- Czech Bluegrass: Notes from the Heart of Europe by Lee Bidgood
A banjo player on a North Carolina festival stage recently caught my attention when he shouted to the crowd, "I want y'all to know, this banjo I'm playing was made in the Czech Republic by a man named Jaroslav Průcha." The comment stopped me in my tracks. Průcha instruments are far from unknown among American bluegrass players, but I was intrigued by this artist's enthusiastic identification of the country of origin of his instrument. In Czech Bluegrass: Notes from the Heart of Europe, Lee Bidgood presents Czech bluegrass as a living, breathing bluegrass community rather than a novelty niche. Czech bluegrass musicians are an especially rich area of study, as they are "often mentioned both in Europe and in the United States as one of the best sources of bluegrass interest and expertise outside the southern US" (p. 55). This text is not an analysis of why the Czech Republic has such a robust bluegrass scene or a comprehensive history of Czech bluegrass music but is rather a presentation of several Czech bluegrass practitioners in the context of their daily lives. Readers can access the Czech bluegrass community through written snapshots from Bidgood's almost 20 years of participating in and documenting the scene, first as an undergraduate studying abroad in Prague and later as an ethnomusicologist. He presents an experiential narrative, written in an accessible way that deposits the reader in the moment with the author as he experiences the awkwardness of a first jam session in a new country in which he does not yet fluently speak the language, the community experience of an overnight workshop, and the tedium of touring by car.
The first chapter provides an overview of the personal and academic context of the work. Presenting the view of bluegrass "not as a fixed form or set of sounds, but as a process through which people enact the structures of the music in their particular time, place, and social setting" (p. 9), Bidgood grounds his interpretation of the genre within the field of folklore studies. Though bluegrass may be considered both a popular and a folk music genre, Bidgood clearly indicates his stance by further elaborating that "the music-making process as a whole includes processes of transmission, celebration, and curation that fit with many definitions of 'folk'" (p. 9). Additionally, Bidgood presents Czech bluegrass through the framework of "in-betweenness," that is, "a way of describing how Czech bluegrass music makers situate themselves in relation to 'America,' and . . . a way of considering their project as a whole" (p. 5). This concept of in-betweenness returns at various points throughout the text, connecting America with the Czech Republic as well as musicians' experiences touring on the road and recorded media transmitting sounds between (American) performers and (Czech) listeners.
The second chapter highlights early twentieth-century Czech interest in American culture, what Bidgood defines as "Americanism, the practice of re-creating aspects of US culture outside the United States" (p. 19). Beginning with the ethos of tramping, which "mixes outdoor [End Page 341] recreation with elements borrowed from the American West" and is identified by Bid-good as a "key part of Czech life and history," and tramp songs, the "foundation of Czech bluegrass and country music making" (p. 22), Bidgood provides historical context for the current relative popularity of bluegrass in the Czech Republic. Czechs interested in tramping gleaned inspiration from various, seemingly unrelated American sources: Western cowboys, nautical elements, American Indians, and New England transcendentalist authors. The text avoids oversimplifying the government's role in mediating country and bluegrass music but instead highlights the ways in which Czech listeners accessed the music, primarily through recorded media and the creation and modification of instruments to recreate bluegrass (or bluegrass-adjacent) sounds.
The third chapter revisits the idea of "in-betweenness" through the lens of...