How the Klezmatics ‘collaborated’ with Woody Guthrie

World famous klezmer band to perform at Brooklyn College

February 17, 2015 By Paula Katinas Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Lorin Sklamberg, lead vocalist, pianist and accordion player for the Klezmatics, says the opportunity to put music to Woody Guthrie’s lyrics was a gift. Photo by Chuck Fishman
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The late, great Woody Guthrie, whose song “This Land Is Your Land” is considered an American classic, had strong ties to Brooklyn. Guthrie and his second wife, a Martha Graham dancer named Majorie Mazia, lived on Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island in the 1940s.

In 2000, Guthrie’s daughter Nora Lee Guthrie, who is the official archivist for her father’s work, asked members of the famous klezmer band the Klezmatics, whom she had met with they performed at Tanglewood in Massachusetts with her friend, the violinist Itzhak Perlman, to write music for some of the lyrics the great American folk singer had left behind.

The band jumped at the chance, according to Klezmatics lead singer Lorin Sklamberg. “We were given the gift of writing music to his wonderful lyrics,” he told the Brooklyn Eagle.

There was so much material from which to choose.

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Guthrie was extraordinarily prolific. But he didn’t always complete his songs. “Woody wrote 3,000 lyrics for songs,” Sklamberg said. The vast majority of Guthrie’s lyrics did not have music.

The songs that resulted from the musical “collaboration” between the Klezmatics and Guthrie were made into an album, “Wonder Wheel,” which was released in 2006. Boasting music filled with Eastern European, klezmer (traditional Jewish music), Latin, Celtic, Afro-Caribbean, and folk influences, the album won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary World Music Album.

The Klezmatics, who toured the country in a series of concerts called “Woody Guthrie’s Wonder Wheel Tour,” are coming to the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts at Brooklyn College for a concert on Sunday March 8 at 3 p.m. The concert is part of the center’s 60th Anniversary celebration taking place during the 2014-2015 season.

“We love performing at Brooklyn College. It’s always a wonderful diverse audience there and several of our band members have close ties to Brooklyn,” said Sklamberg, who lives in Park Slope.

Founded in 1954, Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts at Brooklyn College seeks to present outstanding performing arts and arts education programs that are a reflection of Brooklyn’s diverse communities. Each season, the center welcomes over 65,000 people to the 2,400 seat Walt Whitman Theatre, including up to 45,000 schoolchildren from over 300 schools who attend the SchoolTime series.

The Klezmatics, a band known for bringing klezmer music to audiences all over the world, was founded nearly 30 years ago. Today, there are three original members—Lorin Sklamberg (lead vocals, accordion, guitar, piano), Frank London (trumpet, keyboards, vocals) and Paul Morrissett (bass, tsimbl, vocals)—who are still on board. They play alongside longtime members Matt Darriau (kaval, clarinet, saxophone, vocals) and Lisa Gutkin (violin, vocals).

“Woody Guthrie’s Wonder Wheel Tour” also features Celtic vocalist Susan McKeown and multi-instrumentalist Boo Reiners.

The band is looking forward to the March 8 concert, Sklamberg said.

In addition to having strong ties to Brooklyn, Guthrie also had strong ties to New York’s Yiddish community, Sklamberg said.

“He had a very strong connection through his mother-in-law, Aliza Greenblatt, who was a poet and a leading figure in the Yiddish community. She was also a songwriter who believed in social justice issues. They were kindred spirits,” Sklamberg said. “Woody was inspired to write songs for Hanukah.”

Guthrie, who was born in 1912, died in 1967.

The Klezmatics came to Guthrie’s unfinished songs through his daughter Nora Lee Guthrie. She is also the sister of 1960s folk singer Arlo Guthrie, whose song “Alice’s Restaurant,” was an anti-war anthem during the Vietnam era.

“I introduced Nora to Itzhak Perlman at Tanglewood. We did a project with him and I recognized her in the audience,” Sklamberg said.

Perlman grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household, so Sklamberg didn’t introduce Guthrie to him as Woody Guthrie’s daughter. Instead, he introduced her as Aliza Greenblatt’s granddaughter. “Nora got a kick out of that,” he said.

After the show, Nora Guthrie talked to the members of the Klezmatics about her father’s legacy and the enormous amount of writing he did while living in Brooklyn. She asked the band to write music to his lyrics.

“She did not impose on us. We did not have to write klezmer music. We were free to write what we wanted,” Sklamberg said.

The songwriting process was enjoyable, he said. “There were certain lyrics that we just gravitated to. His lyrics are timeless. It was like working with someone who is still around.”

Tickets for the March 8 concert are $30.00 per person and can be purchased at BrooklynCenter.org or by calling the box office at 718-951-4500. The box office hours are Tuesdays through Saturdays from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.

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