The Jewish connection to folk music's Woody Guthrie

Although Woody Guthrie was not Jewish, his music is full of Jewish sounds and themes.

 The Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (photo credit: WOODY GUTHRIE CENTER)
The Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
(photo credit: WOODY GUTHRIE CENTER)

If you’re a fan of pop, rock, and/or country music, and you like to travel, there are many cities in the United States that are great destinations for you. There is the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles and the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle, and certainly, the holy grail of music museums is Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Make sure to check out Elvis’ Graceland and Sun Recording Studio in Memphis, as well as the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

A few months ago I had the opportunity to explore America’s newest musical destination, Tulsa, Oklahoma. Our first stop was Leon Russell’s Church Studio, originally owned and managed by the famous pianist and singer-songwriter from the 1960s and 1970s. I brought along a rare item to donate to their archives: an original 1970 program from New York’s Fillmore East featuring then-unknown Elton John as the opening act for Leon Russell, that would be displayed along with original photos from this now-famous gig.

Our second stop was the Bob Dylan Center which opened a little over a year ago. Anyone in love with the work of Robert Alan Zimmerman will think that they’ve died and gone to heaven. The exhibition starts with a 22-minute film narrated by Dylan, putting to shame every other film about the Nobel Prize winner for Literature. And there are thousands of Dylan artifacts managed by archivist Mark Davidson. 

This collection includes the tambourine once played by Bruce Langhorne who inspired the hit song, “Mr. Tambourine Man.” I could go on and on. Maybe just schedule a visit to Tulsa as soon as you can or, barring that, order a copy of Davidson’s upcoming book Bob Dylan: Mixing Up the Medicine. It’s described as “ a carefully curated selection of over 600 images including never-before-circulated draft lyrics, writings, photographs and drawings from the Dylan archive.”

The final destination of our visit to Oklahoma was the Woody Guthrie Center, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary. It’s because of the location of this museum that the Bob Dylan Center opened next door. 

 Woody Guthrie in New York City in 1943.  (credit:  Robin Carson. Courtesy of the Woody Guthrie Archives)
Woody Guthrie in New York City in 1943. (credit: Robin Carson. Courtesy of the Woody Guthrie Archives)

Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie

Anyone who knows the Dylan story knows that Guthrie was his mentor, and so it was Dylan himself who requested that his archive be transferred to this adjacent facility. Highlights of the museum include a 15-minute film on the life of Woody Guthrie. On exhibit are his fiddle, guitar, banjo, and mandolin. There’s also an interactive timeline wall that follows Guthrie’s travels from Okemah, Oklahoma, to Pampa, Texas, then on to Los Angeles, and last stop Brooklyn, New York.

You view the original lyrics of “This Land is Your Land” and see all the final verse changes to what has become a timeless classic. For anyone who wishes to learn more about one of the fathers of American folk music, the Woody Guthrie Center is a must-see. It certainly was the highlight of my recent visit to Tulsa.

Let me explain. For the past decade, I have been doing singalong music sessions for seniors in Jerusalem. And every Hannukah I include holiday songs with lyrics by Woody Guthrie. That’s right.

In 1945, Woody married Marjorie Greenblatt Mazia, the daughter of Yiddish-speaking parents, Isidore and Aliza Greenblatt. Aliza was a well-known American Yiddish poet whose works were published regularly in Yiddish newspapers. As a poet and the mother-in-law of a great American folk songwriter, she bonded creatively with her new son-in-law. Those of us living in Israel might also be interested to know that the Greenblatts attempted to move to Israel twice: The first time was in 1920 to Mandatory Palestine; the second time in 1950 when to the new State of Israel. Both times they found life in Israel too difficult, and had to return to the United States.

Woody and Marjorie had three children, including a son, Arlo, and when it was time to prepare for his bar mitzvah, Marjorie contacted Yeshiva University’s Rabbinical School. They sent a young rabbinical student named Meir Kahane – who was later to become the founder of the JDL and an MK.

A few years later, Arlo would compose the satirical talking blues song, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacre” that brought him international fame. By the end of at the end of that decade Woody’s son performed solo at the Woodstock Music Festival.

In the 1990s, Woody’s younger daughter, Nora, came across pages and pages of lyrics written by her father. Among them were songs dealing with Jewish subjects, especially the holiday of Hannukah, and other songs about the Jewish neighborhood of Coney Island where the Guthries lived on Mermaid Avenue during the late 1940s and early 1950s. 

With Woody’s passing, the melodies to these lyrics were lost forever. Nora, who felt these authentically Jewish songs needed to sound Jewish, decided to give them to the Klezmatics, a leading Klezmer band in the Greater New York area, and in 2006, the band released two albums, Happy Joyous Chanukah and Wonder Wheel, referring Coney Island’s famous Ferris wheel. The latter won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary World Music Album in 2007.

So, every Hannukah in Jerusalem we listen to a couple of Woody’s holiday songs and his “Mermaid Avenue” about Coney Island. We have direct personal connections to Mermaid Avenue via a woman in the group who grew up on the avenue in the years the Guthries lived there and a man whose father was rabbi of the Mermaid Avenue synagogue at the time.

Before my trip I wrote to Davidson, the archivist at both the Bob Dylan and the Woody Guthrie centers, asking if it would be possible for me to view the original lyrics of the Hannukah songs, plus “Mermaid Avenue,” when I came to visit the museum. I wanted to see them with my own eyes and then share the experience with my group on my return. He wrote back that it wouldn’t be a problem.

As my wife and I were walking through the exhibits at the Woody Guthrie Center, a man tapped me on the shoulder and it was Davidson. He invited us to join him in his office when we finished our tour, where he took out a box full of original typed lyrics, each signed by Woody Guthrie. I wasn’t allowed to take photos, but after donning gloves, was able to hold each precious page in my hands. Davidson made a special effort to find the ”Mermaid Avenue” lyrics, and I shared with him the personal connection that two of the people in my group had with that particular song. It was an experience I will remember for the rest of my life.

When I got back to Jerusalem, I shared my Woody Guthrie Tulsa interlude with the group. After describing holding the “Mermaid Avenue” lyrics, the woman who grew up there – and we’ll call Judy – told how on summer weekends there were fireworks over the boardwalk, and local families would sit on benches watching the display. Afterward, a woman would get up on a bench and lead those gathered in a Yiddish singalong. Judy was sure that on some of those nights, the Guthrie family must have been there joining them in song. I have to agree with her.

So, for tomorrow, July 14, which would have been Guthrie’s 111th birthday, I say, “Happy Birthday Woody Guthrie!” and “Mit mazel giyert zikh!”

The writer is a musician and educator living in Jerusalem. It was exactly 39 years ago this week that he, his wife, and children made aliyah from New York.