For all that they had already accomplished during their first two decades together, the Klezmatics’ next move was to earn them their greatest recognition to date from the music industry and virtually redefine just how much this group was capable of. Through an introduction to Nora Guthrie, the daughter of American folk icon Woody Guthrie and sister of Arlo, the Klezmatics began working on their most ambitious project to date, one that would ultimately take seven years to come to fruition.
To make a somewhat convoluted tale short, the Guthrie family lived for some time during the 1940s in Brooklyn’s fabled Coney Island. Woody’s second wife, Marjorie Greenblatt Mazia, was the daughter of Aliza Greenblatt, a well-known Yiddish poet. While living in Coney Island, Woody had written many lyrics inspired by his relationship with his mother-in-law. Guthrie had set the words to music, but never wrote it down or recorded it, so the music was lost and the words remained.
Enter, decades later, the Klezmatics. Recognizing Nora at one of their concerts, Lorin introduced himself and struck up a conversation. Nora mentioned that Woody had written some Jewish-themed songs and would the Klezmatics be interested in seeing them?
“Would we!” Sklamberg told her. He picks up the story: “Nora responded with a huge packet of something like 30 lyrics, including a new batch of never-before-heard Hanukkah songs and a poetic treasure-trove of words running the gamut from the joys of the cultural life in Coney Island and war-time merchant marine swagger to sad country ballads, utopian idealism and anti-fascist love songs. All in need of music.”
The Klezmatics, working in tandem with Nora as executive producer, crafted music around Woody’s words. The end product, Wonder Wheel, released on the Jewish Music Group label, was, as Darriau puts it, the “least Klezy” record of their career—but quite possibly their most popular. Sung in English, it didn’t completely avoid the klezmer on which they’d built their name but it broadened their palette significantly. Here they incorporated elements of everything from Latin to—with the help of guest vocalist Susan McKeown—Celtic music and, of course, the pure Americana of the late, great Mr. Guthrie. Calling Wonder Wheel (named after the famous Coney Island roller coaster) “a more accessible Klezmatics album,” the All Music Guide website singled out as a highlight the tune “Mermaid Avenue,” honoring the block on which Guthrie lived, and noted its “playful lyrics.” A sample: “Mermaid Avenue that’s the street/Where the lox and bagels meet.”
“Somehow,” says Darriau, “we have arrived at a way of filtering ideas and influences so that no matter what we do, it has a Klezmatics sensibility to it. Our original sound has evolved in its own way, such that now we may arrange and create music that on the surface may not sound ‘klezmer.’ But hopefully the Klezmatics’ sound and klezmer history is always present at least on some subtle or structural level.”
“It would have been dumb if we had tried it make it sound like klezmer,” adds Morrissett. “Nobody said, ‘Here’s what our theme is.’ It was, ‘Everybody do what you think sounds good and we’ll see what it sounds like.’ There was no band conception of how it should sound.”
Wonder Wheel garnered rave reviews from critics and, ultimately, it gave the Klezmatics their first Grammy Award, when it was chosen as the Best Contemporary World Music Album at the 49th annual award ceremony. “The Grammy validated the unique qualities of the entire project,” says Sklamberg. “In fact, we and the klezmer community viewed it as a win for all of us.”
But Wonder Wheel wasn’t the only Klezmatics recording to feature the words of the great dust-bowl troubadour. Prior to that, in 2004, they’d recorded Happy Joyous Hanukkah, several songs built on lyrics Guthrie had written for the celebratory December Jewish holiday, including “Hanuka’s Flame,” “Hanuka Gelt,” “Honeyky Hanuka” and “The Many and the Few.” Expanded with four newly composed instrumentals to an even dozen tracks, it was re-released by JMG in 2006 in the wake of Wonder Wheel’s success.