The Klezmatics and their gay lead vocalist win a Grammy for a disc of Woody Guthrie songs. EXPANDED WEB VERSION
By Gregg Shapiro
Out musician Lorin Sklamberg and his band-mates The Klezmatics are not the first musicians to put a modern spin on the work of the late Woody Guthrie. Billy Bragg and Wilco beat them to the punch by a few years. The Klezmatics are, however, the only Klezmer band officially sanctioned to put some of Guthrie’s lyrics to music. Thus we have Wonder Wheel (JMG), a marvelous “new” collaboration between Guthrie and The Klezmatics, which received a Grammy Award in February 2007 in the Best Contemporary World Music Album category. On an afternoon when he had a sick child at home, Sklamberg was kind enough to spare a few minutes to discuss the recording and the work of Woody Guthrie. In photo (l-r): Frank London, Lisa Gutkin, Boo Reiners (this multi-instrumentalist is not a Klezmatic band member, but is featured on Wonder Wheel), Lorin Sklamberg, Matt Darriau, Susan McKeown (also not a band member, but the Celtic vocalist is also featured on the CD), and Paul Morrissett.
Gregg Shapiro: I’d like to begin by asking you to say a few words about the genesis of Woody Guthrie project, Wonder Wheel.
Lorin Sklamberg: The band was playing a show with Itzhak Perlman at the Tanglewood Festival, and I recognize Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter, in the audience. After the show, we were all packing up our stuff, and I said, “You’re Nora Guthrie, aren’t you?” And she said, “Yeah.” And I said, “Did you know that we play one of your grandmother’s songs?” And she said that she didn’t. Her grandmother, Woody’s mother-in-law, was a very well-known Yiddish poet and songwriter named Aliza Greenblatt, and we played what was probably her best known song. I asked [Nora] if she wanted to meet Itzhak Perlman, and she said, “Sure.” So, I took her up on the stage and I said, “Itzhak, this is Aliza Greenblatt’s granddaughter.” She thought that was funny because everyone always introduces her as Arlo’s sister or Woody’s daughter. People don’t generally introduce her as Aliza Greenblatt’s granddaughter.
She said that she had been looking through her father’s papers and he wrote some Jewish songs and asked me if I would be interested in taking a look at them. I said, “Sure,” and she sent them to us. At the time I think she had just started putting together the archive of Woody’s stuff. There were a few things [in what she sent], but as I recall, there were things that had already been published. There were these Hanukkah songs that we thought were interesting, and we kept in touch over the years. In 2003, we realized that we had scheduled this concert at the 92nd Street Y in New York, and we had a large chunk of time in which we weren’t busy, so we thought that maybe that would be a good time to see if she had any more stuff for us. So we called Nora back, and she sent us about two dozen or so song lyrics, including eight or nine Hanukkah songs. There were lyrics about anti-fascism and cultural life in Brooklyn and things that she thought we would be interested in. By the end of the year, we had composed music to most of those, and we premiered the material at the 92nd Street Y. Here we are three years later, and we now have two CDs of this material.
Would you say that you got the full blessing of the Guthrie family with this project?
Oh, sure. They’ve been incredibly supportive. In fact, Arlo played with us on the first show that we did, and we subsequently did some shows with him the following year. He does these shows around Thanksgiving time, including a concert at Town Hall [in New York City], and we did several of those shows with him. We certainly do have the family’s imprimatur on the material. Making sure that all the lyrics are correct and using all the material is done through the Guthrie archives in New York City. We have a very nice relationship with them.
I don’t know if The Klezmatics ever considered themselves to be a political band before this project, but the very nature of a disc of Woody Guthrie songs certainly puts you in that category.
I think that one of the reasons that Nora was interested in us was because of our history of combining politics and music. We’ve certainlydone that for the duration of our career. Even starting with our first recording, which is called Shvaygn = Toyt, which is Yiddish for Silence = Death, which we took from ACT UP, and making that kind of connection between the idea that if you don’t talk about something, then it’s not going to survive. Or in this case, if you don’t sing in Yiddish and play this music, then it’s not going to continue to flourish. We’ve always been like that and recorded material that’s overtly political and talked about political issues in our shows. It’s always been important to us not to separate who we are as people and our ideals from the music we play. I should say that we were given the freedom to do that because we stepped into the Klezmer revival at that point where people were already familiar with how the music and the songs went.
The Wonder Wheel disc opens with “Come When I Call You,” which is especially topical at this time. Is that why you chose to begin the disc with that song, to set the tone?
We really did work closely with Danny Bloom, the producer on this project. And he really did have a lot of input as to the choice of songs we put on the recording. We do have a lot more material that we didn’t use for this. He took the songs that we used and pretty much made the sequence, as I recall, which was okay with us. We love all our own stuff [laughs], so it’s like trying to figure out which one of your children you put first in the line.
There is also a delightful array of musical styles on Wonder Wheel, with the island sound of “Mermaid’s Avenue,” as an example.
The thing about “Mermaid’s Avenue” was that it was originally kind of a rock tune, more like something that The Band might play—more like an Americana folk rock song. The producer felt that it wasn’t really doing the song justice. He came up with the idea of making it this sort of Caribbean feel. Now the song’s a lot more fun. [Laughs] We have played it in concert before, but in the other arrangement, but there are several songs on the recording that we still haven’t performed [live]. It’s one of these things where we have some material that we have been playing for several years, and some of it was brand new.
Another deviation from The Klezmatics’ style is the psychedelic quality to “Pass Away.” Do you think your fans are ready for these slight steps away from the more traditional Klezmer sound that they are familiar with?
I like to think that our fans like good music and they like the people in the band and what we play and what we usually come up with, which was pretty diverse before this. We don’t just strictly play dancey, happy 2/4 beat Klezmer tunes. I don’t think it’s any less diverse than our other or more recent records. I think that it just goes in a little different direction. It’s true that there’s certainly more English than you would have heard on our other recordings. But as far as being recognizably us, it still sounds like the band—to me anyway.
Guthrie was a true man of the people, so how do you think Guthrie would have felt about the GLBT community?
If his writing was any indication, I think that he would have seen it as part of the international community of people in general. The longest time in any place he lived was in New York City and Brooklyn. He was certainly exposed to and wrote about the diversity of the community there. Writing these Hanukkah songs on the one hand, sort of from the outsider’s perspective, but with a lot of respect and a lot of humor, I would like to think that if he had lived longer and had seen the explosion that occurred after Stonewall and what’s happened, that he would have maybe taken it up in some of his songs. I can’t imagine that he wouldn’t have.
He certainly addressed every other progressive political issue that you can imagine. The reason I say that is collections like this and like Billy Bragg and Wilco’s Mermaid Avenue CDs tell us more about Woody Guthrie than we used to know. Nora likes to say that everybody thinks of him as sort of sepia-toned, dusty, and old looking. Here are these songs that are Technicolor in a lot of ways.
Have you begun work on the next Klezmatics project?
There are a couple of things in the works. For the last couple of years we’ve been playing orchestral concerts with symphony orchestras. We have a bunch more Guthrie material, enough for another CD’s worth of songs. I hope that we will be committing that to a CD. We’re also talking about doing a kick-ass dance music recording. Those are the things that we’ve been discussing. We’ve done so many different kinds of things already that you never know where we’re going to go at this point.
Gregg Shapiro is a past recipient of the annual OutMusic award that recognizes contributions by non-musicians in furthering the work of GLBT performers.