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.

The nights Lou Reed partied at my house

Lou Reed’s death has made me think back — yipes — more than 40 years to the two times I met him: when he partied at my parents’ house twice after shows in Philadelphia….. I wrote about it, of course….(The editor, alas, took out the lines noting that  there was another soon-to-be celebrity at the second party: my friend Ray Seifert, who became Ray Benson and the next year founded the multiple Grammy-winning western swing band Asleep at the Wheel….)

 

The night Lou Reed came to my house 

By Ruth Ellen Gruber
JTA

Lou Reed’s death on Sunday has made me think not just of his music but of his life, and specifically about when his life and mine briefly intersected, back when my brother Frank and I entertained him at our parents’ Philadelphia home, unbeknownst to mom and dad.

It was 1969 and Frank, then in high school, was covering rock music for a local underground paper, The Distant Drummer, a paper that I, too, used to write for.

The Velvet Underground used to play fairly regularly — every six weeks or so, Frank says — at a club called the Second Fret. Frank was friendly with the house band and its manager and got to know Lou Reed and the rest of the Velvets.

So much so that twice Frank brought Reed over to our parents’ Center City brownstone after their gig to party. I don’t recall anything raucous on either occasion. In fact, the first time our parents slept through the whole thing.

It was the end of the summer and I had just returned to Philadelphia after a cross-country drive. Some friends I had traveled with were staying at our house before moving on. I’m not even sure that I went to the Velvets’ gig that night, but Frank was there. Afterward he turned up at home with Lou Reed and (I think) Doug Yule, another member of the band. Frank still can’t figure out why they came.

“I have no idea how that even happened,” he told me. “Why go over to this high school kid’s place were there was no dope and not much to do?“

Sill, we broke open jugs of my father’s probably ghastly homemade wine and finished it all. And it was on this occasion that Lou Reed told us that he didn’t do drugs.

“He told me that that ‘Heroin’ was him being a reporter,” Frank recalls.

In the morning, I’ll never forget our folks’ reaction when we revealed what had been going on as they slept. “What!” my mother said. “You had the Velvet Underground here and didn’t wake us up?”

The second Velvets party was a few months later. Again, Reed and maybe someone else from the band came over after a show. It was a real party this time, with other friends invited. One memory stands out from that night. The Rolling Stones album “Let it Bleed” had just come out, and for almost the entire evening Reed stayed upstairs, away from the other guests, in the room where my parents had a stereo, a real piece of furniture with speaker consoles the size of upright trunks.

The whole night (or so I remember) he stayed there, crouched down, his ear glued to the speaker, playing one track over and over and over: “Gimme Shelter.” I never hear that song without thinking of that night.

Read more: http://www.jta.org/2013/10/29/news-opinion/the-night-lou-reed-came-to-my-house#ixzz2j9HvHuwY

 

 

 

 

 

Banjo Romantika is about to premiere!

Banjo Romanitka, the documentary about Czech bluegrass that I helped out on is about to launch!

Produced and directed by Lee Bidgood and Shara K. Lange, it will have screenings in the Czech Republic in June.

Here’s the schedule:

1) Screening and lecture, American Center at the American Embassy, Prague  – 20.06.2013 – 17:30 – 19:00

Americké centrum, Tržiště 13, Praha 1 – Malá Strana  http://www.americkecentrum.cz/

2) Screening, Banjo Jamboree Festival, Cáslav – 21-22.6.2013 (time tbd)

www.banjojamboree.cz/

x) Closed screening and lecture, Jerome College of Prague – Monday 24.6.2013

3) Screening and lecture, Moravian Library, Brno – Thursday 27.6.2013 18:30-20:00

Conference hall of the Moravian Library, Kounicova 65a Brno

http://www.mzk.cz/sluzby/akce/prednaska-mississipske-blues-promitani-dokumentarniho-filmu-banjo-romantika

4) Screening, White Stork Festival, Luka nad Jihlavou – Friday – Saturday 28-29.6.2013

 

Interviewed on Czech Radio (in English!)

Czech Radio’s English language service recently interview me, along with banjoist-multi-instrumentalist Lubos Malina, about the great “Czechgrass” band Druha Trava’s new double live CD.

You can access the interview by CLICKING HERE — and you can either stream the half hour interview or download it as an mp3.

We talk about the new CD set — one CD was recorded during the annual summer festival in the beautiful town of Telc, and the other is a compilation of performances last year with guests Peter Rowan, Charlie McCoy and Katia Garcia.

We also spoke about my role in DT’s previous CD, Shuttle to Bethlehem, which mainly features my English language translations of DT singer-songwriter-frontman Robert Krestan’s songs.

After the interview, Lubos and I stopped to visit the new museum devoted to pioneering Czech animator Karel Zeman, en route to a concert by Kris Kristofferson.

Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber