With his trusty guitar and harmonica, inveterate hitchhiker, wanderer, and folk poet Woody Guthrie (1912-1967), was America’s “Dust Bowl Troubadour” and Depression-era balladeer. He wrote thousands of songs, including protest songs decrying the treatment of the downtrodden; antiwar anthems; and love songs to America, most famously the now-iconic “This Land is Your Land,” which he reportedly wrote as an angry rebuke to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” He provided inspiration to a generation of new folk musicians, including the likes of John Lennon and Bob Dylan.
What is not as well known about Woody is that his wife and children were Jewish; that he raised his children as Jews; and that he wrote songs about Jewish history, Jewish holidays, and the Holocaust.
Guthrie was undoubtedly familiar with Jewish life well before his marriage to Marjorie Mazia, a Martha Graham dancer (1945) and before his move to Coney Island, where the couple lived at 3520 Mermaid Avenue, across the street from Marjorie’s parents. His manager was Harold Leventhal, the son of Orthodox Jewish immigrants; his politics were inspired by Ed Robbin, a Jewish editor with The People’s World, a Los Angeles newspaper; and Moses (Moe) Asch of Folkways Records, perhaps the chief folklorist to record Woody, had specialized in Jewish liturgical music. His real interest in Jewish lyrics, however, may be traced to the warm relationship he later developed with his mother-in-law, Aliza Waitzman Greenblatt, a prominent Yiddish poet.
Coming to America after illegally fleeing her shtetl in Ozarinetz, Bessarabia in 1900, Greenblatt was an ardent Zionist who established a ZOA branch and served as national president of Pioneer Women. “Bubbe” Greenblatt, who cared for her grandchildren and served Friday night Shabbat dinners to the family, shared Woody’s passion for social justice, anti-fascism, and union organizing – all causes dear to the immigrant Jewish community – and they often discussed their artistic projects and critiqued each other’s works. Through her, Woody came to identify the Jewish struggle with that of his fellow Okies and other oppressed people about whom he sang.
Enchanted by his immigrant mother-in-law’s rituals, stories, and incredible blintzes, Guthrie learned everything he could about the Jewish people, even taking several courses on Judaism at Brooklyn Community College, and his Jewish songs and lyrics were the result of his desire to pass her traditions and observances on to her grandchildren.
He loved living at Coney Island, which enabled him to enjoy the bustling Jewish life on the boardwalk. He would take his young daughter, Cathy Ann, on morning walks there, have breakfast at Nathan’s, and watch the old men playing chess while arguing politics in Yiddish. Thus, in “Mermaid Avenue,” he wrote:
Mermaid Avenue that’s the street, where the lox and bagels meet,
where the hot dog meets the mustard, where the sour meets the sweet;
where the beer flows to the ocean, where the halvah meets the pickle . . .
Guthrie also wrote many Jewish ditties for his children, including Chanukah songs such as “Chanukah Gelt,” “Spin Dreydl Spin,” “Do The Latke Flip Flip,” and “Hanukkah’s Flame,” in which he wrote:
Hanukkah candlelight, see my flame/ shining on my window’s pane/
Come flicker ‘cross my glassy glass/ and light each lonesome to pass.
As Woody’s daughter Nora tells it, her father wrote most of his Chanukah songs within five days “because he had bookings in December for children’s Chanukah parties in assorted Brooklyn community centers.”
Some of Guthrie’s Jewish-related lyrics were somber and serious, such as those of his chilling ballad about the sadistic Nazi Ilse Koch written in the voice of a concentration camp inmate (“I’m here in Buchenwald, my number’s on my skin…”) in which he describes seeing chimney smoke, piles of bones, and “lamp shades made from skins.” And in “The Many and the Few,” Guthrie displays his knowledge of Jewish history during the Babylonian captivity: