Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Smithsonian Magazine Article on Jewish Bluegrass

Jen Miller has written a nice piece for Smithsonian Magazine about Jewish bluegrass and old-time musicians.

For several paragraphs, she talks about Jerry Wicentowski:
Bluegrass lyrics celebrate country living, but many of the people singing them are city folk. Jerry Wicentowski grew up in Brooklyn in the 1960s and fell in love with bluegrass during the folk revival. For religious Jews like Wicentowski, there was a rebellious element to being a fan of the music. Bluegrass became his escape. During the week, he studied at an insular yeshiva; on the weekends he played guitar in Washington Square Park.

After earning a Master’s degree in Hebrew and Semitic Studies and then drifting away from Judaism, a series of life events led Wicentowski to return to religion. Eventually, he found himself a man with two strong identities: a Jew and a bluegrass musician. He began to fuse the two. Wicentowski worked on an album with mandolin virtuoso Andy Statman called “Shabbos in Nashville,” which featured Jewish songs in the style of 1950s bluegrass. Later, he founded his own band, Lucky Break. The Minnesota-based quartet bills itself as “uniquely American, uniquely Jewish,” by mixing “the stark beauty of Appalachian music with Shabbat Z’mirot,” or Sabbath songs.
I met Jerry once years ago when I had first taken over the Moonshine Show, and he was playing with Andy Statman and some other folks at a coffeeshop -- I believe -- in Brooklyn. (I couldn't tell you where today. I can tell you that it was the first time I ever saw Andy Statman play live.) We had a nice conversation; he sent me a copy of his CD Lucky Break when it came out, and I spun it a number of times on WKCR.

Jerry was just back in New York for one of his periodic appearances this past weekend. He performed at the Parkside Lounge on Monday night, I know, and I'm sure it was a good show, too.

Miller also talks about New York City favorites Margot Leverett and the Klezmer Mountain Boys in the article.
Historically, [Leverett] says, “Jews and Southern Appalachian people have a lot in common. They’ve been driven out of their homes, have lived hard lives, and have used music for strength.” Leverett’s vibrant blue eyes tear up when she talks about the displacement that poor Southerners experienced in the 1920s, when they were forced to leave their homes and seek out work in the cities. “There’s the same homesickness in Jewish folk songs,” she says.
(HT: Tina Aridas.)

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