Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Pullman City -- Again!

I've let this blog slide over recent years, but I'm trying taking it up again -- as I just paid a visit to Pullman City, the "living western town" near Eging am See in Bavaria, for the first time in years!

It was fascinating to see how much remains the same, but also what has changed. And it was wonderful to be able to hang out with Willie Jones, probably the first person I met and made friends with in the European country music/imaginary wild west scene.

Me and Willie, Pullman City 2023

We met on my first -- or maybe second -- visit to Pullman City in the summer of 2003, amazingly fully 20 years ago! Willie then was the "singing cowboy" of Pullman, strolling around the Main Street and making music as he strolled.

We had a memorable adventure, driving from Pullman into southern Bohemia for a country night at a wild west road house....where I heard my first Czech country band, playing Okie from Muskogee, in Czech....

I wrote my first Imaginary Wild West article after those visits -- for the New York Times. Click HERE to read it.

This time Willie had an evening outdoor gig at Pullman's Hudson's Bay bar, in the so-called Authentic section, where hobbyists have permanent set-ups. 


He played gentle duets with his friend Wolfie, a frequent musical partner, whom I had met back in 2004, at Dobrofest in Trnava, Slovakia, when they were playing in a trio with John Ely

Dobrofest, Trnava, 2004

At Pullman this time, it was a special old-time hobbyist weekend, and many people were dressed up in Period styles.

There were trappers, clerks (or bankers? doctors? carrying what looked like briefcases or medical bags), elegant gambler-types, cowboys, etc. 


A big innovation that I didn't remember as being too popular in earlier visits were huge crinoline skirts. One woman I ran into en route to the ladies room had such a hard time maneuvering that she seemed almost trapped in the toilets!


The Hudson's Bay bar area seemed like a "safe space" -- maybe like a gay bar -- where hard core hobbyists could gather in their costumes and live their lives (and dreams) away from the commercialism and "family fun" tourism of the Main Street.

The main structural novelty of Pullman is the new (since I was there) Karl May theatre, an outdoor stage in an arena-like setting, similar to other wild west theme parks, where they are now staging plays etc based on Karl May's stories and characters. This summer they're doing Treasure of Silver Lake -- which I may have seen a Karl May festival years ago, in Austria or Germany.

Pullman's "American History Show" is now performed in the Karl May arena stage, rather than on Main Street, as before. Alas I couldn't see the whole show to see how it compared with past versions, as a huge violent storm blew up right in the middle, and sent everyone running for cover.

The storm's a-coming!

One of Pullman's "stars" when I used to go there years ago was "Hunting Wolf," billed as a half-Cheyenne shaman. His act entails dealing with bison.

When I first saw him, his long, flowing hair was black.... he still runs with the bison, and his hair is still long and flowing, but now it's white.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Adventures in the Realimaginary....

It's been an age since I posted anything....sorry!

I gave an illustrated lecture — via Zoom — on Nov. 12 as part of a program organized by the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow.

Lonstar and me, at the Berlin country music messe
In it I looked back over my experience in Poland, dating back to 1980, when I was a correspondent for UPI covering Solidarnosc and martial law (including when I was jailed and expelled from the country because of my coverage) and discussed how throughout my career I’ve observed how people create lived experience via dreams and desires: whether it was Solidarnosc activists aiming for civil society, or emerging Jews and Jewish communities claiming, reclaiming — or creating — identities, or fans of the American frontier finding identity in country music and home-grown swinging door saloons. 

There was a lot more I would have wanted to say in response to questions in the very brief discussion afterward, but that can be for another time.

There's a lot about the Imaginary Wild West in Poland -- with a focus on the four-decade career of my friend, the pioneering Polish country singer Michael Lonstar, whom I've written about in the past on this blog.

You can view my lecture here -- or on YouTube. It starts with Solidarnosc, then segues into the "virtually Jewish" and on to the Imaginary Wild West.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Line dancing in Italy!

Scenes from the Country Rock Summer Festival on Italy's Adriatic Coast, at Montesilvano Marina. The West Umbria Country Dance group peforms. Yee Hah!

                 Here's the poster 

Sunday, July 14, 2019

The earliest recorded sounds of the banjo

The oldest known recordings of the banjo date from the 1890s and are contained in four wax cylinders recorded by the African American entertainer Charles A. Asbury.

The Retropod podcast is the latest to write about Asbury, following several articles last year when .Archeophone Records released a 45 rpm vinyl recording with 16-page booklet, photos, and notes.

Lubos Malina plays banjo with the Czech Band Druha Trava, at Dobrofest, Trnava, Slovakia, 2006

The Archeophone notes describe Asbury as "an African American veteran of the minstrel stage" who lived from ca. 1857 to 1903.

Born in Florida but raised in Georgia by a Baptist preacher, Asbury played Sambo in stage productions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin before becoming a noted vocalist with the original Unique Quartette and a celebrated banjoist on the vaudeville stage. His banjo songs were popular in phonograph arcades all over the country in the early 1890s, years before phonographs went into people’s homes. He did yeoman work for the infant phonograph companies–churning out wax cylinders, a few at a time, for seven years–before disappearing abruptly from the annals of the stage and recording history[...].
The oldest recording on the set dates to about 1891, making it the oldest known banjo recording in private hands. Asbury played in the old minstrel “stroke” banjo style that virtually disappeared from the vernacular and has only in recent years been rediscovered and reinvigorated by scholars of American banjo music. 

Click this link to sample all four tracks on the recording

Listen to the Retropod podcast


Thursday, May 23, 2019

Video -- Malina Brothers house concert, in Italy

My last post took note of a concert I attended in April  by the Czech bluegrass band The Malina Brothers, with guest appearances by Charlie McCoy, the Nashville-based harmonica virtuoso and member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the Czech singer Kat’a Garcia. The concert was sold out, and got a prolonged standing ovation from the crowd. And it was being filmed for a live show DVD.

That concert took place in the Sono Center, a major venue in Brno, CZ, for contemporary music -- the audience numbered 700 or 800.

Less than a month later,  the Malina Brothers, who are old friends of mine, visited Italy -- where they  gave a house concert at the home of a friend.

I managed to live stream it  from my phone, on Facebook -- and here it is. It was my first live streaming, so the visual quality is not the best (and it's vertical -- the program didn't let me rotate the phone)... but still. It's a testament to their talent that their same repertoire works in a big theatrical venue like the Sono Center -- and also in the intimate setting of a private living room.

Set One

Set Two


Saturday, April 27, 2019

Music - and the Imaginary Wild West in CZ

In Brno, Czech Republic, the Imaginary Wild West leaps off a wall…. advertising “the best steaks” in the city at an eatery called “U Starýho Bill” (At Old Bill’s) that calls itself “a real ‘TEXAS’ restaurant.”

The wall here was a few steps away from the Sono Center, a major Brno venue for contemporary music — where I was headed to attend a concert by the Czech bluegrass band The Malina Brothers, with guest appearances by Charlie McCoy, the Nashville-based harmonica virtuoso and member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the Czech singer Kat’a Garcia. The concert was sold out, and got a prolonged standing ovation from the crowd. And it was being filmed for a live show DVD.

The Malinas are old friends of mine. Banjo player and multi-instrumentalist Lubos Malina was one of the founding members of the great Czechgrass group Druha Trava, and I met him (amazingly) nearly 15 years ago, at one of the many summer bluegrass/country festivals in CZ, when I first started exploring the Imaginary Wild West in Europe.

Guitarist Pavel Malina used to play with DT, and fiddler Pepa Malina still sometimes plays with them. The Malina Brothers band came together informally at first, but over the past five years or so has developed a remarkable following in CZ — as the concert in Brno demonstrated.

The three brothers visited in Italy six years ago and gave a house concert at the home of a friend. It was the first of a series of house concerts anchored by Lubos. The brothers  played this arrangement of Smetana at the house concert in 2013 — and at the concert in Brno.

On the night after the Brno concert, Pepa Malina performed with Druha Trava at the start of a a week-long tour with Charlie McCoy — a sold-out, standing-ovation gig in the town of Ceska Trebova.

Here’s a video of the run-through before the Ceska Trebova concert:

Charlie McCoy has had a standout career in the USA and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2009.

I’ve written about him in the past, on my Sauerkraut Cowboys blog, because he is quite wellknown in the country music scene outside the USA. He tours regularly in Europe and elsewhere (i.e. Japan), and he makes a point to play with European bands and also records with them; he has released albums in France, Denmark, Germany, and the Czech Republic. Later this summer he will be touring in Sweden in England.

Onstage at the concert in Ceska Trebova, he recalled how he met up with Druha Trava — it was at the festival in Strakonice, CZ, where he was performing in 2001. DT was also on the bill and asked if he would join them for a few songs — since then he has toured with them half a dozen or more times in CZ, released a live album with DT and also released a CD with The Malina Brothers.

Here’s a promo video about the Malina Brothers album (partly in Czech, partly in English):

I met Charlie back in 2005 during one of his tours with Druha Trava — the concert I saw was at a “Days of Texas” festival in the little town of Roznov pod Radnostem, in eastern CZ.
The festival, I wrote in an article

highlighted the fact that from the mid-19th century until World War I, thousands of people emigrated from Roznov and other towns and villages in the region to Texas. Today, Texas has the largest ethnic Czech community of any state in the United States.
There were demonstrations of 19th-century farming customs used by the emigrants and performances by American-style Czech country-western groups, as well as local folk groups performing Wallachian songs and dances. An exhibition of quilting featured a big patchwork quilt reading “Texas,” hung prominently from the upper floor of the old Roznov Town Hall.

Like the Malina Brothers concert in Brno, the Druha Trava/Charlie McCoy concert in Ceska Trebova drew a standing ovation from an energized crowd — and lots of autograph-seekers and CD-buyers afterward.

 And here we are in Ceska Trebova, backstage.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Western theme parks in CZ and PL -- catching up

Me at the Western Park in Boskovice

I can't believe it's been nearly a year since I updated this blog... time seems to fly faster and faster and, well, I'm lazy...and then again it's easier just to post links on the Facebook page... But I'll try to do some catching up in the next few days....

First, Wild West theme parks.

I managed to get to two of them this summer -- "Twin Pigs" in Poland, and the Western Park (once called Wild West City) outside Boskovice in the Czech Republic.

I've visited a number of wild west theme parks in Europe over the years -- they are key elements in the Imaginary Wild West. Real Imaginary spaces that have grown out of dreams, passions, stereotypes, and yearnings -- but also help create them.

This was my first visit to Twin Pigs -- but the latest of several to Boskovice.

The Boskovice park was founded in 1994 as a private initiative by a local man, Luboš "Jerry" Procházka, who developed the park in a natural setting in and around a disused sandstone quarry. The first time I visited -- in, I believe, 1997 -- it was out of season and the park was closed; I could only look at it over a fence. But I was struck by the view of the saloon and other movie-set buildings.

My first view of Wild West City, in 1997 - out of season

At that time, I was researching my book "Virtually Jewish" -- about the relationship of non-Jewish people to Jewish culture in Europe. I wrote this in an essay published at the time in The New Leader magazine (and also in my 2008 book "Letters from Europe (and Elsewhere)"):

Some people compare Europe's current interest in Jewish culture with the United States' interest in Native Americans. To be sure, I have seen Indian dolls wearing beaded costumes for sale in the Denver train station that reminded me of the "Jewish" puppets and figures I have photographed in Prague, Krakow, and Venice.

I was not surprised, therefore, by two posters I found on display in the Boskovice tourist office. One is for a jazz festival whose proceeds are to go toward renovation of the Jewish quarter. The other advertises a rodeo at a place called "Wild West City: Boskovice's Western Town." It features photographs of people dressed up like American Indians riding horses, with corrals, rickety wooden structures and even tepees in the background. A handbill shows a seductive Indian maiden looking over her shoulder.

I found Wild West City on my map, the edge of Boskovice, and stopped there on my way out of town. It is a theme park set up in an old quarry that resembles a stage set from a John Ford movie, replete with a flimsy wooden saloon and general store. A sign at the entrance reads, "Indian Territory." Another notes the kilometers to various spots in the American West -- most of them spelled incorrectly. It's off-season The place is deserted. The only sound is that of hoofbeats, as a costumed employee rides a horse round and round the repro corral.

Boskovice's Wild West main street

On subsequent visits over the years, I spoke with Jerry -- who is still the owner and managing director -- and observed the town "in action." It includes the usual wild west tropes -- a "main street," saloon, "boot hill",  bank, "Indian Village" etc.

In the Boskovice "Indian Village"

But I've always found it much more low key and laid back than some of the others I have visited -- there's a dusty slightly rundown feel -- though I did notice on my visit this July that some of the buildings had been repainted since my last visit. There also seemed to be more activity elements aimed at kids.

The imagery is based on US western movies and Karl May books, but it also is influenced by Czech tramping tropes. The Czech movie Lemonade Joe, a 1964 spoof of the singing cowboy genre, also plays a role -- in particular with the big "advertising" mural for "Kola Loka" -- the sarsparilla type drink enjoyed by the movie's hero.

Performance at Boskovice Wild West city in 2004

The park includes an outdoor theatre where live performances take place -- I didn't see one this summer (it apparently was based on the shootout at the OK Corral) but some years back I took in a performance based on Karl May's Winnetou characters.

Twin Pigs, located in southern Poland near Zory, off a main highway, is a somewhat different story, It employs the same general skeleton, but has quite a different feel: a purpose-built construct born out of a commercial business plan rather than from personal passion.

Opened in 2012, it is described as an amusement park, and it is much more "top down," planned out, and hard-edged than Boskovice, with its grassroots origin and -- despite recent improvements -- still rather amateur feel.

There is a regular lay-out along the Main Street, and also a ferris wheel, roller coaster, and other rides, restaurants, a 5D theater, and children's activity trails. Lots of red-white-and-blue bunting and American flags (and a few Confederate ones, too).

Twin Pigs main street, toward saloon

Twin Pigs Indian Village

Twin Pigs ferris wheel

Twin Pigs Main Street

Western Park Boskovice web site

Twin Pigs web site

Watch the movie Lemonade Joe