Skip to main content

The Klezmatics and Woody Guthrie's Music

Music critic Milo Miles tells us how the klezmer-fusion band the Klezmatics are keeping the music of Woody Guthrie alive. Their latest albums are Woody Guthrie's Happy Joyous Hanukkah and the Grammy-nominated Wonder Wheel. They are currently on tour.


Other segments from the episode on December 15, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 15, 2006: Interview with Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx; Review of Klezmatics' "Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanukkah" and "Wonder wheel;" Obituary for Kenny Davern…


DATE December 15, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Songwriters Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx discuss their
Broadway musical "Avenue Q"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.

When the Broadway Musical "Avenue Q" opened in 2004, it won three Tony Awards:
Best Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Book of a Musical. A road company
version of the show opened, then closed in Las Vegas, but it's still running
at the Golden Theater in New York. Our guests, Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx,
wrote the songs and came up with the show's original concept. Their idea was
to write a musical that took the kind of music and puppets they grew up with
while watching "Sesame Street" and imagine what it would be like if those
puppets sang songs giving advice to mixed-up young adults about being single,
finding a job, coming out, and other rites of passage. The cast includes
actors and puppets. Now "Avenue Q" is a book. Dressed like some of the
monster puppets of the show, the furry orange cover opens to a collection of
interviews with the cast and characters, connect the dots and puzzles.

From the "Avenue Q" cast recording, here's a song about political correctness.
It's called "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist," and it's sung by a group of
white, African-American and Asian actors, along with several puppets.

(Soundbite of "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist")

Mr. JOHN TARTAGLIA: (As Princeton) Say, Kate, can I ask you a question?

Ms. STEPHANIE D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) Sure.

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Princeton) Well, you know, Trekkie monster upstairs?

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) Uh-huh.

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Princeton) Well, he's Trekkie Monster and you're Kate

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) Right.

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Princeton) You're both monsters.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) Yeah.

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Princeton) Are you two related?

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) What? Princeton, I'm surprised at you. I
find that racist.

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Princeton) Oh, well, I'm sorry. I was just asking.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) Well, it's a touchy subject. No, not all
monsters are related. What are you trying to say, huh, that we all look the
same to you?

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Princeton) No.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) Huh?

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Princeton) No.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) Huh? Huh?

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Princeton) No, no, not at all. Oh, I'm sorry. I guess
that was a little racist.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) I should say so. You should be much more
careful when you're talking about the sensitive subject of race.

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Princeton) Well, look who's talking.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) What do you mean?

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Princeton) What about that special monster school you
told me about.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) What about it?

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Princeton) Well, could someone like me go there?

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) No, we don't want people like you.

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Princeton) Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. You see?

(Singing) You're a little bit racist.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (Singing; as Kate Monster) Well, you're a little bit, too.

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (Singing; as Princeton) I guess we're both a little bit

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (Singing; as Kate Monster) Admitting it is not an easy thing
to do.

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (Singing; as Princeton) But I guess it's true.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (Singing; as Kate Monster) Between me and you, I think...

Mr. TARTAGLIA and Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (Singing; as Princeton and Kate Monster):
everyone's a little bit racist sometimes. Doesn't mean we go around
committing hate crimes. Look around and you will find no one's really
color-blind. Maybe it's a fact we all should face. Everyone makes judgements
based on race.

Mr. TARTAGLIA: (As Princeton) No, not big judgements like...

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: Terry spoke with songwriters Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx in 2004.
She asked if there were landmines they had to be careful to avoid in writing
this song.

Mr. ROBERT LOPEZ (Songwriter): We usually write in public. We write on the
streets of New York City and in cafes, and we have a very collaborative
process where each of us is, you know, writing lyrics and throwing lines and
bouncing ideas off one another. And we were on a bus, I remember, writing
this song, and all of a sudden, I realized that everyone was sort of looking
at us. And, you know, it was...

Mr. JEFF MARX (Songwriter): We were singing that Christmas Eve part about...

(Singing) ...the Jews have all our money and the whites have...

Yeah, I mean, it's OK for an Asian woman to be singing it, because, you know,
she, you know, has permission to do that, but we don't really.

Mr. LOPEZ: And whenever we write the songs, we would speak in the character
voices, so we would sort of do a...

Mr. MARX: Monsters and such.

Mr. LOPEZ: ...mock Japanese accent for Christmas Eve. We'd do a Gary
Coleman accent, whatever that was.

Mr. MARX: It was really offensive.

Mr. LOPEZ: It was pretty offensive. So we had our share of horrified


Why don't you tell us a little bit about the very premise of "Avenue Q"?

Mr. LOPEZ: I guess to just put it all in a nutshell, "Avenue Q" is a
fictional place. It's a community way outside. It's in New York City, but
it's way out in the boroughs, far away from Midtown, Manhattan. It's the only
place where college graduates can afford to live with their BAs in English and
their entry-level jobs and their crappy lives. And it's a place where--and
some of these inhabitants are puppets, and they all get along together in this
building on Avenue Q. So...

Mr. MARX: Very much like an adult version of a children's show you may
remember except these are all college graduates and, you know, a lot of them
are unemployed and looking for their purpose in life and trying to make ends

Mr. LOPEZ: Find their way in the world, yeah.

Mr. MARX: Yeah, and dealing with breakups and relationships.

GROSS: So how do you use the puppets interacting with the actors on stage?

Mr. MARX: Well, the puppeteers are--they walk around on stage in full view.
They're dressed in black and grey and they hold the puppets in front of them
and they walk around carrying them and the puppets have no--they're cut off at
the waist. They have no legs. And the puppets talk to each other. The
puppeteers really don't acknowledge each other.

Mr. LOPEZ: No.

Mr. MARX: They do their acting through the puppets. And there's some human
characters, too. There's Brian, there's Christmas Eve and there's Gary
Coleman. And those human characters interact with the puppets. Nobody
interacts with the puppeteers. They're just there to, you know, breathe life
into the puppets.

Mr. LOPEZ: Yeah, the puppets are the characters. And the style of puppetry
and the style of puppets is very much in the children's television Jim Henson
kind of vein. And what we're able to see on the stage of "Avenue Q" is the
style of puppetry, you're able to see the puppeteers do their work.

GROSS: Now was "Sesame Street" the equivalent of Broadway musicals for you
when you were growing up? Was Jeff Moss, who wrote a lot of the songs, your
Cole Porter? Was Miss Piggy your Ethel Merman?

Mr. LOPEZ: Yes.

Mr. MARX: In a way, yes.

Mr. LOPEZ: Yes. Well, we definitely looked at the songs of Jeff Moss and
Joe Raposo and held them up as...

Mr. MARX: Paul Williams.

Mr. LOPEZ: ...models. Paul Williams. Just it--they did amazing work back
then, and we were all watching it and taking it in, and I think it probably
was our first exposure as kids to characters breaking into song, which is part
of the reason why we chose to work with puppets in the first place in our
adult lives. We wanted to--we realized that musical theater has become
something of a cliche to our generation, not that we agree with that.

Mr. MARX: And let's face it. I mean, you don't really see people our age
too much listening to "Oklahoma" and "Funny Girl."

Mr. LOPEZ: Right, but...

Mr. MARX: You know, it's a bygone era for the most part.

Mr. LOPEZ: ...we realized that when a puppet breaks into song, you--there's
not a bone in your body that says, `Oh, right, that puppet would never break
into song,' because you're already trusting that it's alive. You already
believe that it's alive.

GROSS: Well, did you...

Mr. MARX: So...

GROSS: ...initially intend to write these songs for a kids' musical? I mean,
this is an adult musical, but when you started writing songs with the idea
that puppets would be singing them, were you thinking, `Well, it's going to be
for kids?

Mr. LOPEZ: Never.

Mr. MARX: No, no, no. We wanted to write a musical about ourselves and our
friends and the idea that people our age were coming out of college. I was
coming out of grad school. We were both living in apartments owned by--well,
I was living in an apartment owned by my parents. Bobby was living with his
parents. So was everybody else we knew. And the people who were out living
on their own, you know, were out in Queens and Brooklyn where you wouldn't
really even want to visit. After college, when you are--even through college,
you're led to believe that you can go out and set the world on fire, but you
find out quickly that only...

Mr. LOPEZ: It's a lot more complicated than that.

GROSS: Well, this reminds me of a song. Let's hear another song from the
cast recording of "Avenue Q." And this is a song you both wrote called "It
Sucks to be Me," in which everybody is thinking that their life is even worse
than the next person's life and they're almost competing for whose life is
more depressing.

Mr. MARX: That's the opening number. Right after Princeton sings "What Do
You Do With a BA in English?," everybody comes out and sings this.

GROSS: So this is "It Sucks to be Me" from the cast recording of "Avenue Q."

(Soundbite of "It Sucks to be Me")

Mr. JORDAN GELBER: (Singing; as Brian) When I was little, I thought I would

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) What?

Mr. GELBER: (Singing; as Brian) ...a big comedian on late-night TV.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) Oh.

Mr. GELBER: (Singing; as Brian) But now I'm 32, and as you can see, I'm not.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) Nope.

Mr. GELBER: (Singing; as Brian) Oh, well, it sucks to be me. It sucks to be

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) Oh.

Mr. GELBER: (Singing; as Brian) It sucks to be broke and unemployed and
turning 33. It sucks to be me.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) You think your life sucks?

Mr. GELBER: (As Brian) I think so.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) Your problems aren't so bad.

(Singing) I'm kind of pretty. I'm pretty damn smart.

Mr. GELBER: (As Brian) You are.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) Thanks.

(Singing) I like romantic things like music and art. And as you know, I have
a gigantic heart. So why don't I have a boyfriend? (Censored by
network) sucks to be me.

Mr. GELBER: (As Brian) Me, too.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (Singing; as Kate Monster) It sucks to be me.

Mr. GELBER: (Singing; as Brian) It sucks to be me. It sucks to be Brian...

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (Singing; as Kate Monster) ...and Kate...

Mr. GELBER: (Singing; as Brian) not have a job.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (Singing; as Kate Monster) not have a date.

Mr. GELBER and Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (Singing; as Brian and Kate Monster) It sucks
to be me.

Mr. RICK LYON: (As Nicky) (Unintelligible)...I'll come home when I want you.

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)...

Mr. LYON: (As Nicky) You're not my mother, Rod.

Mr. GELBER: (As Brian) Rod, Nicky, could you settle something for us? Do
you have a second?

Mr. LYON: (As Nicky) Certainly.

Ms. D'ABRUZZO: (As Kate Monster) Whose life sucks more, Brian's or mine?

Man and Mr. LYON: (In unison; as Rod and Nicky) Ours.

Mr. LYON: (Singing; as Nicky) We live together.

Man: (Singing; as Rod) We're close as people can get.

Mr. LYON: (Singing; as Nicky) We've been the best of buddies...

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's music from the cast recording of "Avenue Q." My guests Robert
Lopez and Jeff Marx wrote the songs for the show.

Well, let me ask you what was the most depressing aspects of your lives when
you got out of college and were trying to make that transition into figuring
out what you were going to do next, figuring out what your adult lives were
going to be like. Bobby, let's start with you.

Mr. LOPEZ: Well, when I was in college, I knew I wanted to write for the
musical theater, and I don't think I knew exactly how stupid a dream that was
because so few people get to do it and have a living at it. But I didn't give
myself a plan B. I didn't give myself another career path that I might have
in mind. I just decided I would move to New York and do it, and I ended up
moving back in with my parents.

So I was living in New York and I realized, `Well, nothing is going to be
happening for me. I'm not going to have a Broadway musical for a while now.'
And I was temping and I was living with my parents, and that's being on the
bottom of a very, very tall totem pole. You realize that, you know, suddenly
you're in the middle of this hierarchy. College is a very equal, you know,
egalitarian society where everyone goes to the school. It doesn't matter how
much money you make. It doesn't matter, you know, who you are. Everyone's a
student. But when you get out of college, you realize, `Oh, it's all about
money. It's all about success and who you are.' You know, if you live with
your parents and you want to be a Broadway composer, tough luck. So that
was--I realized, `Oh, well, I've got a very long, difficult journey ahead of
me.' And it's sort of funny when you take a long view of it, and I think a lot
of that humor was part of, you know, the humor we were able to find in "Avenue

Mr. MARX: I think--this is Jeff--when you come out of school and, in fact,
Bobby went to Yale. The better the school, the worse you feel it. You feel
like--you just have this vague notion that you're talented and you're smart
and you're going to do something with your life that's, you know, important or
respectable. And when you get out of college, there just are not all these
opportunities banging down your door like, I suppose, when you're a college
kid you dream that there will be. And the truth is, you know, that with time,
you're thrust out into the world and you figure out how to make your own life.

BIANCULLI: Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez speaking to Terry Gross in 2004. We'll
talk more about their musical "Avenue Q" after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2004 interview with "Avenue Q"
songwriters Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx.

GROSS: Now you met each other at a BMI workshop? Do I have that right?

Mr. LOPEZ: Yeah, it's called the BMI-Lehman Engle Musical Theater Workshop.
It's a great program for aspiring musical theater writers. We'd only been
working together for about a year and we had written a project, although, you
know, I had been writing songs my whole life. Since I was 11 years old, I'd
been wanting to write for musical theater.

Mr. MARX: I didn't. I was brand new at it. I didn't really write until I
met Bobby...

Mr. LOPEZ: Yeah.

Mr. MARX: the workshop.

Mr. LOPEZ: But we--our very first project together was something called
"Kermit, Prince of Denmark." The assignment was to write an adaptation, a faux
musical. And in this version of Hamlet, of course, everyone lives at the end.
It's a funny case of mistaken identity. Kermit the frog, in the beginning, is
in an airport on his way to meet his buddies, the other Muppets, in Denver,
Colorado, and he gets on the wrong plane and ends up in Denmark. Get it?

GROSS: Oh, got it. Got it.

Mr. MARX: So we wrote a whole bunch of songs for that, just one after the
other. They came real easy. The class was laughing their butts off. We were
having a great time. We won a huge award for it, and it--I mean, a huge cash
award for it, which helped us not have to temp so much and actually write
more. So we went, `Hey, maybe there's something to this.' We started getting
jobs, writing stuff for the Disney channel, for a touring children's theater
company called Theatre Works USA, and when those jobs really were supporting
us, we said, `All right. Let's, you know, write something for real for
adults, for people like us.' And the idea came to us for "Avenue Q."

GROSS: So is there a verse that you can sing from "Kermit, Prince of De--Frog
of Denmark or Prince of Denmark?" Which was it called?

Mr. LOPEZ: "Kermit, Prince of Denmark."

Mr. MARX: "Kermit, Prince of Denmark."


Mr. MARX: We could sing it or we could even get you the demo if you want, to

GROSS: No, sing it. Sing it.

Mr. MARX: (Singing) I packed my sweaters, my shoes and my slacks, turned off
the e-mail, the phone and the fax. I'm on vacation. It's time to relax in
Denver. La, la, la, do. I'm going skiing and taking it slow. I find it
freeing to go with the flow. With all my being, I'm ready to go to Denver.

And he gets on the wrong plane going to Denmark, and so sort of mayhem

GROSS: That's great.

Mr. MARX: every great Muppet movie should.

GROSS: Now, Jeff, you mentioned that you had never written songs until you
met Bobby at this workshop. So...

Mr. MARX: Right.

GROSS: Now my understanding is that you both write the music and the lyrics
together. Jeff, did you have a music background?

Mr. MARX: Yeah, I had always played piano by ear. I still don't read music,
which is why Bobby usually plays the piano. But I've--you know, I played for
myself and I read the chords and I played it at cocktail bars and stuff like
that, but I had never written anything. And I had always sung and I was a
musical theater performance major in college, but, you know, I found that I
didn't enjoy acting, and I didn't feel that I wanted to go make a career out
of it, so I went into law school. And I went through law school. And in law
school, they have a parody review ever year called "The Law Review."

GROSS: A UE review.

Mr. MARX: Exactly. "The UE Review." And I ended up writing some songs for
that. It was my first time writing anything and I found that I was actually
good at it. And I took some of the lyrics and I applied to the BMI workshop,
hoping that I could get into this community where I would meet young, talented
people and find clients. And instead of finding clients, I found a
collaborator and stopped practicing law, and Bobby and I have been making a
living writing musicals.

GROSS: Well, I want to play another song from your musical "Avenue Q." And
this, again, is an adult take on the kind of song you used to hear on "Sesame
Street." It's called "If You Were Gay." Would you set it up for us? Tell us
what's happening in the story when the song is sung.

Mr. LOPEZ: Well, this is our introduction to two of the major characters but
not the main characters. It's--they're two roommates, Nicky and Rod. Nicky
is a loveable freeloader. He's sort of rotund and cute and pudgy...

Mr. MARX: Jolly.

Mr. LOPEZ: ...jolly. And Rod is an uptight investment banker who, you'll
find in the song, is in the closet.

Mr. MARX: He's also a Republican.

Mr. LOPEZ: Yeah, right.

GROSS: OK. So let's hear it. This is "If You Were Gay" from the cast
recording of "Avenue Q."

(Soundbite from "If You Were Gay")

Man: (As Rod) Why do I care about some gay guy you met? OK, I am trying to

Mr. LYON: (As Nicky) Well, I didn't mean anything by it, Rod. I just think
it's something we should be able to talk about.

Man: (As Rod) Well, I do not want to talk about it, Nicky. This conversation
is over.

Mr. LYON: (As Nicky) Yeah, but, Rod...

Man: (As Rod) Over!

Mr. LYON: (As Nicky) Well, OK, but just so you know...

(Singing) If you were gay, that'd be OK. I mean, 'cause, hey, I like you
anyway, because, you see, if it were me, I would feel free to say that I was
gay, but I'm not gay.

Man: (As Rod) Nicky, please, I am trying to read. What?

Mr. LYON: (Singing; as Nicky) If you were queer...

Man: (As Rod) Oh, Nicky.

Mr. LYON: (Singing; as Nicky) ...I'd still be here...

Man: (As Rod) Nicky, I am trying to read this book.

Mr. LYON: (Singing; as Nicky) ...year after year...

Man: (As Rod) Nicky.

Mr. LYON: (Singing; as Nicky) ...because you're dear to me.

Man: (As Rod) Ah!

Mr. LYON: (Singing; as Nicky) And I know that you...

Man: (As Rod) What?

Mr. LYON: (Singing; as Nicky) ...would accept me, too...

Man: (As Rod) I would?

Mr. LYON: (Singing; as Nicky) ...if I told you today, `Hey, guess what? I'm
gay,' but I'm not gay. I'm happy just being with you...

Man: (As Rod) High-button shoes, Pal Joey.

Mr. LYON: (Singing; as Nicky) what should it matter to me what you do
in bed with guys?

Man: (As Rod) Nicky, that is wrong.

Mr. LYON: (Singing; as Nicky) No, it's not. If you were gay...

Man: (As Rod) Ah!

Mr. LYON: (Singing; as Nicky) ...I'd shout hurray.

Man: (As Rod) I am not listening.

Mr. LYON: (Singing; as Nicky) And here I'd stay.

Man: (As Rod) La, la, la, la, la.

Mr. LYON: (Singing; as Nicky) I wouldn't get in your way.

Man: (As Rod) Ah!

Mr. LYON: (Singing; as Nicky) You can count on me to always be beside you
every day to tell you it's OK, you were just born that way, and as they say,
it's in your DNA, you're gay.

Man: (As Rod) I am not gay.

Mr. LYON: (As Nicky) If you were gay.

Man: (As Rod) Ah!

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Well, I really enjoyed this. Thank you so much for talking with us
and good luck to you both.

Mr. LOPEZ: Oh, thank you.

Mr. MARX: Thanks a lot.

BIANCULLI: You've listened to the cast recording of "Avenue Q" and our guests
Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, who wrote the songs for the show. There's now an
"Avenue Q" book. I'm David Bianculli and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite from "For Now")

Unidentified Actor #1: Why does everything have to be so hard?

Unidentified Actress #1: Maybe you'll never find your purpose.

Unidentified Actress #2: Lots of people don't.

Actor #1: But then I don't even know why I'm alive.

Actress #1: Well, who does really?

(Singing) Everyone's a little bit unsatisfied.

Unidentified Actor #2: (Singing) Everyone goes round a little empty inside.

Unidentified Actress #3: (Singing) Take a breath, look around.

Actor #2: (Singing) Swallow your pride.

Actress #2: (Singing) For now...

Actors and Actresses: (Singing in unison) For now...

Unidentified Actor #3: (Singing) Nothing lasts.

Unidentified Actor #4: (Singing) Life goes on.

Unidentified Actor #5: (Singing) Full of surprises.

Actor #4: (Singing) You'll be faced with problems of all shapes and sizes.

Actress #1: (Singing) You're going to have to make a few compromises for now.

Unidentified Actor #6: (Singing) For now.

Actors and Actresses: (Singing in unison) But only for now. For now. Only
for now. For now. Only for now. For now. Only for now.

Unidentified Actress #4: (Singing) For now, we're healthy.

Unidentified Actor #7: (Singing) For now we're employed.

Actors and Actresses: (Singing in unison) For now, we're happy.

Actress #2: (Singing) If not overjoyed.

Actor #4: (Singing) And we'll accept the things we cannot avoid for now.

Actor #5: (Singing) For now.

Actor #7: (Singing) For now.

Actress #2: (Singing) For now.

Actors and Actresses: (Singing in unison) But only for now. For now. Only
for now. For now. Only for now. For now. Only for now. Only for now. For
now, there's life. Only for now. For now, there's love. Only for now. For
now, there's work. For now there's happiness. But only for now. For now
there's comfort. Only for now. For now there's friendship. Only for now.
For now. Only for now. Only for now.

(End of soundbite)


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Critic Milo Miles recommends "Happy Joyouos Hanukkah"
and "Wonder Wheel"


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross.

When the revered populist songwriter Woody Guthrie died in 1967, he left
behind a large number of lyrics without music. They have become a way to keep
Guthrie's work fresh, as modern musicians have set the words to music under
the direction of Guthrie's daughter Nora. Music critic Milo Miles reviews two
albums from Guthrie's latest posthumous collaborators, the Brooklyn-based
group the Klezmatics.

(Soundbite of Klezmatics)

Unidentified Singer: (Singing)
Mermaid Avenue, that's the street
where the lox and bagels meet
where the havah meets the pickle
where the sour meets the sweet
where the beer flows to the ocean
where the wine runs to the sea
why they call it Mermaid Avenue,
that's more than I can see

Group of People: (Singing) But there's never been a mermaid...

(End of soundbite)

Ms. MILO MILES: A decade ago the great 1930s troubadour Woody Guthrie was in
danger of disappearing. Sure, he was celebrated by his peer Pete Seeger and
contemporary stars like Bruce Springsteen, who wanted to keep Guthrie's image
as a protest singer before the public. But since the Depression-era brand of
populist protest wasn't gaining traction with a larger, younger audience, the
protest image made Guthrie seem less like a touchstone and more like an
antique. So at first it does not seem obvious how the klezmer-fusion band the
Klezmatics might give Guthrie new life. However, the Klezmatics themselves
needed some fresh inspiration. Since the mid-1980s, they've been one of the
most consistent and inventive members of the klezmer revival movement, but
they're coming off a hit-and-miss gospel klezmer fusion album where the misses
were far more grating than the hits were inspirational. For the new "Wonder
Wheel," the Klezmatics wrote music for lyrics Guthrie never recorded, and
every track is a confident, surefire delight. The Klezmatics have never
sounded more at ease. You'd never know it was their first album in English.
Lorin Sklamberg's plaintive, also delicate, vocals present a new but
recognizable Woody Guthrie.

(Soundbite of "Wonder Wheel")

Oh will you come when I call you
I'll come when you call me
I'll call you at half-past one
One's for the pretty little baby
that's born, born, born, and gone away

Oh will you come when I call you
I'll come when you call me
I'll call you at half-past two
Two's for the love of me and you
One's for the pretty little baby
that's born, born, born, and gone away

Oh will you come when I call you

(End of soundbite)

Mr. MILES: Of course, Guthrie's daughter Nora had offered her father's
lyrics to modernists before, most notably to Billy Bragg and the band Wilco
for the superb releases "Mermaid Avenue" in 1998 and "Mermaid Avenue II" in
2000. Oddly the song "Mermaid's Avenue" did not appear on either album, but
it belongs on "Wonder Wheel." Bragg and Wilco selected lyrics to recast
Guthrie as a romantic humanist and even a loverboy. The Klezmatics want to
promote Guthrie as a multicultural pantheist with insights into big-city
ethnic life. After all, he wasn't riding the lonely backrails in the
hinterlands anymore. He was married to a Jewish dancer and living in New York
City, had a mother-in-law who was a Yiddish poet. He even wrote Hanukkah
songs. Yes, the Klezmatics have done a whole album of those, too. Woody
Guthrie's "Happy Joyous Hanukkah."

(Soundbite of "Happy Joyous Hanukkah")

Mr. SKLAMBERG: (Singing)
How many nights for Hanukkah?
Happy joyous Hanukkah
Nights and days
Days and nights
Happy joyous Hanukkah
Eight are the nights of Hanukkah
Happy joyous Hanukkah
Eight are the days and
Eight are the nights
Happy joyous Hanukkah

How many candles do I light.

(End of soundbite)

Mr. MILES: "Happy Joyous Hanukkah" is a far slighter album than "Wonder
Wheel." It's fleshed out with some throwaway instrumental, but on both records
the Klezmatics strike the right sprightly and dignified note, and singer
Sklamberg perfectly embodies the Guthrie who was a philosophical fighter and
optimist. Even in his autobiography "Bound for Glory," Woodie promoted
himself as a wise hayseed who was radicalized by events into the singing voice
of the people. That was always sort of a marketing ploy. Now we are ready to
hear more sides of this complex character. This development will be good for
his legacy and good for his longevity.

BIANCULLI: Milo Miles reviewed two new albums by the Klezmatics, "Wonder
Wheel," which has been nominated for a Grammy, and "Woodie Guthrie's Happy
Joyous Hanukkah."

Coming up, a salute to the late jazz artist Kenny Davern. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Vogue film critic John Powers calls seven comedies of
Preston Sturges inspired


"The Lady Eve," "Sullivan's Travels," "The Palm Beach Story," those are some
of the comedies written and directed by the great Hollywood film maker Preston
Sturges. A new DVD set collects seven of those films he made between 1940 and
1944. Our critic at large John Powers has a review.

Mr. JOHN POWERS: We've all heard Edison's old line about how genius is 1
percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. Well that may be so, but any
artist will tell you that you're sunk without that 1 percent. There are few
more striking examples of this than Preston Sturges, the first of Hollywood's
great writer-directors. Between 1940 and 1944, this prodigy turned out seven
classic comedies, one of the great creative bursts in American culture, an
explosion of invention comparable to Bob Dylan's musical flowering in the
1960s, or Philip Roth's recent run of novels.

Then, seemingly overnight, Sturges' inspiration seemed to desert him and he
never made another successful film. Happily, those seven inspired comedies
are available in a new DVD box set, and they're essential viewing for anyone
interested in American culture, or anybody who just wants to laugh, for
Sturges' comedies burst with so much manic energy that they're almost
orgiastic, a surreal ride of wisecracks, slapstick, and run amok characters.
This is a filmmaker who gives you the rollicking "Ale & Quail Club" in "The
Palm Beach Story." They go skeet shooting inside a train. But he also gives
you the verbal wit of card shark Barbara Stanwyck, hoping to fleece naive
Henry Fonda in "The Lady Eve." "I need him," Stanwyck says, "like the hatchet
needs the turkey."

Of course, Sturges wasn't just a jokemeister. His comedy explored the
enduring delusions and self-delusions of the American dream. "Christmas in
July" centers on an office worker who's tricked into thinking he won a
fortune. "The Great McGinty" is about a crooked politician who's done in by
telling the truth. And the hero of "Sullivan's Travels" is the director of
trifling Hollywood comedies who dresses up as a tramp to research a deep-dish
socially conscious movie called, pretentiously, enough, "Oh Brother, Where Art

Sturges wasn't shy about taking on sacred cows either. In "Hail the
Conquering Hero," Eddie Bracken plays Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith, a
young man discharged from the military because of chronic hayfever. At a bar
he meets some Marines who decide to turn him into a war hero, complete with
medals, to make his mother happy. But when Woodrow gets back to his hometown,
he's hailed as a conquering hero and starts feeling trapped by this big lie.
Here, he's complaining about the situation to one of the Marines, played by
Sturges regular William Demarest.

(Soundbite of "Hail the Conquering Hero")

Mr. WILLIAM DEMAREST: (As Marine) Look, I didn't get you into this...

Mr. EDDIE BRACKEN: (As Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith) Oh, yes, you
did. I was going to hide in the Y...

Mr. DEMAREST: (As Marine) A Marine never hides. That's what semper fidelis
means. It means "face the music."

Mr. BRACKEN: (As Truesmith) Well it does not. It happens to mean "always

Mr. DEMAREST: (As Marine) That's right. Faithful to your mother, all right.

Mr. BRACKEN: (As Truesmith) It doesn't mean faithful to your mother at all.
It means faithful to the...

Mr. DEMAREST: (As Marine) What's the matter with you? You're home. Your
mother's happy. Did you see that look in her eyes? Your girl still loves you
and the town gave you a nice little reception.

Mr. BRACKEN: (As Truesmith) I'll say they did.

Mr. DEMAREST: (As Marine) Boy, I wish I was in your shoes.

Mr. BRACKEN: (As Truesmith) Boy, I wish you were too. Look, I don't want to
sound ungrateful. I know you did it for the best, and I thank you for your...

Mr. DEMAREST: (As Marine) I tell you, it'll all blow over. Everything is
perfect except for a couple of details.

Mr. BRACKEN: (As Truesmith) They hang people for a couple of details.

Mr. DEMAREST: (As Marine) What are you talking about? I've been a hero, you
could call it that, for 25 years. And does anybody ever ask me what I done?
If they did I could hardly tell them I told it so different so many times. It
ain't as if you done it on purpose. By Tuesday you'll be forgotten.

Mr. BRACKEN: (As Truesmith) Boy, I hope you're right.

Mr. DEMAREST: (As Marine) I know I'm right. You take...

(End of soundbite)

Mr. POWERS: It's worth noting that this send-up of bogus heroism, and
Mom-ism, was made during the very heart of World War II, a full 60 years
before Clint Eastwood played a similar story straight in "Flags of Our

Sturges always took pride in showing parts of Americana that most of the
Hollywood dream factory did not, and aside from "The Lady Eve," all of these
films are wildly unconventional. None more so than "The Miracle of Morgan's
Creek," whose premise would seem daring even today. Betty Hutton stars as
Trudy Kockenlocker, a young woman who comes to after partying with a group of
soldiers only to discover that she's married somebody, she can't remember who.
And, by the way, she's also pregnant.

Sturges' films are so enjoyable that it seems a tad churlish to point out that
he fell short of greatness. His comedy lacked the deep humanity you find in
genre noir or Ernst Lubitsch, and it also lacked the rigor. A free-wheeling
talent, Sturges rarely thought his ideas through. While nearly all his movies
begin with a sharp, potentially shocking premise, they often end in the kind
of tinny, wish-fulfilling resolutions that are the purest Hollywood.

But I don't mean to be harsh about this. After all, few things are more
distinctively American that Sturges' desire to be iconoclastic and reassuring
at the very same time. That's part of what gives our pop culture its
seductive lightness, its zing. And no filmmaker has ever had more pizzazz
than Preston Sturges, who once put his comic philosophy this way: `A pretty
girl is better than a plain one. A leg is better than an arm. A bedroom is
better than a living room. An arrival is better than departure. A birth is
better than a death. A chase is better than a chat. A dog is better than a
landscape. A kitten is better than a dog. A baby is better than a kitten. A
kiss is better than a baby. And a pratfall is better than anything.'

BIANCULLI: John Powers is film critic for Vogue. He reviewed a new DVD
collection of films by Preston Sturges.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue