Saturday, June 6, 2015

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 Bad Segeberg, 2003

Thursday, November 27, 2014

"Country Roads" again -- in transliteration

Received from Roman Ac

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

A Slovak bluegrass friend, Roman Ac, posted this picture on Facebook -- it's wonderful, and I just have to post it here.  It's the lyrics of John Denver's 1971 mega-hit "Take Me Home, Country Roads" spelled out in Czech (or Slovak) phonetic transliteration.

I've posted here in the past about how in Europe "Country Roads" is probably the most popular (and most covered) country-style song by local singers.

Denver, born Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. in 1943, died in a plane crash in 1997. "Country Roads" lives on; it's omnipresent, everywhere.

Here it is in Slovenian:

"My first country song which I heard was 'Almost Heaven, West Virginia,'" a German truck driver told me in 2004, at the Geiselwind Trucker and Country Festival. "… Henry John Deutschendorf... it was fantastic, yeah? And so I fell in love with country music. [...] He gives us beautiful songs. John Denver. His grandfather was German, and he was one of the best. But he died too early."

Fans at Geiselwind, 2007, serenade me with "Country Roads"

I've heard the song (which is NOT one of my favorites) sung in a variety of languages -- and a variety of accented English. Here's an English cover by a young Italian trio:

In then-Czechoslovakia, the definitive Czech version was recorded in 1975 by the late, great Pavel Bobek as "Veď mě dál, cesto má" -- it became one of his signature songs. (Bobek, a pioneer rocker and Czech country star, passed away just one year ago.)

The Czech translation Bobek sang was quite a bit far, geographically, from West Virginia, but rather moving nonetheless -- this YouTube video is of Bobek singing in Czech, with a re-translation of the Czech lyrics back into English.

I find "Take Me Home Country Roads" almost unbearable sappy; sugary sweet and bland at the same time.

But audiences in Europe love the song -- they invariably sing along, swaying and smiling. The idea of "home" translates into a sense that we (they) are all at home in America -- or the America of dreams, where is here. Other songs popular in the European country scene also play on this sense of the universal "home" somewhere in the mythical West (or South) -- "Sweet Home Alabama," for example.

And here's another video I posted before -- of John Denver himself, singing "It's Good to Be Back Home Again" -- at a concert in Germany, land of his ancestors. It's about a truck driver coming home.

Monday, November 3, 2014

"Wild West" slack-lining in southern Poland.....

A group of European slack-liners recently held a gathering in southern Poland -- and the theme was the "wild west" -- bows and arrows, painted body art, feathers, whispery flute melodies.....

The resulting video is a mash-up of a wide range of Imaginary Wild West tropes, some of them just abstract sketches,  set to a rapping hip-hop sound track and breath-taking scenery.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Homeless US singer become country/Americana star in Sweden

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

American media including NPR (National Public Radio) and the Wall Street Journal ran stories recently about a homeless American singer in Nashville, Doug Seegers, who was filmed by a Swedish singer and her team for a documentary segment on down-and-out musicians for her TV show -- and ended up a star in Sweden.

From NPR:
People started sending money to help Seegers. A Swedish label offered him a record deal. A prominent record producer back in Nashville — along with a lot of big-deal session guys — signed on to make the record, and they finished it in three days.
For one track, someone called in a favor with one of Seegers' longtime heroes, Emmylou Harris. Harris recorded her tracks separately — but she was so moved by Seegers' voice that she called him to let him know.
"I pick up the phone and she says, 'Doug, this is Emmylou Harris,' " Seegers says. "And I immediately start crying. I couldn't even talk, I was crying so hard. It was a dream come true for me."
When it was released in Sweden, Seegers' album went to No. 1 and stayed in the top five for 10 weeks. Seegers toured the country, selling out 60 shows. Everywhere he went, he says, people would ask him how he was doing in the United States.

It's a heart-warming story.

NPR got it wrong, however, when it said that Sweden "lacks for country music fans."

Sweden has a country/bluegrass/linedeance scene and a history of home-grown country and Americana music. There is a country music radio/internet station, and also various local country and bluegrass artists, such as the award-winning bluegrass group Dunderhead, and  the Willy Clay Band -- (whose web site seems out of date, but the band has a Facebook page and seems still to be around. 

Here's a 2010 blog post about a Swedish country concert.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

More evidence of growing Italian country scene

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Here's more evidence that Italy's country western scene is developing.

The Italy blog Italy Chronicles runs a post about an Italian country singer named Fabrizio Pollastrelli who goes by the stage name Paul Aster and plays with a band called "The Fellows." His web site says they play "southern rock 'n' country music."

Aster hails from northern Italy and is currently based on Fano, in Le Marche on the coast.

Here he sings -- like so many other European country artists -- Country Roads....

Italy has a few wellknown, veteran bluegrass groups -- like Red Wine and Bluegrass Stuff -- but until fairly recently it has not had much of a "mainstream" country music scene.

As I've posted in the past , this seems to be changing. There is a slowly growing country-western-music-etc scene that includes country music and other general western festivals as well as a surging line-dance scene.

This is on top of fairly well-established western scene linked to horses and horse-riding, and the Cowboy Action Shooting scene, which has clubs in many parts of the country.

The biggest western event has long been the FieraCavalli -- horse fair -- in Verona.

Here's a video from the FieraCavalli 2009 -- masters of line dancing.

I can't forget that the first European country singer I met when I first started exploring the "imaginary wild west" was an Italian, "George McAnthony," from the South Tyrol/Alto Adige region. I saw him perform a couple of times and did a lengthy interview with him -- he was a nice guy and he and his story helped trigger my interest in the imaginary wild west phenomenon..Sadly, George died three years ago, aged only 45.

Still, just nine or 10 years ago I attended a  well-attended "Western Games" festival near Rome -- and there was no line-dancing, and the country band they had playing drew an audience of zero.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Buffalo Bill in Milano

"Wild West" toys for sale in Italy. I think that's Buffalo Bill on the bottom label. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

Buffalo Bill toured his Wild West show all over Europe. These tours comprised one of three phenomena around 1900 that came together and helped solidify and spread the Imaginary Wild West in Europe -- the other two were Karl May's books and the birth of the movies.

You can now find a lot of material related to Bill's European Wild West tours online.

Check out this link -- to the full program of his show in Milan, Italy in 1906 

It's from the Buffalo Bill Online Archive of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

The tour opened in Genoa on March 14th, and closed in Udine on May 11th. The show  performed in Milan April 30th to May 5th.

The full tour route in Italy was:  Genoa, La Spezia, Livorno, Roma, Terni, Perugia, Arezzo, Firenze, Pisa, Parma, Modena, Bologna, Forli', Ancona, Rimini, Ravenna, Ferrara, Padova, Verona, Mantova, Cremona, Piacenza,Pavia, Alessandria, Torino, Asti, Novara, Como, Milano, Bergamo, Brescia, Vicenza, Treviso, and Udine.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Tony Trischka's new CD -- A Great Big World

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The American banjo great Tony Trischka has come out with a gorgeous new CD, "A Great Big World." You can hear a preview of one track by clicking the link on the photo above.

The CD showcases Tony't thrilling virtuosity -- and includes guests such as Andy Statman,  Russ Barenberg,  Tristan Clarridge, Mike Barnett and others on a variety of songs -- including one of my favorites, Woody Guthrie's "Do-Re-Mi." All the tracks are winners -- but the one that really hit me was the oddly titled "Purple Trees of Colorado."Amazing.

Writes Bela Fleck in the Liner Notes -- which can be accessed online:

"Everyone loves to play with Tony, because of his strong musical gifts and conception, and because he's one of the coolest dudes to hang around with and be yourself. Not everyone who asks you to play on their record actually wants that, but he does."

Though I've seen him in the U.S., I know Tony from here in Europe -- where he plays often, and where he has had considerable influence. This has been particularly so in the Czech Republic, where his progressive bluegrass style was a powerful inspiration to (among others) the musicians who went on to found the group Druha Trava.

In the 1980s, DT's singer-songwriter Robert Krestan and banjoist Lubos Malina were members of the pioneering Czech progressive bluegrass group Poutnici. (They left Poutnici and formed DT in 1991.) Robert at that time also played banjo. Tony was one of their heroes.

As I noted in an earlier post, Tony first toured the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia) in 1988, before the fall of communism, and he also returned in 1989, also before the Wall came down. During those stays, he performed as a guest on an LP by Poutnici, called "Wayfaring Stranger." In the liner notes, he describes Poutnici in much the same terms I have used to describe Druha Trava. "They … have a unique sound," he said. "Czechgrass instead of Kentucky bluegrass. In other words, they've made it their own, which is wonderful."

I've now caught Tony on tour with DT on several occasions -- first in 2008, and the latest time this past summer, where Tony tried out his new banjo -- a banjo made by the accomplished Czech banjo-maker Zdenek Roh.  (Zdenek is featured in the new documentary about Czech bluegrass, Banjo Romantika.)

Tony Trischka with his new banjo, made by Zdenek Roh. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

In addition to his Czech tours, Tony also plays elsewhere in Europe -- he teaches at a summer bluegrass workshop near Urbino, Italy, and this fall will be teaching at a "banjo camp" workshop in Germany.