Hanukkah song may come to a surprise to many. It was penned
by a non-Jewish Okie—Woody Guthrie, the American folk music icon and radical
Nazi Germany invaded the USSR Guthrie and the other members of
the loose collaboration of musicians known as the Almanac Singers had to pivot on a dime and abandon their earlier anti-war pacifism and become anti-fascist/anti-Nazi. In songs like The Good Ruben James about
an American freighter torpedoed and sunk by a U-boat Guthrie and his pals tried to whip up public sentiment to enter
the U.S. finally did get in the
fight after the attack on Pearl Harbor Guthrie joined the Merchant Marine with Almanac pals Cisco Huston and Jim Longhi. He shipped out
in trans-Atlantic convoys during the
Battle of the Atlantic until the government yanked his seaman’s papers for being a “premature anti-fascist” and probable Communist.
Beached he was drafted into the Army in 1945. Entering the
service late in the war as an over-age
private, Guthrie never got overseas
and his deep natural anti-authoritarian
streak made him a bad soldier. He spent most of his time on KP.
he did make it back to New York from
time to time on leave. He had divorced
his first wife Mary Etta Jennings and soon took up with Marjorie Mazia, the former principal
dancer in Martha Graham’s famous
troupe and a dance teacher. They already
had their first child together, Cathy,
in 1943. The couple wed on one of those leaves in 1945.
Woody and Marjorie--a happy couple in Coney Island.
was Jewish and the couple settled in
Coney Island, a working class neighborhood around the famous amusement park. Guthrie
became entranced with her religion and traditions learning from and collaborating with his mother-in-law, the Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt and also enjoyed playing on
neighborhood stoops for the Jewish, Italian,
and other immigrant children.
this time he wrote several poems or song
lyrics inspired by Judaism in
his voluminous notebooks. Among them was Hanukkah’s Flame. It is unclear what melody Guthrie intended for
the song, or if he ever performed it
even for the local children.
Nefesh Mountian--Old Timey music with a Jewish twist.
after her father’s death Nora Guthrie,
Marjorie’s daughter and Arlo’s sister
began to curate Woody’s notebooks
and launched a project to give the unpublished
songs in them new life by asking contemporary
musicians to put them to original
music in a wide variety of genre. Music for Hanukkah’s
Flame was written by Frank London
and recorded Nefesh Mountain, a bluegrass and old-time band with a Jewish
perspective at the Chapel at Beth Elohim in Park Slope Brooklyn with founders,
and husband and wife, Eric Lindberg and Doni Zasloff, with Alan Grubner on violin
and Tim Kiah on bass.