The Klezmatics: 'Happy Joyous Hanukah'

One of critic Robert Christgau's favorite CD's of the year is also a holiday CD: Happy Joyous Hanukah, with music performed by America's premiere Klezmer band, The Klezmatics. But the lyrics are all written by folk icon Woody Guthrie. Although Guthrie wasn't Jewish, his wife was; her background inspired a collection of words never before set to music.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

It sounds like a stretch for a band that specializes in klezmer, the clarinet based dance music of Eastern European Jews to record a whole album of Woody Guthrie songs. But New York's Klezmatics have done it twice in a year including a CD of Hanukkah songs.

Our music critic Robert Christgau says, lahaim.

ROBERT CHRISTGAU: Because my Jewish brother-in-law gives an annual holiday party, I've celebrated Hanukkah casually for decades now. Stephen is a lawyer who moonlights on trumpet in several bands. And the sounds at these parties rev up the good cheer.

But though he makes a point of featuring Jewish artists, he never plays the only Hanukkah CD he owns, a staid affair called the "Chanukah Story" by the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble with Theodore Bickel narrating. So this year, I have a present for him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HONEYKY HANUKKAH")

THE KLEZMATICS: (Singing) It's Honeyky Hanukah, shaking my hand. My candles are burning all over this land, light the dark road for the man passing by. It's Honeyky Hanukkah time. It's Honeyky Hanukkah kissing my cheek. The light in my window it burns for a week. I'll open my presents and take a little peek, it's Honeyky Hanukkah time.

CHRISTGAU: Performing are the Klezmatics, the leading modern klezmer band. But the writer of this ditty was Jewish only by association. Woody Guthrie who praises his Jewish wife Marjorie later in the song and who with Marjorie's considerable help raised the children who inspired most of the tracks on Woody Guthrie's "Happy Joyous Hanukkah."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HANUKKAH DANCE")

KLEZMATICS: (Singing) Tippy tap toe! Happy Hanukah! My little Julian on your toes! And around and around you go! Clap your hands! Happy Hanukkah! Clap clap hands! My little (unintelligible) on your toes! Baby (unintelligible) and around and around you go! Jump real high!

CHRISTGAU: That's with their earlier 2006 CD, "Wonder Wheel." On this one, the Klezamatics provide music for a few of the reams of lyrics Guthrie never wrote tunes for. The names we just heard were added by the Klezmatics' Lorin Sklamberg, one of the premiere American singers in any genre.

His capacity for tenet is really makes itself felt in this context. The Klezmatics located eight usable Guthrie Hanukkah lyrics all told. All but one of the songs are simple, and most are giddy, which isn't to say they're unremittingly cheerful.

Several refer to the season as a time to forget your bad thoughts, which given Guthrie's manic-depressive tendencies were always in his mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HANUKKAH BELL")

KLEZMATICS: (Singing) Hanukkah time is the time for us all. To tell things that troubled our minds. To untie old knots of bad feelings we've had. And try not to look sad anymore. It's dinga lingle lingle, I dingle your bell, yes, I knocka knock knock at your door. Eight days of sweet Hanukkah make me feel like new. So I don't look so sad anymore.

CHRISTGAU: Two of the melodies are Guthrie's. The other Klezmatics originals and what Lorin Sklamberg tells me is a Yiddish mode. But with Sklamberg up front, the (unintelligible), all lovely. The eight Guthrie songs are augmented by four Klezmatics' instrumentals, including a Freylekhs, a Sirba, those are dances, and one that makes room for a Jew's harp.

And for those who suspect the Klezmatics are trivializing Hanukkah with kiddie stuff or secularizing it like it was Christmas or something, the longest song is educational. It tells the Hanukkah story as a Zionist parable with a typical Guthriec(ph) little guy slant.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MANY AND THE FEW")

KLEZMATICS: (Singing) Oh, Cyrus is my name from Syria came to destroy that full Maccabee. My army was great and his army was small but somehow didn't win over me. To deliver the many to the hands of the few for God this is no trick at all and in a few short hours my army did break, and we flooded this valley with blood.

SIEGEL: Our music critic is Robert Christgau. The CD from the Klezmatics is called "Woody Guthrie's Happy Joyous Hanukkah."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MANY AND THE FEW")

KLEZMATICS: (Singing) Just enough for the lamps for one night. That one little jar burning whole day that it kept to our candle in light. If candles were burning in a night it want too, every New Year that comes and goes we'll think of the many in the hands of the few and thank God we are seeds of the Jews.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.