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From Klezmer to Country: Linking the Soundtracks


Editor’s note: The following launches a new column, “Rootless Cosmopolitan,” by JTA’s veteran European correspondent, Ruth Ellen Gruber. NASHVILLE (JTA) — An international conference on country music may seem an unlikely place to find someone like me. For nearly two decades, I’ve been known for my writing on Jewish issues. But here I was recently in Music City USA taking part in a gathering of academics and other experts, presenting a paper called “Sturm, Twang and Sauerkraut Cowboys: Country Music and Wild Western Spaces in Europe.”

My paper examined the way American-style country music forms the soundtrack for a colorful and multifaceted “Imaginary Wild West” in Europe. It had nothing to do with Jews or Judaism. Still, the trajectory I took to get here was in fact deeply rooted in my work on Jewish culture, heritage and identity.

How’s that? I’ve been exploring this Imaginary Wild West for several years now, spending time all over Europe at Wild West theme parks, rodeos, saloons, ranches, country music festivals and other events and venues.

I have seen how these places — and the states of mind that go with them — form “Wild Western spaces” inhabited by thousands of Europeans who feel perfectly at home amid the star-spangled Americana. I have seen people in Germany, France, Italy, Austria, Poland and other countries dressed like cowboys, trappers or even Native Americans. And I have seen how local European artists singing and writing in their own languages take American country music, transform it and make it their own.

One catalyst for this project was my post-Sept. 11, 2001 desire to explore how Europeans view the United States. But in many ways, my interest grew directly out of the years I’ve spent investigating and interpreting how non-Jews in Europe relate to Jewish culture in countries where, more than half a century after the Holocaust, few Jews live today.

I coined the term “virtually Jewish” to describe how non-Jews adopt, enact and transform elements of Jewish culture and how they use “things Jewish” to create, mold or find their own identities. How they, in fact, help fill what has been described as a “Jewish space” that endures in Europe, even in the absence of actual Jews.

Klezmer music — not country and western — forms the soundtrack to this process, and indeed, klezmer musicians on the Continent today are often non-Jews playing to non-Jewish audiences.

Major differences exist, of course, between the “virtually Jewish” phenomenon and Europe’s Imaginary Wild West. One has to do with a real, traumatic issue: coming to terms with the Holocaust and its still potent and painful legacy. The other is the embrace and elaboration of a collective fantasy and its translation into personal experience.

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But both phenomena have to do with identity and the ways people embrace or use other cultures to shape their own sense of themselves. Stereotypes and preconceptions play prominent roles in both, too. What is meant or signified by “Jewish” or “Western” or “Native American” or “frontier” can be paramount: concepts or dreams rather than living, breathing realities.

There are few Jews in country music. The best known is Kinky Friedman, the satiric singer/songwriter who led an iconoclastic group called the Texas Jewboys and became famous for his ironic one-liners and flamboyant quest for the Texas governorship.

Given my own interests, I found it fitting that a paper at the Nashville country music conference was dedicated to his work. It aptly described Friedman as a satirist who at the same time was a romantic idealist. Dressed in black cowboy clothes and chomping a stogie, Friedman creates his own virtual world where cliche is often king.

In his best work, though, he cuts through myth, playing with stereotypes in a subversive, sometimes outrageous manner that dangles and discards preconceptions about cowboys, the Wild West, country music — and Jews.

My favorite Friedman song is the extraordinary “Ride’em Jewboy.” The lyrics are exquisite. Friedman uses the familiar, even hackneyed imagery of a Wild West cattle drive — a corral, wild ponies, a campfire, a roundup — to create a elegiac evocation of the Holocaust and the Jewish Diaspora. In effect, he uses collective fantasy to confront real trauma.

“Ride, ride, ride, ride ’em Jewboy,

Ride ’em all around the old corral.

I’m with you, I’m with you boy

If I’ve got to ride six million miles.”

Willie Nelson, the western icon whose “heroes have always been cowboys,” recorded a deceptively simple cover version of this song. Sung in Nelson’s unmistakable raspy twang and backed by a harmonica and clip-clopping hoofbeats, it perfectly captures the interplay of history, emotion and dreams.

“I’ve seen five people cry listening to Willie sing ‘Ride ‘Em Jewboy,’ all of them non-Jews,” Friedman once told an interviewer. “He sings it like a cowboy song, with no ax to grind, no agenda.”

Ruth Ellen Gruber’s books include “National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe,” “Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe” and “Letters from Europe (and Elsewhere).” A 2006 Guggenheim Fellow, she has written for The New York Times, the International Herald Tribune and many other publications.

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