We got exposed to klezmer music through "Simply Folk," the wonderful, eclectic program on Wisconsin Public Radio. Through that show, I discovered Stan Rogers, the Berrymans, Greg Brown, zydeco (Beau Soleil!), lots and lots of Celtic music, and klezmer. Klezmer is the original "fusion" music. Klezmer musicians were often itinerant, travelling from town to town playing for weddings and celebrations, and, of course, as musicians will, picking up tunes and riffs whereever they went. Consequently, the archetypical klezmer song is a Russian-sounding tune, sung in Yiddish, and played at the frenetic tempo of a fast Greek dance in a wailing Mid-Eastern minor key.
That being said, The Klezmatics are to klezmer as The Chieftains are to irish music. Having an utterly solid grounding in the traditional canon, they have evolved beyond it, creating new musics and working with a wide ranging list of collaborators world wide. Part of their first set was taken up by a multi-part klezmer informed jazz piece called "Davening," which was originally written for Pilobolus Dance Theatre.
Interspersed with other traditional pieces were the Woody Guthrie songs, perhaps to the uninitiated, a most unlikely sounding collaboration. As we were told, Guthrie's second wife, Marjorie Mazia, was Jewish and the daughter of Aliza Greenblatt, an influential Yiddish poet. Therefore, the household, which included children Arlo, Nora, Cathy, and Joady, "observed all celebrations" as the band put it, and Guthrie wrote Hanukkah songs. Although he typed out the words, Guthrie did not know musical notation (he played "by ear") and so the orginal tunes were lost with his death. In 1999, Nora Guthrie brought the typescript to the Klezmatics and asked if they would write new tunes for them. The band was glad to oblige. Some of the songs, like "Hanukkah Bell," and "Hanukkah Candle," are simple and sweet. Others, such as "Dancing Round the Hanukkah Tree" are more sprightly and take a wry view of the combined celebration season.
We were very glad to have heard these lost gems recovered, and displayed along with a selection of Klezmatic's classics like "Manhattan Man." The band played to a full house and an audience that seemed to have enjoyed the concert as much as we did.