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An Overview of Woody Guthrie’s Hanukkah Songs – by Intern Emily Dobrovskaya (Haverford College)

An Overview of Woody Guthrie’s Hanukkah Songs

by Emily Dobrovskaya (Haverford College)

Woody Guthrie was deeply immersed in Jewish culture in the 1940s. He married into a Jewish family and spent several years living in the vibrant Jewish community of Coney Island, Brooklyn. As a result, Hanukkah songs were not an altogether unfamiliar territory for him to explore. In November of 1949 Guthrie wrote approximately 10 songs for Hanukkah (the uncertainty stems from the renaming of existing songs, lists which cite songs which remain found, etc.). However, the question remains unanswered: why did he write so prolifically for Hanukkah in such a short period of time—approximately 5 days?

Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter, was cited in Joshua Eli Plaut’s book “A Kosher Christmas,” saying that in December her father had gigs at children’s Hanukkah parties at Jewish community centers.[1]The songs were likely written for those gigs; Guthrie was prone to writing for his less typical shows. The Woody Guthrie Center archives are home to several of Guthrie’s rare books about Hanukkah, all of which are stamped with the Jewish Community Center of Essex County, NJ library stamp, and a letter to Harry S. Truman on the same JCC’s letterhead. It’s likely that Guthrie was to play a party there. In a 2011 exhibit about famous guests of the High Street YM-YWHA in Newark (part of the JCC of Essex County), ephemera from Guthrie’s performance was exhibited, among artifacts from other cultural luminaries including Albert Einstein, Aaron Copland, Martha Graham and George Gershwin.[2]

Woody Guthrie first recorded his music with Moses (Moe) Asch, founder of Folkways Records and son of the famed Yiddish writer Sholem Asch, on April 16, 1944 while on break from duty as a merchant marine. Asch recorded hundreds of hours of Guthrie’s music, and suggested several of his projects. In “Woody Guthrie: A Life,” Joe Kline describes that Asch was most impressed with songs such as “1913 Massacre” in which Guthrie was able to bring stories from the radical leftist past of America to the hearts of his listeners.[3]In an article Asch himself wrote to posthumously honor Guthrie in 1967, he mentioned suggesting Hanukkah songs as a project for Guthrie. This second origin story is the reason we have recordings of two of Guthrie’s Hanukkah songs, “The Many and the Few” and “Hanuka Dance.” They were released in 1998 as part of the Asch Recordings, a four volume compilation.

When Nora Guthrie rediscovered the Hanukkah songs in 1989, she approached the Klezmatics about bringing these songs to life. They studied Guthrie’s lyrics in the archive, wrote music for the songs which Guthrie had only written lyrics for, and released Happy Joyous Hanukkahin 2006, which brought a new interest to the songs and history around them. Since then several fascinating articles on the topic have been published. Joshua Eli Plaut most prominently brought this episode in Woody Guthrie’s life to light in his 2012 book “A Kosher Christmas,” and later wrote a short article for the Jewish Book Council which you can find here. Plaut explored Guthrie’s ties to Hanukkah as an example of the cultural hybridity in interfaith American families. Other writers have caught wind and written their own takes on Guthrie’s Hanukkah materials, including Eliahu Edelman’s article complete with lyrics for the Jewish Music Research Center, and Thomas Conner’s piece from the perspective of an Oklahoma music fan. The topic has so many intersecting points of interest that exploration could be endless, and there is no doubt that the songs themselves will grace many a Hanukkah party in the future!

[1]Plaut, Joshua Eli. “A Kosher Christmas,” Rutgers University Press, October 2012.

[2]Wiener, Robert. “Show remembers when the Y filled with stars,” New Jersey Jewish News, March 9, 2011.

[3]Klein, Joe. “Woody Guthrie: A Life,” p. 326, Delta, 1980.