My Article on Jews, Americana, Bluegrass

 

Hadassah Magazine has published my article about Jews and Americana/Bluegrass:

Jews Plus Bluegrass Equals Toe-Stompin’ Jewgrass

Nefesh Mountain

Banjo picker Eric Lindberg loves with a passion the distinctive harmonies of the acoustic country music known as bluegrass. However, he says, as a Jew, he long felt “a bit out of the loop.

“Much of the work from the inception and early days of bluegrass is deeply spiritual and Christian based,” says the dark-haired, darkbearded 30-something Lindberg, who also plays guitar. “Musically, I could connect with the songs on every level, but my identity as a Jew from Brooklyn always kept me from truly identifying with them.”

The solution? He and his wife, singer Doni Zasloff, formed a bluegrass band called Nefesh Mountain whose original songs meld bluegrass and old-time licks with lyrics reflecting Jewish traditions. “Nefesh is a Hebrew word which loosely translates as the soul or animating spirit of all living things,” they explain on the band’s website. “The mountain is a cross-cultural symbol used widely in Jewish text as well as in bluegrass and old-time musical forms.”

Bluegrass and old-time are two different approaches to traditional 20th-century American roots music, performed by ensembles made up mainly of stringed instruments such as fiddle, banjo, mandolin and guitar.

Nefesh Mountain’s 2016 debut album featured bluegrass greats Sam Bush, Mark Schatz, Scott Vestal, Rob Ickes and Gary Oleyar, and it included songs called “Singin’ Jewish Girl” and “Adonai Loves Me.” Lindberg and Zasloff are among the current crop of musicians who blend their deep-seated Jewish identities with an equally deep connection to traditional roots music—a fusion that some performers and critics dub “Jewgrass.”

[…]

Mark Rubin

New Orleans-based Mark Rubin, 51, a veteran of both the American roots and klezmer scenes, takes a different tack on his new album, Songs for the Hangman’s Daughter. In songs such as “Southern Jews Is Good News” and “Teshuvah,” Rubin, who was born in Stillwater, Okla., bluntly attempts to reconcile his experience as a culturally Jewish musician in the American South.

“It is not religious music in the usual sense,” says music critic Ari Davidow. Rubin “is in-your-face about who he is and how he doesn’t fit stereotypes. He is not just making a statement to anti-Semites who see Jews as aliens, but also to Jews of the coasts who find it alien to imagine that there are Jews who live in redneck territory, proudly embracing redneck values.”

Read full article

Banjo Romantika to be broadcast on American TV

banjo-romntika-poster

Banjo Romantika, the documentary about Czech bluegrass music in which I appear (as the main talking head) will be broadcast on public PBS television stations around the United States in December.

You can see the growing list of stations on the film’s web site — click HERE.

Broadcast venues include channels in New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, North Carolina, South Carolina, Illinois, Tennessee, California, Virginia, Kentucky….

I spent a few days earlier this month in Johnson City,TN, with the filmmakers — Lee Bidgood and Shara Lange. We recorded a commentary track for the film, which will be included in the new DVDs that are being prepared. We discussed the making of the film, but also the history of Czech bluegrass, and the music and musicians featured in the movie.

See a 30-second teaser for the movie here:

Banjo Romantika: American Bluegrass Music & The Czech Imagination from Light Projects on Vimeo.

On filming “Banjo Romantika”

banjo-romntika-posterLee Bidgood has written an engaging essay in Ethnomusicology Review about collaborating with Shara Lange on the filming of Banjo Romantika, the documentary about Czech bluegrass music that I helped on and in which I appear as a “talking head.” He writes about the practical nuts-and-bolts of filming as well as his changing role as scholar and participant.

When Shara and I set out to film in the Czech Republic, my lingering sense of a scholarly ideal led me to impose a research-design structure to our slate of scheduled interviews and visits to performance events.  This stance quickly met with the practicalities of fieldwork (which ranged from me not being able to successfully work the sophisticated camera, to a hardware glitch garbling a key bit of interview audio, etc.); at a more foundational level, however, my sense of the project sometimes conflicted with Lange’s goals as a filmmaker.  Although dedicated to an observational perspective, and thus to a transparent presentation of her subjects, she also emphasized to me the importance of a dramatic “through-line” to the film, and spoke of the people we were filming not as colleagues or subjects but as “characters.”  As I pushed for more and longer filmed interviews (thinking that more words from “characters” mouths would give them more agency and provide more information) she sought evocative moments, interactions, and scenes. […]

The most significant result of the documentary on my continuing fieldwork among Czech bluegrassers is an increased engagement with my projects.  Discussing my plans for an English-language academic paper or monograph has never quickened my colleagues’ pulses.  Seeing or hearing about the film has led many Czech people to contact me with questions, concerns, and feedback that I have been trying to elicit for years through more traditional means.  We plan to broadcast the film on a television station in the Czech Republic, launching it into the wider discourse among fans and non-fans of bluegrass there.

 

Read the whole article here

With Lee Bidgood at the Birthplace of Country Music museu, Bristol TN/VA

With Lee Bidgood at the Birthplace of Country Music museum, Bristol TN/VA

I’m quoted in the Wall Street Journal

A French country music fan wears Hank Williams on his arm…Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

I’m quoted in the Wall Street Journal in an August 11 article about European country music by Ginanne Brownell. She writes about a new, more mainstream trend in locally produced country music. But her statement that “many events are moving away from exclusively featuring big-name American acts, opening their stages to local talent” isn’t really right. Yes there are now (or I should say again) more big events by big-name American stars. But most of the scores of country music and bluegrass festivals and other events across Europe have already long  mainly featured local groups. The article doesn’t mention veteran European artists like Truck Stop, Tom Astor, Gunther Gabriel, Michal Tucny, Lonstar, etc….

Europe Tunes In to Its Own Country Music Scene

After years of importing country artists from the U.S., Europe is finally listening to home-grown music

By

Ginanne Brownell
Updated Aug. 11, 2014 1:22 p.m. ET
[…]

Country music has been a niche genre in Europe since the 1950s, when American GIs stationed in Europe brought it with them. (It didn’t hurt that Elvis Presley was stationed in Germany from 1958-1960). During the Cold War, in countries such as Czechoslovakia, a bluegrass scene developed as a form of rebellion against communism. The subculture is still thriving today, thanks to bands such as Druhá Travá, who have released over 20 albums internationally and have been touring the U.S. nearly every year since 1993.

“Bluegrass festivals in the Czech Republic are among the best in the world,” says Ruth Ellen Gruber, an American journalist and writer based in Italy who runs the European blog “Sauerkraut Cowboys.” The Czech town of Kopidlno has been hosting an annual bluegrass festival since 1973.

A plethora of country music festivals have been held across Europe for many years. They range from small local festivals to large annual events. For example, France’s La Roche Bluegrass Festival draws 12,000 people, and London’s Country to Country Festival drew 18,000 fans last year and 30,000 this, its second, year. Lately, however, many events are moving away from exclusively featuring big-name American acts, opening their stages to local talent.

[…]

Read the full article

 

 

 

 

Pete Seeger and Czech Bluegrass

Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

I’ve written  about this before, but, with Pete Seeger’s death on Monday at the age of 94, I wrote a little piece for Tablet Magazine on the impact of Seeger’s 1964 concerts in communist Czechoslovakia on the development of the Czech bluegrass scene — the Czech Republic probably boasts more banjo-players and bluegrass bands per capita than any other country — the new documentary film Banjo Romantika, in which I appear as a “talking head,” goes into this phenomenon.

My Tablet piece was pegged not just to Seeger’s death, but to the fact that over the weekend I took part in the launch of a new CD by the Czech bluegrass-fusion band The Malina Brothers — banjoist Lubos, guitarist Pavel, fiddler Pepa and non-brother bassist Pavel Peroutka, all of whom are veterans of the scene and play in other major groups. Lubos, Pavel and Pepa visited me in Italy last year and gave a house concert to enthralled neighbors.

Back in September, I helped out in the studio in Prague with the band’s English language singing.

On Sunday night, at a sold-out concert in the brothers’ home town of Nachod, in northern Bohemia, they brought me up on stage for the “krest” — christening — to toast the new release with sparkling wine.

I wrote in Tablet:

It was almost exactly 50 years ago that Seeger performed a series of concerts in the then-communist Czechoslovakia in March 1964. For the first time, people saw a five-string banjo being played, an instrument whose distinctive twang they’d heard while listening clandestinely to the American Forces radio broadcast from across the Iron Curtain. Seeger’s performance electrified music fans, who ended up launching a Czech bluegrass scene. (The first Czech five-strings were made from photos of Seeger’s; today, Czech banjo-makers export their instruments worldwide.)

 

Marko Cermak, who half a century ago built a five-string banjo based on photos of Pete Seeger’s. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

 

Seeger’s 1964 tour was booked by the official Czechoslovak concert agency. Pete’s longtime friend Gene Deitch, a Chicago-born, Academy Award-winning animator and illustrator who has lived in Prague since the 1950s, organized the Prague concert. Deitch, now 89, also recorded it and it was later issued as a CD.

Seeger, Deitch recalled in the CD notes, was—as far as the Czech authorities were concerned—”an example of a ‘progressive’ American performer, singing for the rights of the ‘oppressed American masses,’” and “all those living in the darkness of [the] ‘imperialist’ American society.”

Deitch has posted the entire recording on his web site—among the songs Seeger performed that night was the Israeli folk song “Tzena Tzena,” which he sang in Hebrew.

Seeger’s influence in the Czech music scene stretches well beyond bluegrass. The Malina Brothers CD launch was my second in the country in recent weeks. In December, I helped pop the bubbly in Prague for the launch of a CD of Ladino tunes called “Songs from the Sephardic Tradition” by the new band Kon Sira, another project with which Lubos Malina, the award-winning banjoist of the Malina Brothers, is involved.

Malina, who turned 55 the day Pete Seeger died, was only a boy when Seeger played Prague in 1964, but he first heard bluegrass and banjo music from the generation of Czech musicians that Seeger had directly influenced. In a way, this makes the Kon Sira Sephardic project, too, a direct legacy of Pete’s performance half a century ago.

Read the full article

In the Czech Republic, the launch of a CD is called a “křest” or “Christening.” Kon Sira’s leader, the Ladino scholar and singer Katerina Garcia, thought this would not be good form for a CD of Jewish music — so in the video below you can see her explaining this in Czech to the audience at the launch, and then me reciting the Shehehiyanu prayer.