The Klezmatics “Wonder Wheel”

Lyrics by Woody Guthrie

The story of Wonder Wheel is a glorious tale of happenstance and discovery, populated by luminaries from different worlds and different eras. In the pantheon: American folk icon Woody Guthrie and world music superstars the Klezmatics, Woody’s daughter, Nora Guthrie, maestro Itzhak Perlman, whose chance meeting with Nora helped planted the seed for the project, Celtic vocalist Susan McKeown, and producers GoodandEvil (Sex Mob, Elysian Fields, Felix Da Housecat).

Flash back to Coney Island in the late 1940s, where Woody Guthrie and his wife, Martha Graham dancer Marjorie Mazia, settled into the raucous, polyglot life on Mermaid Avenue. Their house was a joyful intersection of two worlds, where regular visitors like Pete Seeger and Leadbelly mingled with a rich tapestry of Yiddish culture. Woody’s mother-in-law was legendary Yiddish poet and activist Aliza Greenblatt, who discovered in Woody a kindred spirit of words and idealism.

Woody, always an enthusiastic and sensitive chronicler of the worlds surrounding him, turned his sharp but loving focus on the culture and spirit of his newfound Jewish life and family. Deeply inspired, he produced hundreds of lyrics rich with spirituality, wordplays, fatherly tenderness, and a passionate belief in the human fight for peace and justice.

These Coney Island-wrought lyrics add a less-known urban dimension to a man seen as the avatar of dust- bowl ballads. But, like thousands of his songs, they were left unrecorded, their music forgotten.

Spurred on by a discussion with the Klezmatics and Perlman (who were performing at Tanglewood that fateful night) daughter Nora realized the no one would be able to bring her father’s Coney Island music back to life better than The Klezmatics.. The custodian of Woody’s tremendous legacy gave the band her blessing, and they began to set over two dozen of Woody’s lyrics to music. Not strictly klezmer music, but whatever music fit. The five members let the spirit and the feeling of the words dictate the music. They went where the words wanted them to go.

The result, seven years in the making, is Wonder Wheel, a record Nora describes as “Just as my father would have wanted.” The album reflects Woody’s political stance and social agenda into a larger, global mirror, and brings a 20th century American figurehead to a 21st-century audience. Woody’s lyrics set to music that’s filled with Eastern European, klezmer, Latin, Celtic, Afro-Caribbean and folk flavors take on a universal life of their own. As GoodandEvil’s Danny Blume notes, the music is an intense combination of the familiar and the exotic. But above all, it’s completely natural, all-encompassing, and intensely human.

Wonder Wheel is the latest project in a series revisiting the work of Woody Guthrie. The first, by indie superstars Billy Bragg and Wilco, introduced Woody Guthrie to a new generation. That record heralded the beginning of a new wave of folk, continued by such artists as Bruce Springsteen (with his recently released celebration of Woody’s brother in song, Pete Seeger), as well as Bright Eyes and Devendra Banhart.

But this is no polite variation on an American folkie theme: The Klezmatics have stamped this project with their own gusto and flair. Celebrated as a klezmer institution for 20 years, the band has had the similar experience of being stamped, like Woody, as figureheads of a genre. Providence, then, this confluence: of Nora Guthrie’s desire to bring her father’s overlooked treasure to life, and The Klezmatics’ enthusiasm for ever-expanding their worldly horizons as well as their audience.

One could call Wonder Wheel the first world music album Woody Guthrie has ever done. It’s also the first all-English language record of The Klezmatics’ eight acclaimed albums. But as the band points out, the record is no one-sided homage. It’s a lively dialogue between artists who fervently agree about social justice, peace, and the spiritual power of music to unite, bind to a cause, and transcend any borders, musical or otherwise. Released just on the heels of Woody Guthrie’s birthday, and on the 10th anniversary of the Woody Guthrie archives, it’s the ideal way to celebrate the work of a visionary, the timelessness of essential truths, new ground broken by a well-established group of musicians, and the wondrous, delicious stew of music today.