By Shelley A. Sackett
Above: Nora Guthrie, daughter of folk legend Woody Guthrie, recently spoke at Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody.
JANUARY 25, 2018 – PEABODY – About once a year, Nora Guthrie presents “Holy Ground: Woody Guthrie’s Yiddish Connection,” a multi-media program about Woody Guthrie’s creative and collaborative relationship with his Jewish mother-in-law, the Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt.
Last Monday, over 140 people attended Guthrie’s presentation, which was sponsored by the Jewish Women’s Organizations of the North Shore and CJP, and hosted by Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody.
The hour-long storytelling piece included writings, artwork, music from a two-disc Klezmer project, home movies, and Nora Guthrie, telling the surprising story about how her father and grandmother bonded as fellow artists when the family lived in Brooklyn’s Coney Island.
Guthrie says she always begins by answering the question she knows is on everyone’s mind: what in the world does Woody Guthrie have to do with Yiddish poetry? “It’s this crazy story about two people from completely different backgrounds. My father had never met a Jew in his life and my mother had never met a cowboy. He grew up Protestant in a small Oklahoma town. She grew up in Atlantic City and was a student of early Zionism,” she said in a phone interview.
Her parents’ romance started in New York City in the early 1940s, where Woody Guthrie caught the attention of folklorist Alan Lomax, who recorded the troubadour’s songs. Some were used in a Martha Graham Dance Company ballet called “Folksay,” a suite of dances set to American roots music. Marjorie Mazia was a dancer with the troupe. She jumped at the chance to meet the songwriter when she heard he was at his apartment in Greenwich Village. She was instantly smitten.
By 1942, the couple was living in Coney Island, the heart of Brooklyn’s Jewish community, across the street from Mazia’s mother, Aliza Greenblatt. By 1945 they were married and Greenblatt introduced her son-in-law to Jewish culture and, most importantly, to Jewish food.
Asked what growing up in Coney Island was like in the 1950s, Nora Guthrie laughs. “It was very Jewish. This was the Yiddish-speaking culture that left Hester Street and moved to Brooklyn. Everything was blintzes, borscht and knishes,” said Guthrie, who is the co-founder of the Woody Guthrie Archives and president of Woody Guthrie Publications.
On the other hand, she was barely aware that her grandmother was a renowned Yiddish poet whose poems were widely published in the Yiddish press and were also set to music and recorded by composers and performers including Abraham Ellstein, Solomon Golub, Theodore Bikel and Sidor Belarsky.
“Our relationship with her was purely bubbie and every aspect of bubbie. It was singing lullabies to us at night, it was taking us for walks on the boardwalk, it was feeding us every Friday night,” Guthrie said.
Shabbat meant family dinner at bubbie’s, and Nora and her brothers, Arlo and Joady, looked forward to the chopped liver, blintzes, sweet and sour meatballs, and liver and onions. In 1952, when Guthrie was just two-years-old, her father was hospitalized for Huntington’s chorea, the disease that killed him in 1967. She doesn’t remember anything special about her father and grandmother’s relationship.
“I was a kid. Bubbie was bubbie. My father was folksongs. When you’re little, you’re not paying attention to that stuff. I didn’t really have an awareness of them as artists and the depth of their creative collaboration, and so a lot of this program I am doing is really explaining the discovery I made as an adult about them,” Guthrie said.
The “discovery” is her father’s writings, drawings and journals that were put into boxes when he was hospitalized and sat unopened for forty years. As her mother moved from apartment to apartment, the unopened boxes went with her. When she died in 1983, they ended up in an office. Ten years later, Guthrie went to work in that office and started looking through her father’s papers. “I found over 100 songs that had to do with Jewish topics. I couldn’t believe my father wrote songs about blintzes and hamentashen,” she said.
Uncovering her grandmother’s legacy was equally happenstance. She received a call one day from Aaron Lansky, president of the Yiddish Book Center, and was informed that Greenblatt’s books had been digitized. Guthrie had no idea her mother had donated them to the center after her grandmother’s death. “I never even had the opportunity to learn of my grandmother’s story and her creative life’s work, especially her Yiddish poetry,” she said.
She created “Holy Ground” to draw attention to an unknown side to her father’s legacy and to the woman who inspired him. “It’s kind of my funny journey from a child knowing each of them as I’m growing up to now as I discover more and more about each of them as creative artists. As you get older, you want to learn more about what your parents did as adults. I didn’t put that together for a long time,” she said.