Throughout the years a wide range of lyrical ideas has inhabited the Klezmatics’ songs; the subjects group members have chosen to write about, and the songs by others they have chosen to interpret, have run the gamut from contemporary issues of global import facing each of us to matters of intimate love, and from good old New York leftist politics to age-old Jewish mysticism, with their take on Hasidic anthems. Of course, the original klezmorim never sang about—to use the most obvious example—same-sex rights. But, London has said, so much of what they do cover in their songs, even songs touching on radical political ideas, has correlations in the ancient religious tomes. “Whenever we think we are being very now, very new, we find out what we have done is actually very traditional,” he says. “A radical Jewish tradition goes back hundreds of years. We fit right in with old Yiddish socialist music.”
“From early on,” adds Sklamberg, “even before we made a conscious effort to make the music our own, we decided that if we sang songs, they would be ones we believed in, which, since I’m the singer, meant that we would be forgoing chestnuts of the (overwhelmingly heterosexual) Yiddish theater repertoire. Not that that material isn’t great, but, for one thing, other people do it better, and for another, a lot of it plays on the nostalgia for days gone by of the audiences it was by and large written for.”
“We sing about doing the right things in life,” says Gutkin, “and really enjoying doing them at the same time. So there’s dance music and party music and drinking songs sung side by side with pleas against extremism (as in ‘I Ain’t Afraid’ by Holly Near), requests that the Messiah benefit all peoples (our edited version of ‘Shnirele Perele’) and hopes that people will be treated fairly on Earth and not wait until the afterlife.”
Jews With Horns featured guest contributions from downtown guitarist Marc Ribot, Canadian folk group Moxy Früvous and the female rock band Betty. From its opening number, “Man In a Hat,” this third collection from the group—retaining the same core lineup as the previous album—promised new riches and explored new directions. Sung mainly in English, “Man In a Hat,” with lyrics by original Klezmatics bassist Lindsay and traditional music arranged by the group, is frenetic and exceedingly clever, a surreal travelogue of sorts that emphasized the wordplay and humor that quite often finds its way into the Klezmatics’ music, offsetting the seriousness inherent in so much of the rest. “I met a man in a hat with a tan,” the chorus delivers twice, then comes the punch line: “Man-hat-tan, I met a Manhattan man,” in a bit of homage to the band’s hometown. Other tracks spanned the Klezmatics’ other concerns, from “In kamf,” a Yiddish labor song of the late 19th century that featured a multi-generational chorus, to the celebratory drinking anthem “Simkhes-toyre” and the quirky poem “es vilt zikh mir zen,” by Celia Dropkin with music by London, whose words start off nearly tender before dropping a bombshell in its final line.
For 1995’s Possessed, the fourth album (originally on the Piranha and Xenophile labels, later Rounder), Matt Darriau was fully integrated into the lineup. Darriau had first come into contact with klezmer music because, he says, “It was an offshoot from my interest and work in other Eastern European (Balkan) musical forms when I was at New England Conservatory in Boston in the early ’80s. I had grown up in an arty household where my father held international folk dance parties featuring Israeli, Balkan, Greek and Scandinavian dance music. I wasn’t really that into it as a kid but when I got to Boston I found myself in the eclectic scene of the Third Stream Department at New England Conservatory of Music (along with Frank London and other now prominent players in the klezmer scene). A lot of us were looking to world music for inspiration and ‘new’ sounds so we spent a lot of time in the international section of used record stores and passing tapes to each other. It developed from there, all the while with an intention of integrating improvisatory ideas with this music.”
Possessed included liner notes and lyrics (for two songs) by Tony Kushner, the renowned playwright of Angels in America fame. The entire second half of the album is a suite of music written by the band for the original production of Kushner’s play A Dybbuk: Between Two Worlds, an adaptation of S. Ansky’s Yiddish folk tale The Dybbuk. Among the guests on Possessed was keyboardist John Medeski of the contemporary jazz trio Medeski, Martin and Wood. The album was also notable for the song “Mizmor shir lehanef (Reefer Song),” which London, who composed it with words by Michael Wex (author of Born to Kvetch), proudly christens “the first Yiddish ode to smoking pot.”