Saturday, February 27, 2010

Hungarian Country Music -- Leslie McKlasky

 "Leslie McKlasky" in Budapest. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Though I've met Hungarian bluegrass musicians and Hungarian American Indian hobbyists, I had my first encounter with a Hungarian country music singer when I was in Budapest this past week. He is Laszlo Gemesi, AKA "Leslie McKlasky", and I almost literally ran into him as he stood singing for tips in the underground metro passageway at downtown Deak square.

A grizzled guy in his 50s, Leslie was dressed Johnny Cash-style, all in black, including a black cowboy hat, and, with a harmonica slung around his neck, was playing a guitar that -- he told me -- his uncle in Canada sent him in 1980: the varnish was worn off the fingerboard. He told me he would be playing at some sort of line dance festival in northern Budapest this coming weekend, but I won't be able to attend, as I've already left Hungary this trip. Still, news of this opens up yet another door into the imaginary wild west....

 Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

McKlasky speaks some English, but when he sang me a song, the lyrics were not terribly comprehensible. He has posted a few videos on his simple web site and on youtube.

This one gives a Zelig-like  photo montage of what appears to be a history of country music in modern his biographical information on the web site, he also provides an interesting view of the country music pubs and low-key country circuit that existed in the 1980s and 1990s.

Here's a rather scratchy concert video. It all looks (and sounds), I have to admit, as if it takes place in a different dimension...but that's what fascinates me and makes it fun...

Monday, February 22, 2010

Avatar - Dancing With Wolves - Sitting Bull and His World

 Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I am far from the only person to compare James Cameron's epic Avatar to Kevin Costner's epic "Dances with Wolves." (Nor am I the first to see in Avatar the influence of Star Trek or  Edgar Rice Burroughs' Martian series -- several books of which I have just read.) But I may be one of the few who followed up seeing Avatar with a visit to a museum exhibition about the destruction of  traditional Native American life on the American plains: an exhibit on Sitting Bull and His World at the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna.

As many have noted, the plot of Avatar  follows that of Dances with Wolves in a number of ways -- most simply put, a battered "white" soldier charged with subduing an indigenous population takes up the cause of the people he is supposed to suppress and (in part thanks to the love of a woman) eventually "goes native." This storyline has made Dances with Wolves very popular with American Indian hobbyists in Germany and elsewhere in Europe -- in effect, the Kevin Costner character accomplishes what would be the ideal for many of them.

(More people today are probably familiar with Dances with Wolves than with the Burroughs' Martian (or Barsoomian) series, written around the time of World War One -- but these books, too, deal with a battered soldier, in this case Civil War veteran John Carter, who loves a local princess and becomes part of an indigenous people (Martians). Apparently James Cameron alluded to Burroughs' works as an inspiration for Avatar -- and even visually I noticed Burroughs touches in some of the creatures created to populate Avatar's planet Pandora.)

I saw Avatar in Vienna over the weekend and the next day we to the the Sitting Bull exhibit (which is up until March 15). It uses photographs and objects to tell the life and afterlife of Sitting Bull, whose image remains one of the visual icons of the West, just as his story has become legend.

Here's how the museum describes him:
Sitting Bull – freedom fighter, „holy man“, rabble-rouser and troublemaker, poet and painter, media star. 
It was, of all days, July 4, 1876 – the day America celebrated the centenary of her independence - when a dismayed public first learned about the “victor of the Battle of Little Bighorn”, who had annihilated the 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment and killed its commander, the popular hero, George Armstrong Custer. Since then, deeply contradictory images of Tataka Iyotanka, or “Sitting Bull”, have been published and propagated. „He never told the truth if a lie served him better“ claimed one of his earliest biographers in a book published shortly after December 15, 1890, the day on which the Hunkpapa chief was shot while resisting arrest by members of the Indian Police. At about the same time, however, a contemporary described him as the „oracle of secrets and of knowledge that remains hidden from the masses, even from other chiefs who listened to his words and respected his authority as the highest and final expression of wisdom”. Even his own people were deeply divided; they relished the glory of his martial exploits but shuddered at his familiarity with spiritual powers. Eventually, however, most rejected his policy of resisting the all-powerful United States.  
Today, the man who in 1884 criticised Capitalism („The white man knows how to produce goods but not how to distribute them“) is celebrated as a model for heroic management strategies. His spiritual closeness to nature and his anti-Americanism make him the precursor of every alternative way of life. His posthumous popularity has turned him into a successful advertising vehicle for a wide range of products.  
Sitting Bull was one of the most frequently depicted „Native Americans“. The club he holds in one of his final photographs identifies him as an unreformed warrior, the crucifix around his neck as a candidate for imminent conversion; his sunglasses document the partial paralysis of the face that increasingly handicapped him; his many different head-coverings reflect his many different roles. His public face suggests lofty gravity or half-disguised anger, but his family photographs show a smiling Sitting Bull, a man who liked women and loved his children and grandchildren.

More than anyone else, Sitting Bull personifies the contradictions inherent in our Western conceptions of “Native Americans”. He is both a tragic symbol of a doomed world and an inspirational figure for alternative ways-of-life in the post-industrial era.
Not to mention a T-shirt:

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Germany -- Xmas at Pullman City: Video of Willie Jones as Santa

Here's a video of Willie Jones doing his Santa Claus thing this past December at the German-American Xmas market at Pullman City Wild West theme park near Eging am See in Bavaria. (I already posted still photos -- HERE). Enjoy!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Country music scholar Pete Peterson dies

Sad news for people who do more than listern to music.  Here's the obit from Vanderbilt University:

Richard A. “Pete” Peterson, one of the first professors to research country music from a sociological perspective, died Feb. 4. He was 77.

Peterson, a professor of sociology, emeritus, at Vanderbilt, was founding chairman of the American Sociological Association’s culture section. His wide-ranging research interests included the music industry, popular culture, musical genres and the aging arts audience. Some of his work focused on the impact of digital technology on popular music and the changing grounds of status distinctions in the United States.

“With Pete’s passing, Vanderbilt has lost a great scholar and a beloved colleague,” said Carolyn Dever, dean of Vanderbilt’s College of Arts and Science. We still benefit from his fascinating research, but Pete will be greatly missed.”

Professor of Sociology Gary Jensen is a former department chair and colleague of Peterson. “I greatly appreciated the fact that, in addition to Pete’s specialty courses, he was willing to teach Introduction to Sociology nearly every year of my 15 years as his chair. He truly cared about graduate and undergraduate students.”

Peterson, who was born in Moussourie, India, began studying country music long before it became a major musical format on radio. As a young boy, he heard barn-dance programs on his grandfather’s farm in Ohio. Peterson received his bachelor’s degree at Oberlin College before earning his master’s and doctorate at the University of Illinois.

When he arrived at Vanderbilt in 1965, Peterson found that the center of country music production was just a few blocks from campus. He began a scholarly quest to explore the development of country music and the reasons that Nashville was chosen over other cities as the industry’s center.

Peterson developed friendships with many veterans of the music business and attended numerous concerts and recording sessions, observing performers such as Chet Atkins, Waylon Jennings, Hank Snow and Charley Pride. He also went on the road with the Oak Ridge Boys while they were a gospel group and worked at Fan Fair, a weeklong series of performances and other events dedicated to country music fans.

The culmination of Peterson’s extensive research into country music and the sociology of culture was his Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity, published in 1997 by the University of Chicago Press. At the time, the late Eddy Arnold said that Peterson “appreciates the importance of country music and respects how it achieves that importance.”

Peterson co-authored Age and Arts Participation 1982-1997, a report finding audiences for all art forms, with the exception of opera, are growing old faster than the general population.

More recently, Peterson co-wrote with Jennifer Lena “Classification as Culture: Types and Trajectories of Music Genres,” published in 2008 in the American Sociological Review. “Pete loved students – hearing their ideas, watching them mature, influencing their work and welcoming them into his home with his wife, Claire,” said Lena, an assistant professor of sociology at Vanderbilt. “I was so lucky to be one of those students who he mentored.”

Lena noted that while Peterson was known in Nashville for his book on country music, sociologists knew him best for his work in the production of culture. “Essentially he claimed that elites’ tastes in music were diversifying during the 1980s. This both inspired similar analyses of cultural tastes by sociologists working around the globe and influenced a shift among arts administrators toward more diverse programming. The advent of ‘classical pop’ concerts owes a debt to Pete and his research.” 
Peterson served in numerous administrative positions over the years, including chair of his Vanderbilt department and director of Vanderbilt-in-England during the 1980s. He also had been a Mellon Research Fellow at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina.

He served as editor or associate editor of several journals and publications, including International Journal of Empirical Research on Literature, the Media and the Arts. In addition, he was a former consultant to National Public Radio.

Peterson’s hobbies included sailing, music and photography. He is survived by his wife, Claire Clark, and three children, Michael, David and Ruth. The family is planning a memorial service on campus.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

French tourists line dancing in Austin

 French line-dancers in Craponne, 2007. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Last October, a group of French tourists surprised local patrons at the legendary eatery Artz Rib House in Austin, Texas, by getting up and line-dancing. Two people immortalized the experience on YouTube.

Line dancing is very popular in France and is one of the backbones of the Imaginary Wild West there. At the Country Rendez-vous festival in Craponne a couple of years ago, there were groups from more than 120 line-dancing clubs. And there is a big business in line-dancing costumes, boots and other parephenalia.... Musicians often complain that the people don't care about the performance -- as long as they can dance.

Oddly enough, it was at Craponne that I met Art -- the owner of Artz Ribs. He was part of a group led by Jon Emery that played the festival. I had already dined at Artz Ribs -- when I went to Austin a few years ago, it was the first place I was taken by my friend Ray Benson, of the group Asleep at the Wheel (which also played at Craponne, but the year after Jon Emery...)

Jon Emery Band at Craponne Country Rendez-vous, 2007. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Web site problems

Just to let you know that my web site -- -- is experiencing some difficulties, and if you try to access it you may not succeed... I am trying to resolve the problem.

Monday, February 1, 2010

France -- a new video from Steve & Heather

Here's a new video of French country music from my friends Steve & Heather, a husband-and-wife duo (he's French, she's originally from the U.S.). I met them at the Country Music Rendez-vous in Craponne a few years ago. Heather was very helpful to me in discussing the French country scene, as she had prepared a survey and history of country music in France as a masters paper.

It was filmed at "Two River City" -- a Wild West village in the Alsace region -- the first I know of in France, though I am sure there must be others, given the widespread appeal of line-dancing and le musique country.