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The Klezmatics

Jewish Music Group

As posthumous careers go, Woody Guthrie’s had a solid one—much like Ronald Reagan’s, only without as many airports. The passionate yet pragmatic songwriter’s continued success is due greatly to his daughter Nora, who has been doling out the rights to his unreleased verses to musicians she deems worthy of propagating her father’s legacy. Though 1998’s Mermaid Avenue allowed Billy Bragg and Wilco to treat Guthrie’s work as that of an American-lefty troubadour, Wonder Wheel goes back to Guthrie’s Jewish roots, setting his words to tunes by members of the New York–based Klezmatics in their first English-language disc. Which doesn’t explain why Irish New Yorker Susan McKeown does so many of the vocals—but with a plangent alto like hers, who needs an explanation? “Mermaid’s Avenue,” a sort of Caribbean/campfire-folk fusion composed by Frank London, has its quirky touches, and the somewhat unctuous-voiced Lorin Sklamberg wisely resists overselling lyrics that describe the ’hood as a place where “the smokefish meets the pretzel” and “the borscht sounds like the sea.” But much of the album is as dark as Guthrie’s own lengthy death from Huntington’s disease. “Come When I Call You,” a variant on the counting song “Go Where I Send Thee,” offers “Ten for the atom bomb loose again” and “Nine for the crippled and blind,” on down to “One’s for the pretty little baby that’s born…and gone away”—possibly a reference to the death of Guthrie’s young daughter Cathy in 1946, three years prior to its composition. Matt Darriau’s minor-key, brooding setting of “Pass Away” reinforces the fatalism of its lyrics. There are brighter spots, including “Headdy Down,” a lovely Yiddish-tinged lullaby with kickass electric guitar from Boo Reiners. Folks who know Guthrie only from “This Land Is Your Land” or because of Wilco might well start with the uncompromisingly folky “Gonna Get Through This World.” Not only because of its irresistible dai-dai-dai singalong chorus, but because of its interweaving of McKeown’s Dublin-accented voice, Reiners’ banjo, Adam Widoff’s tabla, a raft of klezmer horns, and composer Lisa Gutkin’s melancholy violin, it’s the very definition of world music. It’s stirringly idealistic—but also clear-eyed: “I’m gonna get through this world the best I can,” Guthrie wrote in 1945—but then added, perhaps to ward off the dybbuk at the door: “If I can.”—Pamela Murray Winters