Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Bluegrass -- schmoozegrass

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

This audio "vox Tablet"  piece on Tablet Magazine (an online publication to which I sometimes contribute) by Jon Kalish about an orthodox Jewish bluegrass musician named Jerry Wicentowski is a bit off topic, but it combines several of my interests, including the way that Americana and Jewishness are interpreted, transformed and passed on.
As a teenager, Jerry Wicentowski rebelled against his Orthodox upbringing, but only to a degree. He wouldn’t take the bus from his Brooklyn home to Washington Square Park to join his friends for bluegrass jam sessions but instead he stayed at home, incessantly practicing guitar runs in his bedroom to the great frustration of his father. Now in his fifties, Wicentowski has stopped rebelling. He does not play instruments on Shabbat. But he’s a highly respected bluegrass musician who’s found a way to combine his passion for the music with his religious faith. His greatest limitation, it appears, is that he is unavailable for most weekend gigs. Reporter Jon Kalish profiles him in this week’s podcast.
The piece moved back in December -- and I'm delighted to note that the it has been nominated for a major magazine award.

The interview with Wicentowski highlights some of the problems he found -- including, as an Orthodox Jew, playing bluegrass songs with a pointedly Christian message. There are links on it to some great songs, including a bluegrass version of  Shalom Aleichem from an unreleased album called "Shabbos in Nashville," and other clips that show how he he united lyrics from Jewish prayers and songs with bluegrass music. He calls these combinations "bluegrass zmiros."

Christianity, gospel and Christian imagery are one of the backbones of traditional bluegrass. The Christian -- or at least sacred --  message in bluegrass is something I have on occasion asked non-religious bluegrass players  about (though I can't find my notes just now...) -- and Lee Bidgood has also focused on questions related to this in his research and writing on Czech bluegrass.

Though there are relatively few Jews in the mainstream country music scene -- the towering Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel stands out in more ways than one -- there  are quite a few Jews in the bluegrass (and folk) scene -- as musicians, songwriters, historians and fans.

Several musicians who became prominent in the klezmer music scene -- Andy Statman, Henry Sapoznik, Bob Cohen -- also play bluegrass: Sapoznik has a famous story about how an old bluegrass fiddler told him to explore the roots of his own music, and that's how he got into klezmer. There is also a great klezmer-Jewish band called the Klezmer Mountain Boys, and the onetime Czech bluegrassy band Teagrass also experimented with klezmer.

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