Culture, Global


I didn’t actually make that up: that’s what it’s called. Smithsonian Magazine has a nice friendly little article about Jews playing Bluegrass and old-timey music – and infusing it with Yiddishkeit.
Despite the “gee-whiz!” tone taken by the article, this isn’t actually an especially new phenomenon. When I was doing a Jewish music radio show back in the 90’s, I was already receiving promotional materials from bands like these- at the time, I wasn’t especially interested, focusing more on klezmer’s more traditional fusions with jazz, and with more modern fusions with funk, and Sephardic music. Over time, I did become more enchanted with bluegrass and old-time music – separately from listening to klezmer – and only as a rather late last step did I start listening to Jewgrass.
In fact, the fusion of Jewish music with bluegrass should take no one by surprise. Klezmer, the traditional Jewish music of Eastern Europe (from the words “Kley zemer” – musical instrument) made an appearance in America beginning around the turn of the 20th century and cross-pollinated with jazz and blues from very early on, where klezmer musicians and African-American blues and jazz musicians would play next door to one another in clubs. During breaks they would all be out back listening to one another, and not uncommonly playing with one another. Red Rodney occasionally had to pass as “black” in the segregated south when playing with Charlie Parker, and Parker occasionally had to make ends meet playing bar mitzvahs (oh, man, to be the kid whose bar mitzvah Charlie Parker played!)
Klezmer enjoyed some early crossover appeal due to Jewish musicians like Benny Goodman and the Andrews Sisters, but trailed out in a whimper hanging on through comedy albums such as Mickey Katz‘s (and while we’re on the subject, do not miss Don Byron Plays The Music of Mickey Katz). Jewish musicians were largely rejected their immigrant pasts, and turning to American indigenous forms of music, and leaving behind klezmer along with Yiddish and other remnants of an embarrassing past.
But around the 70’s along with the rest of the country’s interest in roots and folk music, klezmer began to make a slow comeback. There’s a famous story of the famous klezmer musician, Henry Sapoznik, when interviewing the old-time Appalachian fiddler Tommy Jarrell, Jarrell asks him, “Don’t you people have none of your own music?” This drove Sapoznik to become one of the leaders of the klezmer revival.
But the klezmer revival is powered by Americans (and there are definitely klezmer musicians around the world who have taken their own country’s klezmer roots and worked with them, but the revival started here) who grew up with their own American musical tropes, which include music like blues, jazz, funk, bluegrass and old-time music. And just as in the beginning, klezmer influenced and was influenced by other American musical styles, so today. That makes it no surprise to see Jewish musicians taking up American musical styles wholeheartedly and mixing them with Hebrew or Yiddish lyrics, mixing musical styles together for something with a taste of both, or creating something wholly new.

3 thoughts on “Jewgrass!

  1. Saw Margot Leverett and the Klezmer Mountain Boys before slichos this year – They’re fabulous, their albums are great.

  2. Andy Statman and David Grisman have been doing this together and seperately for years. Check out their first collaboration, Songs of our Fathers, for a good start.

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