irish folk singer and friend of the band Susan McKeown — will play some of those tunes at the party, including “Hanukkah’s Flame” and “Hanukkah Tree,” which refers to a distinct Guthrie family tradition, said London.

“We talked to his kids, and they said when they were growing up in Coney Island, they had a Hanukkah tree that they would dance around,” the trumpeter said.

The band will also play its own social justice-oriented hits, including songs from its most recent album, “Apikorsim,” which means “heretics” in Yiddish and includes politically charged tunes defending the rights of refugees and workers. London said the group aims to use tunes to send meaningful messages — and to keep people dancing.

“It kind of sums up the entire Klezmatics philosophy: it talks about thinking for yourself and questioning things to make the world a better place — but you can party while you’re doing it,” said the trumpet player.

London said the group wants to get people dancing, but will also try to remember the religious traditions behind the celebration.

“We might light a menorah if we get so inspired,” he said.

The Klezmatics present “Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanukkah” at Murmrrr (17 Eastern Pkwy. between Grand Army Plaza and Underhill Avenue in Prospect Heights, www.murmrrr.com). Dec. 2 at 8 pm. $30.

Reach reporter Julianne McShane at (718) 260–2523 or by e-mail at jmcshane@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.

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