Czech Bluegrass: Notes from the Heart of Europe

By Lee Bidgood. 2017. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 192 pages. ISBN: 978-0-252-08300-6 (soft cover).

Reviewed by Philip Nusbaum, Grassroots Culture, KBEM-FM

[Review length: 1169 words • Review posted on April 26, 2018]

[Cover ofCzech Bluegrass: Notes from the Heart of Europe]

Bluegrass music began as a style that re-orchestrated several strands of Appalachian tradition with the blues woven into the playing and singing. Around 1940, Bill Monroe, leader of the Blue Grass Boys, was one of many country musicians active following the Great Depression, who were seeking new approaches in order to attract audiences’ ears. After a period of experimentation, by the late 1940s, Monroe hit on a winning band style. To succeeding generations, he became known as the father of bluegrass music.

Bluegrass music was largely an Appalachian phenomenon at its beginning. By the 1960s, bluegrass had attracted followings across the United States and overseas, including Czechoslovakia. Also, as in other areas remote from Appalachia, bands of Czech musicians playing bluegrass or related styles had emerged.

Lee Bidgood’s Czech Bluegrass: Notes from the Heart of Europe first traces the historical development of the cultural landscape of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic that made adopting bluegrass music possible. However, learning an iconic American form while maintaining one’s native Czech identity can cause an individual player to experience inner conflict. The book makes its greatest contribution by describing the many ways Czech bluegrass musicians and other members of the Czech bluegrass community reconcile participating in both an iconic form of American cultural practice and the Czech cultural heritage learned at birth.

Author Lee Bidgood is an associate professor of bluegrass, old-time, and country music studies in the Department of Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee State University. He is also a performing bluegrass musician. Among his music-world credentials are fiddling with the Steep Canyon Rangers, a leading group from North Carolina; and touring the Czech Republic and other European countries with European bluegrass bands. In Czech Bluegrass, Lee combines experience playing bluegrass professionally with his ethnographic abilities and detail-oriented library research. The outcome is a model of reportage on a contemporary musical idiom, bluegrass music in the Czech Republic.

Early in the book, Bidgood recounts developments in Czech culture that paved the way for the development of a bluegrass scene there. In the second chapter, Bidgood tells of the Tramping movement in Czechoslovakia. Tramping was a largely middle-class Czech phenomenon that flowered in the period between the two world wars. Tramping responded to industrialization, urbanization, and pop culture by stressing outdoor activities and music performances modeled loosely on American country music. While Tramping rejected at least some of the trappings of pop culture, participants in the movement were likely to romanticize and even create personal identities based on such American pop cultural icons as cowboys, sailors, and gold prospectors. The movement also included developing rural-based activities such as making weekend trips to family cottages.

The combination of interests in American pop culture and music and things rural created a cultural landscape that led some Czechs to cultivate tastes for bluegrass and related styles. Interest in bluegrass music was able to survive during Communist rule because bluegrass could be promoted to the ruling class as adhering to Communist principles, while to bluegrass insiders, the music seemed to defy the regime. After the fall of Communism, Bidgood writes, there remained a pervasive mistrust of government. Many people were involved in activities that seemed more desirable alternatives to those of mainstream everyday life. Bluegrass was viewed as one of those exciting and personally satisfying alternatives.

After author Lee Bidgood describes the background of bluegrass in the Czech Republic, he turns to describing the feeling of “in-betweenness” reported by many of the participants in the scene. For example, Franta Kacafirek is one of the many musicians documented as always striving for an American stylistic, but believing he never has achieved it. In their casual conversations, jam sessions, and interviews, members of the Czech bluegrass community frequently address their dual cultural memberships. Most are attempting to reconcile their participation in Czech bluegrass with the general culture in the Czech Republic, American culture, and their own values. Though the Czech bluegrass players Bidgood worked with did not precisely put it this way, it is apparent from reading the book that maintaining a good balance between American-based and Czech cultures requires work and repair.

One struggle the book mentions concerns gospel singing. Bidgood references a luthier saying that gospel songs by the influential Czech band Reliéf were too slavishly American. He thought they should have instituted a stylistic that was more true to the group members. Reliéf band members had issues connected with gospel singing as well. A member of the band concluded, and the band concurred, that it would not be all right to perform gospel songs relating to personal belief because the songs did not represent personal beliefs of band members. However, it would be all right to sing songs based on bible stories since the stories belonged to a common culture shared by band members.

Those are but a few of the examples of Czech bluegrass people’s struggles with “in-betweenness” taken from Bidgood’s fieldnotes and transcribed interviews. It is to Bidgood’s credit that he has found a vocabulary that works for describing the unease Czech bluegrass participants feel as a result of commitments to sets of cultural practices whose values do not always overlap.

Perhaps the approach taken by Bidgood might be used to describe bluegrass cultural scenes more widely. This reviewer has noticed that some bluegrass players living far from Appalachia sometimes express that something other than practice prevents them from mastering stylistic nuances of bluegrass playing and singing. Others might notice that their personal values differ dramatically from others in the community, meaning that cultural differences prohibit players from truly connecting. Or, some might have an affinity for some bluegrass substyles ahead of others, or take stands for or against old-time music, the collection of styles preceding bluegrass in history that both contributed to the formation of bluegrass and continue today.

In each of the cases in the previous paragraph, players created personal differences between each other. These differences were based on cultural background, musical ability, or musical preferences. In each case, as with Czech players’ struggles with “in-betweenness,” American players were struggling to reconcile perceived differences between themselves and other members of the community. One might postulate that attempting to attain a “higher” or “truer” level of bluegrass community membership is part of the shared culture of the bluegrass community in many places where it is played.

Lee Bidgood researched Czech bluegrass for over a decade. In Czech Bluegrass: Notes from the Heart of Europe, Lee gives us what we need about Czech bluegrass history. The depth of his knowledge is even more apparent in the book’s ethnographic sections, where we learn in detail from personal accounts, of merging Czech culture and an American music form.

Many readers will appreciate both the high level of insight, and that the text makes its points using only 124 pages.

Ethnographic works about contemporary music traditions are needed, and Czech Bluegrass: Notes from the Heart of Europe is a valuable tool, helping those interested in bluegrass music understand the rooting of the style in multiple cultures.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2020. Last revised January 22, 2022.