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Puff Piece: Wonder Wheel

It appears that YHB hasn’t blogged anything nice for a while, and just in case somebody was looking for something other than a gripe, here goes. I’ve listened to the Klezmatics’ Wonder Wheel perhaps ten times in the last couple of weeks, and it is wonderful.

I know some of my Gentle Readers are already familiar with The Klezmatics, and maybe y’all already ran out and bought this album. Or maybe you like the Klezmatics but didn’t know they had a new album, or knew they had one but weren’t sure if it was worth running out and getting. It is.

Some of my Gentle Readers are not (yet) big fans of The Klezmatics or klezmer music, but are fans of Woodie Guthrie. And maybe y’all already ran out and bought this album. Or maybe you like Woodie Guthrie but didn’t know he had a new album, or knew he had one but weren’t sure if it was worth running out and getting. It is.

This is (as GRs may have guessed) another one of those albums where Nora Guthrie lets people into the archive of thousands of Woody Guthrie lyrics to write new music and record the resulting collaboration. I haven’t heard the Billy Bragg/Wilco albums, and I was a little skeptical of the whole process, frankly. But it works. The Klezmatics choose songs from the period Mr. Guthrie was living in Coney Island with his yiddishe in-laws, and some of the lyrics have little yiddishisms, but I think a different band would have heard something very different in the written word. As it turns out, though, the thing is seamless—the album sounds like a Klezmatics album (and, you know, it is a Klezmatics album, and it’s a Woody Guthrie album, too.

Well, mostly. One of the songs, Goin' Away To Sea, was in the archive, and after Matt Darriau had picked out of the thousands and written a rollicking melody for it, and after the band had recorded it and it was finished and through, babe of mine, they were looking through the archive for manuscripts to photograph for the liner notes and came across another copy with a handwritten note on it from Butch Hawes saying “I composed this song you sonofagun.” It’s the folk process.

That song, by the way, is one of a few on this album that on first listen seem to be upbeat, cheerful tunes, but on second listen are kinda scary. This one is pretty straightforward, actually, a song from a soldier to his family, promising to return after he sets this old world free, putting “them fascists in their place/In their long and narrow grave, babe of mine.” On the other hand, his admonitions seem a little scary in themselves:

Don’t you go and leave a light, babe of mine,
Don’t you go and leave a light, babe of mine,
Don’t you go and leave a light
In your window, babe, tonight,
For the enemy to sight, babe of mine.

Don’t go talkin’ out of turn, babe of mine,
Don’t go talkin’ out of turn, babe of mine,
Don’t go talkin’ out of turn,
Don’t let Mister Hitler learn,
‘Cause I never would return, babe of mine.
I don’t think that Mr. Hawes meant the ominous shadow of the police state to be any nearer than Nazi Germany, but I have to think that Mr. Darriau knew that it would sound a little ... well, the context is different, now. Or is it? Should the CD come with a sticker reading This Machine Kills Islamofascists?

Even more startling is Come When I Call You, which starts with one for the pretty little baby, two for the love of me and you, and three for the warships at sea. And Pass Away declares that “Heaven and earth they'll pass away” but “ Not a word of mine/Will ever pass away”. That’s a little troubling, isn’t it?

Some of the songs are more straightforward. Headdy Down is a lullaby, and a heartbreakingly beautiful one. Not heartbreaking because of anything except the gorgeousness of the singing. Seriously, even if you don’t shell out for the whole thing, this song is worth a buck at your friendly local internet download establishment. Gonna Get Through This World is what I think of as Guthrie-esqe, anthemic and inspirational. Mermaid Avenue is a wonderful celebration of “the isle called Coney”. There’s also Holy Ground, a sort of answer to the way This Land is Your Land has been taken over the years, and Heaven, which is mostly startling in the way it reveals the lost optimism of America—it’s a song I can’t imagine even Mr. Guthrie writing these days.

As for the music, if you haven’t already decided to purchase the thing, you can hear some tracks and clips on-line various places, and you can hear an interview at World Café with a partial band doing lovely version of three of the best songs on the album. Yes, there are some duds on the album, but we may disagree about which ones they are. But albums have duds, that’s why the whole album thing died, right? My advice is to buy this one anyway.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.