Spaghetti (& Meatballs) Cowboys

This is a cross post from my blog sauerkrautcowboys.blogspot.com

In late October I spent an afternoon at a country western festival in Bologna, Italy. It was the very last day of the two weekends that the festival took place, and I was eager to see what it was like: though I have been to wild west and country festivals in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France and the Czech Republic, I have only been to a couple of them in Italy.

This one, called “Festival Country,” took place at the Bologna Fairgrounds, and it shared space in a cavernous hall with a sort of “October Fest” beer festival (featuring what was presented as German food). In a separate cavernous hall there was a so-called “Irish Festival:” vaguely Celtic music, and stalls that mainly seemed to sell “Lord of the Rings” type clothing…..

The path to all three led through the grim industrial landscape of the Fair buildings…..

Once there, what did I find?

The scene — at least on the day I was there — was a sort of distillation of all the most common stereotypes associated with “the west,” “the frontier,” “country-western,” and, in a certain way, “America.”  It was almost “paint-by-numbers”– but refreshingly, in contrast to festivals in other countries, I only saw one Confederate flag.

bologna-country-fest-192

I was hit by a fist of sound as soon as a entered — from a band (whose name I didn’t get) playing on a stage in the middle of the hall: playing so loud that that the sound was utterly distorted, with only the bass and the beat discernable.

The web site promised shows, concerts, food and drink, “pioneers and westerns”, Indian traditions, games, and handicrafts.

At the entrance to the cavernous hall stood a manikin of a Native American, posed outside a tepee as if to pounce.

Or of course pose for pictures.

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Nearby, there were basic-type mock ups of a Saloon, a bank, and a corral — which is where, I believe, shows were staged.

All around the edges there were stands selling cowboy boots, cowboy hats, T-shirts, “western attire” and the usual type of wild west tschotsches — most of which I rather assume were made in China or somewhere. Unlike at some other festivals I’ve been so, there was not much of the participatory or performative dress-up.

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There was a dance floor for line-dancing (increasingly popular in Italy) in front of the band-stand.

And beyond this were  lots of tables where people could eat — the “western” fare included a variety of (mainly) meats, giant hamburgers and other dishes that to me seemed pretty unappetizing (I ate fish & chips in the Irish festival). This being Italy there was also pasta — but thanks to the Americanness of it all, it was the first time I have ever seen “spaghetti and meatballs” in Italy.

One thing that was different from some of the festivals I’ve gone to elsewhere was a series of lectures given on “western” topics, such as western movies. I dropped into one of them — where an Italian from an organization called Sentiero Rosso (Red Trail) that supports Native American rights was talking about how his group brings aid to Native American families.

 

I was planning to stay at the festival until evening (the last train back to Florence was at something like 9:30 p.m.), but in fact, I only lasted a few hours….I’m sad to say that was it all so empty,  stereotyped, and  superficial — and that, despite the razzle dazzle and noise, there was such a lack of energy — that it wasn’t really fun.

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.

Equiblues 2015!

This is a crosspost from my SauerkrautCowboys blog

 

This was the third time I have been to the Equiblues rodeo and country music festival in St. Agreve, France — an annual event that draws upwards of 25,000 people and that this year was celebrating its 20th edition.

It was one of the first big country-western festivals I attended (back in 2004) when I first started following the “scene”. Last time I was there was 3 years ago — read what I wrote back then HERE and HERE.

Equiblues lasts the better part of a week, but this year, I only was able to make it there for Friday evening and Saturday, and — alas — I missed all of the rodeo — though I saw some of the cowboy mounted shooting competition.

 
One of my reasons for going was to meet with Georges Carrier, an expert on country music in France who had been the director of the Country Rendez-vous festival in Craponne for 18 years.

I parked in front of the scene in the photo at the top of this page — a fitting welcome image.

But the photo below encapsulates the atmosphere event better: “Authentic Dreams”. Festivals like Equiblues are signal embodiments of what I call “real imaginary” spaces — a re-created; no — a created — “America” where everyone wears cowboy hats and boots and hustles and bustles amid the trappings of the frontier; but where little has much really to do with the United States. As usual, except for some of the artists and rodeo performers, I was one of the only — if not the only — American there. I did hear English in the crowd from one couple strolling through, but UK English.

 

 

 
Actually, I found this year’s Equiblues just about identical with what I found three years ago. Even the same food (sausage and frites; steak and frites; wine; beer…) and physical set-up. For festival-run merch, tickets, food, and events — you have to pay in Equiblues dollars that you have to buy with Euros: one dollar = one Euro.

As usual, I was fascinated by the use of flag imagery — American flags, Confederate flags and various other flags and banners. They are used basically without much meaning, as decoration mean to provide an “American” or “Rebel” spin, as backdrops, clothing, ornamentation.

In the photo below, fly in a row, over a souvenir and clothing stand,  an American flag, a Confederate flag with the words “Heritage Not Hate”, a  Confederate flag and, I think, an Iowa state flag. I doubt of many people understood the significance of the slogan……

 
Check out the flag-inspired clothing, too.
 

 

 

 

 

 

The music, of course, with crowded concerts every night — by American, Canadian and French artists — under a circus-like big top, is one of the highlights. And there is a big space for line-dancers. I am still fascinated by the hypnotic geometric movements of these masses of people.

There was even a Miss Equiblues contest.

 

But most visitors looked more like this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Confederate Flag flies over Europe’s “Sauerkraut Cowboy” Wild West/Country Scene

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At the Country Rendez-vous festival, Craponne, France, 2008. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

I’ve been following the “Sauerkraut Cowboys” country music and wild west scene in Europe for more than a decade, visiting Wild West theme parks, country music festivals, concerts, swinging door saloons, ranches in many countries and hanging out with a variety of European wild west and country music performers and fans.

One of the most striking of all the striking visual images in the multi-faceted scene is the frequent display of the Confederate (Rebel) flag, the Stars and Bars or Southern Cross. It is used on its own or in tandem with the American flag, the Stars and Stripes. It’s found as decoration, on T-shirts, pins, jewelry, backdrops, logos, you name it.

At the annual Trucker-country music festival, Geiselwind, Germany Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

At the annual Trucker-country music festival, Geiselwind, Germany Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

For most country music fans I’ve met in the scene, the flag seems to represent pure “rebel-hood” or the anti-Establishment, rather than to have a direct link with the Civil War, Confederacy, or slavery, i.e. the strong connotations that it evokes in the United States — and which have been at the heart of debates and discussion this past week since the AME church massacre in Charleston.

Indeed, I have been lectured to by various Confederate flag-sporting Europeans about how slavery had “nothing to do with” the Civil War. Etc Etc.

“They don’t know much about the history of the southern cross and for them it’s not important, it’s a link to freedom and rebellion against the establishment and their normal life,” one German member of the European wild west scene, a former employee of one of the Pullman City wild west theme parks and a close observer of hobbyist and other behavior, told me a few years back. Rockabilly fans also use it as a symbol of their favorite American music — album covers often feature the image.

Equiblues Rodeo & Country Music festival, St. Agreve, France, 2004 Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

Equiblues Rodeo & Country Music festival, St. Agreve, France, 2004 Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

In France, Alain Sanders used the Rebel Flag as the logo of his country music fanzine, “Country Music Attitude.” Country music “feeling,” he told me when we met in 2004, is a kind of attitude toward life.  “It’s rebel attitude,” he said. “Don’t believe  everything because it’s printed. We don’t like the kind of world where you have the good and the bad. It’s grey, like the uniform of the confederate soldiers. And we explain to people also that when you are country, when you have a country attitude, it’s not once a month or once a year when you come to a festival. It’s every day. You think country, you sing and you think country — that’s what we try to explain.”

Nonetheless, outside the country scene per se, some skinhead and neo-Nazi groups in Europe also use the flag — in their case as a symbol of racism, to link them to the Ku Klux Klan and other extremists.

The photos presented in this gallery here show the Rebel flag in its country/wild west scene incarnation in various countries — Germany, France, Switzerland, Poland, Czech Republic, Italy.

(See my other photo galleries from the western scene: Fox Tails and Sauerkraut Cowboys – General Views)

All photos (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber.

RIP Pierre Brice, the eternal Winnetou

The French actor Pierre Brice has died. Much of Europe is in mourning; few Americans have ever heard his name.

Brice, who was 86, starred as Winnetou, the Apache chief who was the hero of a series of movies shot in the 1960s based on the wild west stories of Karl May, the German hack writer who died in 1912 and never set foot in the American west but who thrilled the Old Continent with his tales.

I fell in love with Brice, like (almost) every other girl in central Europe, when as a teenager I spent the summer of 1966 in Prague and saw my first Winnetou movie. It was called “Old Shatterhand” and also starred the American actor Lex Barker as Winnetou’s blood brother, the German adventurer Charlie, AKA Old Shatterhand.

My then-10-year-old little brother and I went to see a 10 a.m. showing at the Sevastopol movie theatre in downtown Prague. After that I was obsessed. I bought a postcard of Brice in his Winnetou costume — darkened skin and long black locks held by a head band — and I cut out photos of him from Czech magazines.

As I wrote in an article about Karl May festivals more than a decade ago:

With his long hair and good looks, Brice set the mold for how a stage Winnetou should look and act, just as the late American actor Lex Barker, the original Old Shatterhand in the movies, set the standard for that role with his rugged features and trademark fringed buckskins.

 

I regret that I never got to interview Brice for my ongoing Imaginary Wild West project.

But Dana Weber and I did interview another Winnetou — Gojko Mitic, a Yugoslav-born actor who won fame during the Communist era playing Native Americans in East German-made Westerns, Mitic played Winnetou at the oldest and biggest summer Karl May festival, that in Bad Segeberg, Germany, where Brice himself had long been associated.

Gojko Mitic as Winnetou at the Bad Segeberg Karl May festival

Gojko Mitic as Winnetou at the Bad Segeberg Karl May festival

Dana Weber, Gojko Mitic, and me at the Karl May festival in Radebeul, 2008

Dana Weber, Gojko Mitic, and me at the Karl May festival in Radebeul, 2008

 

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.

Filming on Cowboys & Europeans…in Pullman City

 

During the American History Show. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

As most people who know me (and anyone who has looked at my sauerkraut cowboys blog) are aware, I’ve been exploring and researching the American wild west/American frontier in the European imagination for some years now. Good lord, 10 years in fact — I researched my first article on the topic (a travel piece on European wild west theme parks for the New York Times) back in the summer of 2003, and already in 2004 I had a visiting scholar fellowship at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles to look into the marketing of the Frontier Myth abroad.

My New York Times story was largely centered on Pullman City, a wild west theme park in Bavaria, near Passau.

And it was back to Pullman I went a few weeks ago for some filming on a documentary on “Cowboys, Indians and Europeans” that is being made by the New York filmmaker Riva Freifeld, whose past work includes a documentary on Annie Oakley.

With Riva at Pullman’s Mexican restaurant, after the shoot. Photo: Stefan Grandinetti

What can I say. It was fun — and a bit of old home week, as I caught up with some folks I had met years ago. Riva and her cameraman, Stefan Grandinetti, filmed me interviewing a variety of people who work (or hang out) at Pullman — from an “18th century minuteman” who has built a cabin in the “authentic section” of the park, where hobbyists and reenactors can construct their own dwellings, to Hunting Wolf, the “half blood Cheyenne” who conducts programs based (in part) on Native American lore; to Detleff Jeschke, a former prize-winner rodeo rider who has long been the park’s program director.

The scene was much as I found it in 2003 and on my subsequent visits (the last time I had been there was at Xmas in 2009, when my country singer friend Willie Jones played Santa.) This is what I wrote in the New York Times:

It’s nowhere near high noon, but a tough-looking hombre in a black leather vest, black stovepipe pants and a black cowboy hat is sauntering down the dusty length of a frontier Main Street, a gun belt slung low on his hips. He strolls past the sheriff’s office, the Palace Hotel and a saddled horse hitched loosely to a wooden railing, then pauses for a moment at the broad covered porch of the Black Bison Saloon. Entering, he strides up to the bar and places his order.

”Ein bier, bitte.”

This is Pullman City, a theme park in southern Germany where more than a million visitors a year step out of 21st-century Europe into an American Wild West fantasyland of stagecoaches, gunfighters, mountain men and Indians. Set on 50 rolling acres a two-hour drive northeast of Munich, near the Bavarian town of Eging am See, Pullman City is a compendium of mythic iconography engrained in the global psyche by well over a century of hugely popular adventure stories, movies, television shows and traveling Wild West extravaganzas.

Here are some pictures from the shoot:

Hunting Wolf and his buffalos. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

Riva and Stefan filming the American History Show. That’s Detty Jeschke on the horse. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

 

The minuteman hobbyist “Richard Baker” reads the Declaration of Independence during the American History Show. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

In the saloon…. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

 

I always enjoy going to Pullman City Passau…and also to Pullman City Harz, a sister wild west theme park in north-central Germany. These places become a world of their own.

At Pullman City Passau, the organizers are keen to emphasize that it is a “living” western town, because of the “Authentic Area” where hobbyists actually live — on weekends and vacation time. Some come even in the winter, modeling their “real imaginary” lifestyles on the 19th century past, even in the bitter cold.

A number of songs have been written about both Pullmans.  They tend to play on the country music trope of “home” that make “Country Roads” and “Sweet Home Alabama” so popular….

Here’s the official Pullman City song, declaring that Pullman City is “my home town.”

And this seems to have been written by a fan