From klezmer to country — linking the soundtracks

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.

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.

Converso cowboys who tamed the U.S. frontier

Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West” by Deanne Stillman ($25, Houghton Mifflin).

In 1998, while finishing up her book “Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave,” Deanne Stillman learned that 34 wild horses had been gunned down outside Reno, Nev., and two of the accused were Marines. One of them was stationed at Twentynine Palms. Having grown up around horses, Stillman was immediately drawn to the story, and began exploring the wild horse trail. One of the things she learned is that horses are indigenous to this country, died out in the Ice Age and then returned with conquistadors. Among the conquistadors were Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, some of whom became America’s first cowboys. Stillman writes about them — and the horses of the conquest — in the first chapter of her new book, “Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West.” The following is an excerpt from that chapter.

They must have known they were coming home for nothing else can explain their survival and perhaps only that knowledge deep in their cells sustained them. Horses are animals of prey and they like the wide open and to be constrained on the decks in the hot sun or between decks without light or means of escape for two or three months would have overloaded their circuits. Threats hung in the air and everything was new and strange. Where once they smelled land and grass and legumes, they now would smell salt air mixed with the galleon stench; where once they were calmed by the nuzzling of their band in each other’s manes and necks on the fields of Europe, they now were held in place with slings and hoists, touched and reassured not by their own kind but by the men who were in charge of making sure they had safe passage.

These were the horses which carried Spain to victory in the New World. On April 21, 1519, 16 of them accompanied Hernando Cortes and his crew, which included Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, up an inlet on the east coast of Mexico to begin the assault that launched the American entrada.

As the galleons closed in, the horses would have sensed that change was in the air. They had already picked up the strange scent from a distant jungle blowing through their nostrils, and their large ears had heard the call of tropical birds from a far-off grove of palms. Now, as they were brought into the sunlight, their wide-ranging eyes might have perceived a figure, or many, with vibrant feathers, ducking between rocks or hiding in trees. The ship would have slowed just offshore and the men would have scurried along the decks, preparing for exactly what no one knew and as horse and man alike tasted the perfume of the New World, the conquistadors donned their chain mail and some helpers hauled the heavy wooden cross that would accompany them through the empire of the Aztecs into a bark and it was dropped and they rowed ashore. It was Good Friday, and the priest said a prayer.

Hernando Alonso, the Hebrew blacksmith who was one of the many conversos on board, also said a prayer as he checked the shoes of the horses, perhaps fitted some with new ones for the tough days ahead; the Spaniards had a special incantation which was designed for such occasions — the length of time it took to utter permitted the iron to get as hot as it should before it was shaped and nailed to the horses’ hooves — “for Christo y Santiago,” Alonso said, and then repeated it several times, perhaps adding in a furtive whisper as he hammered, “Shma Israel Adonai Elohenu” — and then the horses were saddled, their breastplates bedecked with bells, and they were lowered into shallow water, for there were no piers or point of debarkation awaiting the visitors, and they swam ashore. It was difficult for them, as their legs were stiff from the containment during the passage but instinct prevailed and the little band that would change the world forever scrambled on to the land their masters would call Eldorado.

For the next several decades, the warriors kept coming. When the battles were over, millions of Indians had perished. Upon his return to Spain, Cortes received much fame and fortune. But his life was said to be empty. Many of his old compadres turned against him, accusing him of war crimes and misappropriating Montezuma’s gold. Others had remained in Mexico, particularly the Jews who had been hiding as Catholics. The farrier Alonso, who uttered the special prayer while fitting the horses of the conquest with shoes, established the first ranch in the New World, outside Mexico City. But by 1529, the Inquisition had ranged across the ocean. What prayer did he utter when the soldiers came for him in the jungles of Mexico? Of course we do not know, for there is no record of his last words as a free man, but we do know that the church rendered him another sort of pioneer — the first Jew to be burnt at the stake in the New World, carried to the outdoor furnace in a procession on a horse, draped in the dun-colored sambenito of shame that might have matched the coat of his four-legged companion. Although the sambenito looked like a priest’s garment with its chasuble and long pointed hat, its purpose was to mock the wearer; its name means to brand or disgrace, and it was yellow — a color that is most significant in terms of this story because its use as a slander dates from a Medieval superstition about dun, or yellow, horses. They were considered inferior.

After his auto-da-fe in Mexico City, other secret Hebrews who had fled Spain as conquistadors volunteered for assignments in the most rugged parts of Mexico where they thought they could be safe. And so was established another first — the biggest ranch in the New World, in the sere province of Nuevo Leon, near what became the modern city of Monterrey. It was started by the Carvajal family, a famous converso dynasty that bred the first horses and cattle in the conquered lands, supplying the foundation stock for missions along the Rio Grande, and in turn some of these horses found their way to the Native Americans of Texas and beyond. Yet, the Inquisition pressed on and the Carvajals — father and nephew, wife and nieces — were burnt at the stake in the late 16th century. Some secret Hebrews eluded their tormentors, and within another hundred years they had headed north and become the first cowboys in the New World — yes, the original high plains drifter of American legend was not Clint Eastwood but a son of Moses who had been kicked out of Spain.