Klezmer, carols and country roads
Special to the Daily
This week being Hanukkah, I got to thinking about all the great Hanukkah songs out there.
Trouble was, I could only immediately come up with two ” “The Dreidel Song” and “Hanukkah oh Hanukkah.” And then, of course, there’s Adam Sandler’s great epic masterpiece, “The Hanukkah Song,” which Rabbi Steve Lebow, the Rock n’ Roll Rabbi, used to play on our radio station in Atlanta.
Unless you were raised in a Jewish household, you tend not to know any Hanukkah songs. I picked up a few while taking Judaism classes at the Temple in Atlanta, so I’m better informed than most, but that’s not saying much.
A couple of years ago when I was still performing on cruise ships, the cruise director decided at Hanukkah time to have a candle-lighting service every night for any of the passengers who cared to attend.
The problem was, no one could lead the singing, since none of the crew knew any of the songs. I finally went down there with my accordion and the lone Jewish member of the cruise staff, and we muddled through somehow for the 20 or so passengers who showed up. It was a rag-tag effort at best, and I promised myself to learn more Hanukkah music one of these days.
I guess that’s why I was overjoyed last year when the nation’s foremost klezmer music group, The Klezmatics, came up with an album entitled “Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanukkah.”
Woody Guthrie? Hanukkah music?
Well, yes, it does make sense from a musical perspective. To back up a bit, klezmer is a secular musical tradition with roots in Hasidic and Ashkenazic Judaism. Klezmer reflects the folk music of these cultures, so it’s not surprising that Woody Guthrie was strongly attracted to this music.
It’s a little-known fact that Woody wrote Hanukkah songs for parties at many of the Jewish community centers in New York. Inspired by his mother-in-law, the famous Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt (who also inspired his son Arlo), throughout his career Woody wrote songs commemorating Jewish historical events and celebrating the spirit of Judaism.
“Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanukkah” has gems that include “The Hanukkah Tree” and “Do the Latke Flip Flip” ” all with lyrics by Woody, set to music by The Klezmatics.
It puts me in mind of another klezmer gem ” this one a masterpiece of musical genre-bending. About a decade ago, the klezmer orchestra Shirim came up with “The Klezmer Nutcracker,” a cross-cultural (if you want to be high-falutin’ about it) version of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite,” arranged solely for klezmer instruments.
(In case you’re not sure what a klemzer instrument might be, imagine the high-pitched wail of Benny Goodman’s clarinet ” no mean klezmer player himself, Goodman ” and combine it with the sounds of an eastern European folk fiddler and the tambourine-tinged percussion of an Israeli “Hora” ” and now you’ve got klezmer).
With selections like “The Dance of the Latkes Queens,” “The Waltz of the Ruggelah,” “The Dance of the Dreydls” and “Kozatsky ’til You Dropsky,” “The Klezmer Nutcracker” is a work of sheer joy, a breathlessly nonstop celebration of the season. Even though the album came out nearly a decade ago, Shirim continues to give sold out performances of its “Klezmer Nutcracker” every December. Back in Atlanta, it was a fan favorite on my daily radio show, and I played it throughout the year.
The culturally all-encompassing nature of klezmer, especially when put in a holiday context, reminds me of something I learned many years ago during my travels as a musician: At no time is the universal nature of music more apparent than at the holiday season.
Oh, there were times when I had to bend the lyrics or tailor the tune a bit, but somehow the songs remained the same. When I was living and performing in London, I learned that familiar Christmas carols such as “Away in a Manger” and “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” had completely different melodies across the pond. I had to relearn the tunes, but the message of peace and goodwill was the same.
On our last ship, the Filipino members of the crew threw an annual Philippines-style Holiday/Christmas party for their compatriots, and Tim and I were among the very few non-Filipino members invited to join them. When it came time for us to sing for our supper, they asked for one song, by uproarious, unanimous request ” John Denver’s “Country Roads.”
Music just can’t help being universal ” whether it’s klezmer, Christmas or John Denver.
Happy Hanukkah, folks.
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