Radio Prague 16.03.2009


One on One

Ruth Ellen Gruber, an expert on Jewish heritage and Europe's country music

By Jan Richter

For four decades, the countries trapped behind the Iron Curtain attracted only a few travellers from the West. Our guest in this week's edition of One on One is the American writer, scholar and photographer Ruth Ellen Gruber, whose reporting career brought her to the communist block in the 1970s. She spent time in Belgrade and Warsaw, among other places, and after the fall of communism, she stayed in Europe and became a leading scholar on eastern European Jewish heritage - and the region's country music.


Apart from the Jewish heritage sites you have seen in this part of the world, you are also an expert on the region'ís country music, you have been to many country music festivals. How does the local country music stand compared to the original - that is, to the American style of country music?

"A lot of the country music in Europe is imitative of the American. There are lot of fans and lot of experts in Europe who will only listen to American country music; they reject any kind of local production. But what's interesting to me is the way that local societies, particularly in the Czech Republic and Germany have developed their own country music. Here you make the distinction between Czech country which is sung in Czech for a Czech audience. This was imposed under communism when to perform publicly, you had to perform in Czech, and the early bands, who took English names, like the Greenhorns and Rangers in the 1960s, had to change their names even to Czech ones. So there was a real Czech genre created of Czech country and especially bluegrass has become very popular. Yes, there is the American aspect to it but there is also the type of music that is very local. And that I find fascinating."

My parents had an album by one of the most famous Czech country musicians, Michal Tucný, which he recorded with American singer Rattlesnake Annie. Why would an American singer come to communist Czechoslovakia in the 1980s?

"I think Rattlesnake Annie came here on an invitation, and she and Michal Tucný just simply clicked. They performed together, they got along very well and she began a career over here. She was recognized, she toured not just Czechoslovakia as it was but she also played in East Germany and West Germany; she played with a lot European country music acts. She wasn't the first but she was one of several American artists who made their careers in Europe. The most famous, or infamous, was Dean Reed, who sang a sort of rockabilly, rock, country songs and also appeared in the East German wild west films. But Rattlesnake Annie was unusual because she did this in the communist block. Year before last, which would have been the 60th birthday of Michal Tucný, the country Fontána Festival was held to honour that date, and Rattlesnake Annie came back and sang the duets that she used to sing with Michal Tucný, she sang them with contemporary Czech artists like Petr Kocman and others. It was a very moving moment and the crowd just went wild."


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Letzte Änderung: 2009-07-15