Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Rattlesnake Annie -- Japanese country music fusion. The far reach of the imaginary wild west

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Rattlesnake Annie is an American country blues singer, now in her 60s, who made a career in communist Czechoslovakia in the 1980s dueting with the late Czech country star Michal Tucny. I met her, in fact,  2007 at a country mustic festival in Prague that was dedicated to Tucny's memory on what would have been his 60th birthday. In recent years Annie has spent much of her time in Japan -- and recently produced this song, an English-Japanese country fusion  that provides a fascinating visual (and sound) record of the country music scene in Japan.

I knew about the rich and longstanding bluegrass scene in Japan, but I didn't know much about the "mainstream" country music scene and fan base.

BTW -- here is my favorite Michal Tucny video, a song called The Last shows how country-western music and self-identity played a role as an escape (and defense) from the dreary communist reality...part of the widespread "internal exile" practiced by many in their weekend houses and around their tramp settlement campfires.

Monday, December 13, 2010

USA -- Interesting Private Real Imaginary Wild West in Arizona

by Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Los Angeles Times reports on a private Wild West town in Arizona.....Cowtown Keeylocko: "An odd mixture of the real and the fanciful, this 'town' is technically a working ranch in the middle of the desert. But to its founder it's a cowboy's paradise."

The article, by Nicole Santa Cruz, is about Ed Keeylocko, 79, who is:
the founder of Cowtown Keeylocko, an 80-acre spread with handmade buildings of wood and tin. Founded in December of 1974, it's and located about 40 miles southwest of Tucson, it lies at the end of a bumpy dirt road where a sign greets visitors: "Population 5 — most of the time."

Technically, it's a working ranch in the middle of the desert, with a Tucson postal address. But to Keeylocko, it's a Wild West town — his town — and folks around this part of the state tend to view it the same way.

The town is an odd mixture of the real and the fanciful. There's a "library" with books, and a barn with real cows, pigs and chickens. But the "general store" is essentially a wooden building filled with stuff that no one would buy.

There's even a cemetery where friends' ashes are buried, and a mesquite tree festooned with various discarded boots. And, of course, there's the Blue Dog Saloon — the main attraction — which feels more like a large barn, with dirt floors and a heavy coat of dust. A weathered green baby carriage hangs from the rafters, though it's not clear why.

For decades, word of mouth has brought Tucsonans to the his ranch for parties, some opting to sleep at on the property campgrounds — if they sleep at all. Producers have staked out the grounds for movies, but usually the only residents are Keeylocko and one or two ranch hands.
 The story reminds me very much of the private wild west towns I have visited in Europe, founded by individuals who wanted to "live their dreams."

There's the private Old Texas Town in Berlin, and of course Pullman City -- which went commercial.

But they also include Halter Valley, in the Czech Republic -- whose founded told me he had been rejected for a U.S. visa five times and had never visited the States.

Sikluv Mlyn, also in the Czech Republic was founded by a man who told me he wanted to created his "own America" -- he went commercial and now has a branch in Slovakia, expanded into a fullscale theme park.

Wild West City outside Boskovice, in the CZ,  has also gone commercial. But nearby Beaver City  has remained a private Wild West enclave.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Oh No! Pullman City files for bankruptcy!

Pullman City, during Christmas market, December 2009. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Oh no! According to news reports, Pullman City in Eging a. See, Germany, one of Europe's premier Wild West theme parks, has filed for bankruptcy.
Am Montagnachmittag hat die Pullman City Betreiber GmbH beim Amtsgericht Passau Insolvenz angemeldet. Der Betrieb soll auf alle Fälle aufrecht erhalten werden. Rechtsanwalt Oliver Mühlberger, der zum vorläufigen Insolvenzverwalter bestellt wurde, kündigte auf PaWo-Nachfrage an, dass alle kommenden Veranstaltungen wie geplant stattfinden sollen und bittet um „zahlreiche Besucher”[...]
Wie kann es sein, dass dieser Besuchermagnet in finanzielle Schieflage geraten konnte? Darüber wird momentan gerätselt. Liegt es daran, dass es wegen des verregneten Sommers nicht so lief, wie es eigentlich hätte laufen sollen? „Keiner hat mit einem Insolvenzantrag gerechnet, ich bin selber überrascht”, erklärt Insolvenzverwalter Mühlberger, der momentan dabei ist, sich in die Materie hineinzuarbeiten. Für ihn steht schon jetzt fest, dass die Westernstadt als „führender Freizeitpark” in der Region auf alle Fälle Zukunftspotential hat. „Der Betrieb soll wie eh und je weiterlaufen”, betont Mühlberger.
Die ganze Region drückt jetzt Pullman City die Daumen und hofft auf das Motto: „The Show must go on!”

Read full story on web site

Pullman City, located near Passau in Bavaria, was founded in 1997 by a group of Wild West enthusiasts who had already staged wild west shows and competitions -- I first wrote about Pullman City in a 2004 article in the New York Times. A second Pullman City now operates in central Germany near the small town of Hasselfelde. (A third one, near Vienna, Austria,  closed several years ago.)

So far its web site does not reflect any changes -- the program for the German-American Christmas market (which I attended last year) and other events is up.

Bonanza -- international appeal

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Autry Museum's Libraries blog runs a revealing post illustrating the international appeal of the TV show Bonanza.

It is based on material in the archives of David Dortort, the pioneering creator and produce of Bonanza, who died in September and who left his papers to the Autry National Center's library.
International magazines also celebrated Bonanza’s popularity and high quality production. Belgian weekly radio and television magazine Humo rated the show #1 in its 1966 annual poll. The David Dortort Archive is packed with magazines from around the world, with a particular strength in publications from European countries.
 The blog post features magazine covers in languages including

From the Autry Libraries  blog: A Cartwright for Every Woman

And Vietnamese:
From the Autry Libraries blog: 1969

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Line Dancing -- AKA "Redneck Aerobics"

A line dance team at a competition in Austria, 2005. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Reuters runs a feature on the line dancing phenomenon -- and how it is used now as a "redneck aerobics" exercise... (I once sat through a line dance competition in Austria, where each group had to perform to Achy Breaky Heart....)
Though deeply rooted in Irish and German folk traditions, line dancing was off most urban grids until 1992 when Billy Ray Cyrus, father of teen idol Miley, stomped upon the stage with his megahit "Achy Breaky Heart."
Today line dancing is a worldwide phenomenon. Devotees have formed organizations as far away as Singapore and Australia.
Adam Herbel, a.k.a. the Dancing Cowboy, teaches country line dancing at The Rodeo Club in San Jose, California. He said some come for the exercise, some for the music and atmosphere.

"We have a funny thing called redneck aerobics," said Herbel, described as a series of five or six upbeat line dances strung in a row.
"When the DJ calls out 'its redneck aerobics,' everybody knows what's coming," he said. "Sometimes the fitness gals will do pretty advanced line dancing."

Line Dancers in Berlin, March 2009.

Monday, December 6, 2010

USA -- Wild (and sometimes Imaginary) Wild West in Harrisburg, PA

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

My cousin in Harrisburg turned me on to this fascinating story of a former mayor amassing, with taxpayer money, a cache of wild west artifacts -- some of them fake -- for the city of Harrisburg (Pennsylvania's capital) for a not completely determined purpose....


Sunday, December 5, 2010

Music -- Nice piece on the multi-ethnic background of cowboy songs

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

NPR runs a nice piece (with music) about the surpisingly multi-ethnic background of classic cowboy songs, from The Streets of Laredo to Cotton-Eye Joe.
a close examination of early cowboy music reveals details about some of the very first cowboys that don't fit the usual stereotypes. [...]

No one is sure how many African-Americans worked as cowboys in the trail drives, but estimates run as high as 1 in 4. [...]

The trail drives were a unique moment in history that brought together a diverse lot of men, including freed slaves and confederate war veterans. And, while some cowboy crews were segregated, photographs of others show black and white men working side by side in [...] "range equality."

Puccini's "Girl of the Golden West" Centennial Celebrations


By Ruth Ellen Gruber

This week marks the centennial of the world premiere of  "La Fanciulla del West" -- the opera by the Italian composer Giacomo Puccini based on the play "The Girl of the Golden West" by David Belasco... and celebrations are under way to mark the occasion.

The opera is set during the California Gold Rush, with a wealth of wild west figures, stereotypes and iconic situations and atmosphere: the Imaginary Wild West as high culture. (I described my own visit to the Gold Rush country in October in a blog post on this site.) Puccini was inspired to some extent by Buffalo Bill's Wild West, which he saw in Italy when it made one of its tours of Europe. Puccini also owned a copy of a 1907 book on Native American music, which he used in composing the opera. He also owned a copy of Alice C. Fletcher's 1906 book  "Indian Story and Song from North America."

The premiere took place at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City on December 10, 1910 with Enrico Caruso and Emmy Dustin in the leading roles as Dick Johnson and Minnie, and Pasquale Amato as Jack Rance.  Arturo Toscanini was the conductor. The event merited a front page story in the New York Times.

Here's a clip of a young Placido Domingo singing an aria from it:

A web site has been launched for the centennial, and a symposium is taking place this week at Boston University.
The Metropolitan Opera will present La Fanciulla del West conducted by Nicola Luisotti and starring Deborah Voigt, Marcello Giordani, and Lucio Gallo, beginning December 6 and running through January 8, including a performance on December 10 one hundred years to the day of the premiere. Simonetta Puccini, the composer's granddaughter, and Walfredo Toscanini, the maestro's grandson, are expected to attend. The final performance on January 8 will be seen in more that 1,500 movie theaters around the world as part of the Met’s Live in HD series and broadcast live over the Toll Brothers-Metropolitan Opera International Radio Network.

Here is a synopsis of the opera from the web site

Act I. The interior of the Polka Saloon
A group of Gold Rush miners enter the saloon after a day working at the mine. After a song by traveling minstrel Jake Wallace, one of the miners, Jim Larkens, is homesick and the miners collect enough money for his fare home. A group of miners playing cards discover that Sid is cheating and want to attack him. Sheriff Jack Rance quiets the fight and pins two cards to Sid's jacket, as a sign of a cheater. A Wells Fargo agent, Ashby, enters and announces that he is chasing the bandit Ramerrez and his gang of Mexicans. Rance toasts Minnie, the girl who owns the saloon, as his future wife, which makes Sonora jealous. The two men begin to fight. Rance draws his revolver but at that moment, a shot rings out and Minnie stands next to the bar with a rifle in her hands. She gives the miners a reading lesson from the Bible. The Pony Express rider arrives and delivers a telegram from Nina Micheltorena, offering to reveal Ramerrez's hideout. The sheriff tells Minnie that he loves her. But Minnie is waiting for the right man. A stranger enters the saloon and asks for a whisky and water, who introduces himself as Dick Johnson from Sacramento, and whom Minnie had met earlier. Johnson invites Minnie to dance with him and she accepts. Angrily, Rance watches them. Ashby returns with the captured Ramerrez gang member, Castro. Upon seeing his leader, Johnson, in the saloon, Castro agrees to lead Rance, Ashby and the miners in a search for Ramerrez, and the group then follows him on a false trail and in what turns out to be a wild goose chase. But before Castro leaves, he whispers to Johnson that somebody will whistle and Johnson must reply to confirm that the place is clear. A whistle is heard, but Johnson fails to reply. Minnie shows Johnson the keg of gold that she and the miners take turns to guard at night and Johnson reassures her that the gold will be safe there. Before he leaves the saloon, he promises to visit her at her cabin. They confess their love for each other. Minnie begins to cry, Johnson comforts her before he leaves.

Act II. Minnie's dwelling

Wowkle, a Native American squaw who is Minnie’s servant, her lover Billy Jackrabbit and their baby are present as Minnie enters, wanting to get ready for Johnson’s visit. Johnson enters Minnie's cabin and she tells him all about her life. It begins to snow. They kiss and asks him to stay till morning. He denies knowing Nina Micheltorena. As Johnson hides, a posse enters looking for Ramerrez, revealing to Minnie that Johnson himself is the bandit. Angry, she orders him to leave. After leaving, Minnie hears a gunshot and she knows Johnson has been shot. Johnson staggers in and collapses, and Minnie helps him by hiding him up in the loft. Rance enters Minnie's cabin looking for the bandit and is about to give up searching for Johnson, when drops of blood fall on his hand from the loft above where Johnson is hiding. Rance forces Johnson to climb down. Minnie desperately makes Rance an offer: if she beats him at poker, he must let Johnson go free; if Rance wins, she will marry him. Hiding some cards in her stockings, Minnie cheats and wins. Rance honors the deal and
Minnie throws herself on the unconscious Johnson on the floor.

Act III. The Great California Forest

Johnson is again on the run from Ashby and the miners. Nick and Rance are discussing Johnson and wonder what Minnie sees in him when Ashby arrives in triumph: Johnson has been captured. Rance and the miners all want Johnson to be hanged. Johnson accepts the sentence and only asks the miners not to tell Minnie about his capture and his fate.
Minnie arrives, armed with a pistol, just before the execution and throws herself in front of Johnson to protect him. While Rance tries to proceed, she convinces the miners that they owe her too much to kill the man she loves, and asks them to forgive him. One by one, the miners yield to her plea. Rance is not happy but finally he too gives in. Sonora unties Johnson and set him free. The miners bid Minnie farewell. Minnie and Johnson leave California to start a new life together.