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