Sturm, Twang and the Imaginary Wild West in Europe
Saturday, May 3, 2008
Karl May Fest in Radebeul Opens
So here I am at the Karl May Festival in Radebeul. Germany -- near Dresden, the little town where Karl May lived out the last part of his adventursome life.
May, who died in 1912, was a German popular writer who created Europe's most enduring western heroes -- the Apache chief Winnetou and his German adventurer sidekick Old Shatterhand. The series of stories and novels, published more than 100 years ago, were translated into dozens of languages and spawned movies, TV shows, comics and all sorts of pop culture stuff. May is believed to be the best-selling and most translated German author.
But I don't have to go into Karl May's history here.... there are plenty of web sites and other sources -- even various articles that I myelf have written!
Every year, there are at least a dozen open-air Karl May festivals around Germany and neighboring countries. Most of them are centered on stage presentations of plays based on May's stories and characters. (The biggest is in Bad Segeberg, north of Hamburg -- it draws upwards of 250,000 spectators each year.) I've been to five or six of these festivals in the past few years.
The Festival in Radebeul is somewhat different, in that it doesn't really highlight a stage production (though there are scenes being presented this weekend).
Instead, it focuses on the thematic elements in Karl May stories -- first and foremost his emphasis on Native American lore and legend. Much has been written about the German fascination with the American Indian, and the roots of this, in large part, can be found in the all-pervasiveness of Karl May stories, figures and themes in German (and also central European in general) pop culture. (Again, I don't want to go into this in detail here.)
The Radebeul festival takes place in a big park area outside the town center. There are several thematic areas -- a Native American section in an old quarry; a wild west in general section in a mocked up Wild West town known as Little Tombstone, and a Middle Eastern section, as May also wrote adventure tales set in the Middle East.
I was here three years ago, at the 2005 Festival -- cold, cold, cold, with rain, sleet etc.
At that time, I knew no-one, except for Slow Horses, one of the bands that was playing at the country music festival held during the Festival in Little Tombstone.
This time, I find it remarkable how many friends and acquaintances I have here, from Dana Weber, a graduate student doing her PhD on Karl May festivals, to the editor and staff of the magazine Karl May & Co., to the musicians Roland Heinrich and Pepa Malina, who are playing at Little Tombstone, to the German writer Tom Jeier, one of my heroes in the Western Scene in Germany, whom I last saw last year at the Geiselwind Trucker Festival.
Tom writes western novels and travel books about the US, he writes about country music, and in fact sort of helped shape the trucker scene with his columns in Trucker magazine and his German book about country music.
The Festival opened formally Friday afternoon, with a ceremony at the Karl May Museum. The American Consul from Leipzig gave opening remarks, as did the Museum Director and the Mayor.
(The picture shows Museum Director Rene Wagner, in western dude attire....)
Then, Indians from Canada and the US performed dances. Some of them live in Germany -- they include former US soldiers who married German women and then stayed on... the most famous of these in Nicky "Buffalo Child" who is a legend in these circles -- it was my first time to see him, though I have heard about him for years. Since his army discharge in the 1960s, he has made a career on the German Wild West circuit, performing and serving as an attraction in Karl May fests and other events. He is now about 85 -- looks much much younger with smooth, brown skin and a regal air. He is very tall and imposing, dressed in elaborate (scanty) attire....
More later....time to leave the public internet and enter the imaginary wild west...
For several years I've been exploring the imaginary wild west in contemporary Europe -- observing and experiencing the many ways that Europeans embrace the mythology of the American Frontier to enhance, imbue or create their own identities. (Or, indeed, just have fun.) On this blog I will post pictures, stories and links relating to this multi-faceted subculture, from European country music to rodeos, theme parks, round-ups and saloons....
I'm an American writer, photographer, and public speaker long based in Europe. I've chronicled Jewish cultural developments and other contemporary European Jewish issues for more than 20 years. My latest books are "National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe," published in 2007, and "Letters from Europe (and Elsewhere)," published in 2008.
I also am working on "Sturm, Twang and Sauerkraut Cowboys: Imaginary Wild Wests in Contemporary Europe," an exploration of the American West in the European imagination for which I won a 2006 Guggenheim Fellowship and an NEH summer stipend grant.