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Grass Roots

Hill country and the old country merge in a unique folk sound

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Introducing a New Column: Keeping Time

When I first began writing about Jewish music several years ago, I thought the job would be pretty straightforward. As a recovering ethnomusicologist, I’d had to deal with some pretty exotic sounds; how tough could the Jewish beat be?

Tougher than I could have imagined. Jewish music comes in as many varieties as the people, Jewish or otherwise, who make it. It has blended with, and borrowed from, a dizzying variety of other musical traditions. And the more I learn about it, the less I realize I know. What makes music Jewish in the first place? What’s the connection between new genres and old ones? What makes one style sound traditional, and another progressive?

I still can’t answer those questions to my own satisfaction, let alone anyone else’s. But wresting with them has made my mother very happy, and exposed me to a great deal of strange and wonderful music. I’ll continue to pursue them as I trace the web of connections, commonalities, and contradictions that links the music of the past to the music of the present, and Jewish music to the wider musical world.

—A.G.

Thirteen years ago I shared an office in the school of music at the University of Illinois with a fellow graduate teaching assistant named Kip. Kip looked like what Robin Williams, referring to fellow comic Martin Mull, once described as “Hitler’s wet dream”: tall, blond, and slender, with blue eyes and fair skin. His people came from Virginia, and he studied old-time string band music (he now plays mandolin in the Chicago-based bluegrass band Tangleweed), the kind of square-dancey, fiddle-and-banjo stuff that I had always associated with Hee Haw, incest, and that scene in Deliverance where Ned Beatty is forced to squeal like a pig. As a sophisticated urban Jew, I understood that this was music made primarily by and for hillbillies. Mountain mutants. Toothless wonders.

You get the picture.

Fortunately, Kip, who became one of my closest friends, had no idea what an ignorant, prejudiced jackass I was. In his kind, gentle, and infinitely patient way, he introduced me to rural American music, particularly the stuff that seeped out of Appalachia and into much of the South and Southwest, eventually giving rise to country music and bluegrass, a flashier, more virtuosic version of old-time string band music. At Kip’s suggestion, I read Bill Malone’s Country Music USA, which describes how the poverty-stricken descendents of Scots-Irish immigrants, when not scratching a living from the soil, created a style of dance music that was capable of expressing both great joy and sadness, sometimes at once. It made me think of the bittersweet music my own ancestors brought with them from the Old World to the new, and forced me to confront, for neither the first time nor the last, my tendency to assume the worst about people I don’t know.

Of course, some people have done more than simply ponder the parallels between Jewish and American folk music. For the past seven years, clarinetist Margot Leverett has performed an amalgam of klezmer and bluegrass with her string band, the Klezmer Mountain Boys. Although their latest recording, 2nd Avenue Square Dance (released October 14), takes detours into rock and Brazilian choro—Jorma Kaukonen (Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna) and the Brazilian Bay Area-transplant Carlos Olivera both make appearances—Jewgrass remains the dominant sound. That’s especially true on tracks like “High Lonesome Honga” and “Boreasca,” where Leverett marries traditional klezmer melodies to the rapidfire unison delivery that mandolinist Bill Monroe, guitarist Lester Flatt, and banjoist Earl Scruggs pioneered in the 1940s. (The Klezmer Mountain Boys comprises mandolinist Barry Mitterhof, guitarist Joe Selly, violinist Kenny Kosek, and bassist Marty Confucius. Banjoist Tony Trischka also appears on several tracks.)

Leverett, who played avant-garde music in New York City before helping to found the Klezmatics in the mid-1980s, had been drawn to bluegrass for many years, indulging a taste for playing old-fashioned fiddle tunes—Appalachian, Cajun, Northeastern—on the clarinet. Opportunities to do so, however, were limited; even those bluegrass musicians who were relatively open-minded about bringing a reed player into their midst were hardly beating the bushes for klezmer-oriented collaborators. “I could spend the rest of my life sitting by the phone, waiting for a bluegrass band to call to me to sit in,” she tells me.

So Leverett formed her own bluegrass band in 2001 and began transcribing Bill Monroe tunes. In doing so, she followed in the proud tradition of Jewish musicians and musicologists who have thrown themselves into American roots music. But unlike some of her colleagues, such as the banjo player Henry Sapoznik, who were inspired to explore their own musical heritage only after discovering somebody else’s, Leverett made the leap in reverse. (Full disclosure: I spent many years studying and playing jazz and African music before I paid serious attention to Jewish music of any kind—and my “conversion” took place only when I was asked, as the token Jew in the music department at a Midwestern liberal arts college, to deliver a lecture on the subject.)

Margot Leverett and The Klezmer Mountain Boys
Margot Leverett and the Klezmer Mountain Boys

Listen to clips from “Boreasca” and “Electric Kugel”

Leverett also came to appreciate the social and historical parallels between klezmer and old-time country music. “Both came from people in isolated rural communities that led harsh lives, and their music reflected the oppression they suffered, as well as the strength and joy it takes to overcome that,” she says. And both genres were transformed as the people who originated them migrated from one place to another: from rural Appalachia to the industrial cities and towns of the Midwest and Northeast, and from the shtetls of central and eastern Europe to America.

As it spread cross-country via recordings and radio in the 1920s and 1930s, early Appalachian string band music, at once idiosyncratic in its tunings and rhythms and communally oriented in its emphasis on ensemble performance and dance accompaniment, became a vehicle for virtuoso solo displays and artful arrangements, culminating in the polished brilliance of 1940s and 1950s. Yet if this new, more urban form was in some ways more sophisticated than the folk tradition that preceded it, it was also more homogenous. Klezmer followed a similar trajectory. Only a handful of the local styles that originated in Europe made it to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and those that did quickly hybridized with American popular music in subsequent decades, resulting in swing klezmer, dance band klezmer, and much else that Tevye and the good people of Anatevka wouldn’t have recognized as klezmer at all.

Both old-time country music and early klezmer also absorbed elements of African-American music, like jazz and blues. Listening to the eerily compatible sound of Kaukonen’s bluesy electric guitar and Leverett’s klezmer clarinet on “Electric Kugel,” it’s tempting to surmise that there is something similar, or at least mutually sympathetic, about the music of downtrodden folk everywhere.

Then again, that’s exactly the kind of essentialist thinking that nearly got me into trouble with Kip way back when. Perhaps it’s best just to note how well Leverett’s particular fusion project works, and leave it at that.

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Grass Roots

Hill country and the old country merge in a unique folk sound

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