The Many and the Few

The Many and the Few is a Woody Guthrie song that tells the Chanukkah story. It has been covered by The Klezmatics. It is also a great reminder of how different a song can be when it’s done by different artists.

The arrangements are different, but seemingly not that different. Woody Guthrie performs the song with a solo vocal and acoustic guitar accompaniment. The Klezmatics perform it as a duet, one male vocal and one female, with harmonium accompaniment. The Klezmatics’ version is completely recognizable as the same song, but at the same time feels completely new. 

I suppose some of that just comes down to the fact that Woody Guthrie, as much as I like him, wasn’t gifted with a great voice. The Klezmatics have prettier voices, but they are also more in tune, more subtle and more flexible. When Woody Guthrie sings it, it feels very sing-song-y. He really hits the rhymes. The Klezmatics feel very natural. 

The fact that the Klezmatics have two vocalists makes quite a difference. The song is a series of verses, each verse from the point of view of a different character. All of Woody Guthrie’s characters sound the same. By alternating verses, the Klezmatics add variety and really sell the differences between the characters. The only time they sing in harmony is the final verse. It lifts that verse and emphasizes the Chanukkah miracle.

The only other difference is the accompaniment. Both are sparse. Woody Guthrie’s is a repetitive picked guitar. It would fit with pretty much any Woody Guthrie song. The Klezmatics have a harmonium playing long chords with very little rhythmic variation. Woody Guthrie’s accompaniment propels the song. The song floats on the Klezmatics’ accompaniment. Woody Guthrie’s sounds like a classic folk song while the Klezmatics’ sounds like religious music.

I like both versions, but every time I listen to either one, I’m just struck by how different they are. Musical arrangements don’t get the credit they deserve. People always praise the songwriters. It’s time we give equal praise to the arrangers. They can take something old and make it brand new. This is the perfect song to start that appreciation with.

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