Out in the cold world and far away from home: Bluegrass music in the Czech Republic

Lee Bidgood (in the middle)

Bluegrass originates from the Appalachian region of the United States of America, and is a type of music as American as apple pie. But bluegrass enjoys a long and rich history in the Czech Republic too. Lee Bidgood is an ethnomusicologist at the University of Virginia - the cradle of bluegrass. For the past five years, he’s been looking at the way this music is performed in the Czech Republic:

“I think it has something to do with recent history, and something to do with more distant history. For Czechs, who were seeking independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire through the 19th century and into the 20th century, America was a big part of what the possibilities were, outside of what they had. America stood for democracy, and the Wild West – which was the source of a lot of imagery, and a fantasy which really took hold here.

“Bluegrass enters the scene in the 1940s when Armed Forces Network Radio was broadcasting in Munich, alongside channels like Radio Luxemburg, and all of these traditional sources of American and Western music – and people here were listening to that. Bluegrass music, and country music at large, made it past the iron curtain and into Czechs’ ears. And then Czechs started playing it as well, there was lots of performance.

Pete Seeger in 1968,  photo: CTK
“Pete Seeger’s visit in 1964 introduced the five-string banjo to the country. People had heard this sound all along from American players like Earl Scruggs and Ralph Stanley, but when they saw Pete Seeger, they finally understood how to play it. So there were a lot of obstacles along the way, but I think people were very motivated because of the forbidden fruit quality of the music to really seek it out and learn what was going on with it.”

Bluegrass can be described, in short, as country music’s acoustic cousin. Instruments associated with the music include the banjo, violin, double bass and dobro – a sort of acoustic slide-guitar invented by two Slovaks, as it turns out.

Bill Monroe, who you heard playing with his blue grass boys earlier, is said to have founded the genre back in the 1940’s. But what about today, and the Czech Republic? Who best exemplifies the genre here and now?

“There’s a guy named Petr Kůs, who lives in Prague and plays the mandolin, and he is very well known as a composer of songs, and especially as a writer of texts, very poetic texts, which are in Czech, and are very successful with Czech audiences. He is very well known and respected as a performer, but also for creating these songs.

“He performs a lot with his group, and they are great, and there are a lot of very good examples of their playing. There’s one called ‘Zlatá Rybka’ [The Golden Fish], which is a really nice retelling of the story of the fisherman who catches a golden fish which grants him his wishes. At the end he gets his come-uppance and ends up where he started out. It’s a lovely telling of that, in a musical setting which sounds very much like bluegrass.”

Lee Bidgood doesn’t just research bluegrass, he also plays it. At our interview he brought out his violin:

“I play music. I play the fiddle with a group called Roll’s Boys from Jihlava. They’re a great bunch of folks who sing in English very well - and in Czech too. The gentleman who plays banjo in the band also makes banjos as well. That’s a big part of the Czech bluegrass industry as well – instrument making. And he also composes a lot of great songs in English. It has been a pleasure to play with them, and also a great way of learning about how the music goes on here.”

One of the best places to hear bluegrass music in Prague is the U Supa country pub. I received a tip-off that a jam was held there every second Tuesday, and duly donned my cowboy boots and went along.

One of the people I met there was Jiří Králik, a violinist studying at the conservatory in Prague, and with an interest in bluegrass in his spare time:

“Well, usually on these Tuesday evenings we hold a jam here, but I don’t know what is going to happen today, because I hear a lot of the musicians that normally come are sick. So I think we are going to have about one quarter or one third of our normal attendance, so there aren’t going to be many.”

But who do we have here? Can you introduce me to some of the bluegrass musicians around the table?

“Alright, right here is our dobro player, Dárek – and over here we have Martín, who plays the bass. And I have no idea who this man is, it’s the first time I’ve ever seen him.”

“Who are you?”

“Okay, this is Venca, and I guess he’s going to play the guitar, and is going to sing some.”

It seems that U Supa not only plays host to a Tuesday-evening jam, but also a rival jam on Thursdays. Is it really where all of the movers and shakers in the Czech bluegrass world converge? Jiří Králik:

“I think so. There are definitely a lot of bluegrass musicians – I don’t know about listeners – but definitely a lot of bluegrass musicians who come here. There are some other jams, but I don’t know much about them. In the same pub here on Thursday there are a different set of people who come and play here. But that is more of a Czech version of bluegrass, with Czech words that they play, but pretty much the same music.”

The music on this particular Tuesday was mostly instrumental, as many of the Bells and Whistles, as well as their front man Petr Oldřich Hrubý (aka. Peter Ruby), were ill. But this gentleman chipped in from time to time with backing vocals:

“Well, I really love bluegrass music and acoustic music. But I am not a regular bluegrass player, although I can play it. So I come just sometimes, and sometimes I come with my mandolin, and sometimes I just come to meet my friends, and the people from the bluegrass community, which is really strong here in Prague and in the Czech Republic.”

There does seem to be lots of interest, and lots of professionalism, in bluegrass performance in the Czech Republic. But is what I have been witnessing really an expression of Americanism, or Czechness? Again, Lee Bidgood:

“From cowboy boots and cowboy hats to these musical kinds of things, and language, people are very interested in America, or these expressions of America here. I guess the thing that I just keep finding, more and more, is that even as these American-nesses build up, it seems to me more and more that these folks are performing something very Czech.

“The idea of getting out into the countryside which is built into this music is very strongly Czech, and so I just keep finding more ways in which Czech folk are just being themselves when they perform this music.

“Alcohol is very prevalent in bluegrass circles here. I was just trying to think if I could name a single bluegrass event here at which alcohol did not play a significant role. And in the States there’s a big culture of bluegrass and this sort of music which happens very much against things like alcohol. Family festivals, and this whole moral edge to the music.

“And there is sacred repertory in the music, it is very built into the southern culture which this music comes out of and was a part of. I have yet to meet a Czech person who is a believer in the sort of words that most people sing. Most people sing the religious repertory at least a bit in their performances, but I am yet to meet someone who is actually a believer. Which is different from the States, where there are just tonnes of people that way.”