Friday, August 19, 2011

Bluegrass -- Congratulations to Lilly Pavlak, honored by the IBMA with Distinguished Achievement Award

Lilly Pavlak at the European Bluegrass festival in La Roche sur Foron, France, 2009. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

My friend Lilly Pavlak is being honored by the IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) with its Distinguished Achievement Award -- an honor, states the IBMA, that "recognizes individuals in the bluegrass music industry who have fostered the music’s image with developments that will broaden the genre’s recognition and accessibility."

Lilly and me after an all-night Tramp event...
Lilly was born in the Czech Republic, but since 1968 has been living in Switzerland. She is a hardcore bluegrass fan as well as constant chronicler, in words and pictures, of the scene -- and also sometimes works as an agent for groups.

I met her in 2004 when I was first exploring the European country/western/bluegrass scene. She was my own guide into the bluegrass scene in the Czech Republic (and elsewhere in Europe) literally taking me by the hand on some occasions to introduce me to people and events. She also brought me in to the Czech Tramping scene -- we spent a couple of memorable nights at all-night Tramp meetings and singathons.....

Here's what the IBMA says about her in its Press Release about the awards:

An active journalist for more than three decades who has been enormously important in telling the European bluegrass story in the U.S. (and vice versa), Pavlak is first and foremost a hardcore bluegrass fan who has devoted a large portion of her life and energy to promoting the music and artists she loves. The first American artist Pavlak heard in Czechoslovakia was Pete Seeger, in 1964. “I had never seen a live American before,” Lilly recalls. “We learned the worst things about ‘American imperialists’ in school and some people even believed they ate little children! After the first tones of the banjo, I knew this was the strange instrument from the hillbilly music I liked so much. That was a defining moment for me, and for the bluegrass movement that followed. Nowadays the Czech Republic claims the highest concentration of bluegrass musicians on earth!”

In 1975 Pavlak went to her first folk festival at Lenzburg Castle in Switzerland. The next day she flew to America for the first time, later returning with 20 pounds of bluegrass LPs and a guitar. She taped the albums and sent cassettes to her “Tramp Music” friends behind the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia—which was their only opportunity to hear bluegrass for 12 years. On a shoestring budget, Pavlak has returned to the States and Canada many times to hear and write about bluegrass music. She subscribed to American bluegrass publications and bought music to educate herself and her friends in Europe about new bands and trends. Lilly is one of the original members of the Swiss Bluegrass Music Association and the Bluegrass Association of the Czech Republic. Despite health issues in recent years, Pavlak attends nearly every bluegrass event in central Europe, sending reviews and photos to the bluegrass press around the world. “I feel home is where the heart is, and my heart is where good music is,” Lilly says. “I was always kind of a bridge between East and West, trying to put musicians from different countries together and make them friends.”

Lilly taking pix at La Roche. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

 In addition to Lilly, the Distinguished Achievement awards went to Bill Knowlton, Geoff Stelling, Roland White, and Greg Cahill, past president of IBMA and former chairman of the IBMA board of directors, who has brought his band Special Consensus to Europe many times in the thirty-six years of its existence. 

I wrote about some of the adventures Lilly and I had on several occasions -- including in an article about the Czech bluegrass and tramping scene for The New Leader, which also forms a chapter in my book "Letters from Europe (and Elsewhere)":

Lilly left Czechoslovakia after the Soviet-led invasion in 1968 and has lived in Switzerland more or less since then. For years, starting in 1975, she made tapes of bluegrass music from American LPs and sent them to her friends in Czechoslovakia. At the time, it was difficult, if not impossible, to obtain original American recordings. Lilly's friends copied and recopied her tapes and passed them around from player to player, like secret, even subversive, messages from across the global divide. Indeed, during the darkest years of communist rule, singing American-style music often became an oblique way of expressing protest against the regime.

Lilly was not able to return to Czechoslovakia until 1987, but when she did, she found poignant evidence of how widespread her influence had become. During that homecoming trip, she said, "I hitch-hiked toward the Oslavka River, and the people in the car that stopped for me were listening to a bluegrass tape. It was very familiar to me. I knew exactly what the next song would be -- once, long ago, I had put this tape together for a Czech friend. I asked the people where they had gotten it, and they told me that a friend of their friend had gotten from his friend. And so, after 12 years, I listened to my own tape again. The quality was terrible, but it was bluegrass, and I was home again."

Lilly's involvement with the music began, as it did for many other Czech fans and musicians, in the so-called Tramp Movement, a uniquely Czech outdoors and music subculture that originated in the 1920s and is still going fairly strong. Tramping grew out of the Boy Scout movement and was particularly influenced by the back-to-nature Woodcraft Indian Movement founded in 1901 by the Canadian author and naturalist Ernest Thomas Seton.

Czech tramps were not American-style hoboes, but for the most part urbanites who took the train out of big cities on Fridays and spent their weekends "living free" -- hiking, canoeing, sleeping under the stars and sitting around campfires, strumming guitars and singing. They called it "going to America," and many romanticized the American west, taking inspiration from western movies and novels. Czech tramps often dressed in cowboy hats and bandanas, gave their camp sites American names and decorated them with totem poles and other hybrid American Indian symbols and imagery.

"People couldn't travel, so they took the romance and made it at home," Lilly told me. "It came from books -- Jack London, John Steinbeck, and the romance of the wild west, Alaska and so on. Because people couldn't travel, they thought about it, and they tried to live their dreams."
Tramp songs, meanwhile, evolved from the informal stuff of campfire camaraderie into a full-blown genre of Czech popular music, merging local folk traditions with American folk songs, country music, cowboy songs, jazz and pop. A recent CD compilation of tramp songs originally recorded between 1920 and 1939 features performances by groups with names like Settlers Club, Camp Boys and Westmen. The cover of its information booklet features drawings of totem poles surrounding a sepia photograph of a group of young men strumming guitars and seated in the woods outside a log cabin bearing the name "Hudson" spelled out above its door.

The tramp movement remained strong under communism, despite periodic attempts by the authorities to regulate it or stamp it out.
"The dominant official opinion always was that tramps were relics of capitalist society and, as such, shall be given no rest until they would disappear from the face of the better socialist world," wrote Pavel Hubka, an amateur historian of tramping. "But they never did, despite vexation on the part of communist police and state Security."

Lilly described to me how, when she was 15, she and her sister were arrested when on a tramping jaunt in Slovakia and accused of spreading American ideology. They were harshly interrogated, and friends of theirs were sent to prison. "They beat me until the blood flowed," she told me.

In June, I accompanied Lilly to what is called a "tramp potlach" -- an all night sing-a-thon held around a blazing bonfire and well lubricated with freely flowing beer. The term derives from "potlatch" -- the term for the ceremony among native cultures in the Pacific Northwest at which hosts give away their possessions to their guests. The potlach I attended was held to celebrate the 45th anniversary of a tramp club near Brno that Lilly had belonged to as a teenager. There must have been 300 people present, most of them appearing to be in their 50s or 60s and most of them dressed in the green army surplus that has replaced cowboy gear as typical tramp attire. Former members had come from as far away as Canada to mark the occasion.
We gathered around a five-foot tall bonfire in a lush meadow clearing on the Bubrova River that had served for decades as the club's regular camp site. At the edge of the clearing, four totem poles built by club members stood amid a tall pine forest, and a small tepee was set up next to a log cabin very similar to the one pictured on the tramp music CD information booklet. At dusk, participants held a ritual ceremony to light the bonfire, and then the singing began. At first, individuals stepped forward to sing favorite songs. They were cheered by the crowd and presented with wooden plaques bearing painted images of Indian, trapper or woodland scenes. As night fell, the entire group joined in, singing song after song after song, straight through until daybreak. M
ost of them had lilting melodies with a regular beat -- real "campfire songs."  There must have been a dozen people with guitars, and, as far as I could tell, no song was ever sung twice.

"You have 10,000 tramping songs, you know," Lilly told me. "Every group has their own songs, and we have some very good songwriters. You cannot count the music. I could have gone on singing for three days without stopping."

In 1964, Lilly was present at a seminal performance that electrified tramp music fans and changed the face of the Czech acoustic music scene. It was a concert by Pete Seeger, the second of two concerts that the American folk legend performed in Czechoslovakia following a tour of the Soviet Union.

"I had never seen a living American before, and at school we learned the worst things about the 'American imperialists,'" Lilly has recalled. "Some people even believed that they ate little children!" What's more, she said, "Pete sang a lot of songs we knew from tramp music, and so I realized that they must be American originals, not just tramp songs. That was the defining moment not just for me, but for the entire bluegrass movement that followed."

What particularly struck her and other fans were the appearance and sound of Seeger's long-necked, five-string banjo. According to legend, Seeger's performances in Prague and Brno marked the first time after World War II that a five-string banjo was seen and heard to be played live in Czechoslovakia. Lilly and other fans have recalled to me how they would listen to "hillbilly music" on the "forbidden but beloved" American Armed Forces Radio, beamed from West Germany across the Iron Curtain, and try to figure out what instrument made the distinctive, ringing sound that was so different from that of the guitars, mandolins and tenor banjos already common in the Czechoslovakia.

As soon as Seeger touched the strings, Lilly said, "I knew that this was the strange instrument I liked so much from the hillbilly music."

A Czech musician named Marko Cermak, who was active in the tramp music scene, became so excited that -- according to his own and other accounts -- he built his own long-necked, five-string banjo by studying photographs taken of Seeger at the Prague concert and blown up to life size. Cermak went on to become one of Czechoslovakia's first banjo virtuosi, the father of five-string banjo playing in the country -- godfather in effect to the 65 banjo players who set the record in Caslav this summer for unison playing.

Cermak also founded one of Czechoslovakia's first American-style country and bluegrass groups, the Greenhorns. The Greenhorns became extremely influential by playing Czech language versions of American folk songs, copying arrangements they heard on American Forces Radio. "The Orange Blossom Special" became "Oranzovy Expres," "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" became "Slama v Botach," and "I've Been Working on the Railroad" became "Pracoval Jsem na Trati." In doing so, they, and similar groups, brought these songs firmly into the local musical tradition, fostering a total assimilation of many songs into the Czech repertoire. Even today, many American folk songs are considered to be traditional Czech tramp songs -- or even believed to be Czech originals that were taken to America.
This assimilation was intensified by force after the 1968 invasion, when official censorship made much of America's cultural production taboo. The censors permitted groups to play bluegrass, folk and country music, which performers convinced them was the music of the "oppressed" American proletariat. Still, when performing in public they had to sing in Czech, and censors scrutinized the lyrics. Music groups were also forbidden to have English names, so the Greenhorns had to change themselves into the "Zelenaci," and a fellow group, the Rangers, became "Plavci."

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