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10/16/2008

Climbing Mt. Klezmer with Alexander Gelfand

By Kenneth Rainey. Filed under: TweedBlog.

Alexander Gelfand wrote a piece for Nextbook on Margot Leverett’s bluegrass/ klezmer group, The Klezmer Mountain Boys, that inexplicably mentions me in a positive light*:

Thirteen years ago I shared an office in the school of music at the University of Illinois with a fellow graduate teaching assistant named Kip. Kip looked like what Robin Williams, referring to fellow comic Martin Mull, once described as “Hitler’s wet dream”: tall, blond, and slender, with blue eyes and fair skin. His people came from Virginia, and he studied old-time string band music (he now plays mandolin in the Chicago-based bluegrass band Tangleweed), the kind of square-dancey, fiddle-and-banjo stuff that I had always associated with Hee Haw, incest, and that scene in Deliverance where Ned Beatty is forced to squeal like a pig. As a sophisticated urban Jew, I understood that this was music made primarily by and for hillbillies. Mountain mutants. Toothless wonders.

You get the picture.

Fortunately, Kip, who became one of my closest friends, had no idea what an ignorant, prejudiced jackass I was. In his kind, gentle, and infinitely patient way, he introduced me to rural American music, particularly the stuff that seeped out of Appalachia and into much of the South and Southwest, eventually giving rise to country music and bluegrass, a flashier, more virtuosic version of old-time string band music. At Kip’s suggestion, I read Bill Malone’s Country Music USA, which describes how the poverty-stricken descendents of Scots-Irish immigrants, when not scratching a living from the soil, created a style of dance music that was capable of expressing both great joy and sadness, sometimes at once. It made me think of the bittersweet music my own ancestors brought with them from the Old World to the new, and forced me to confront, for neither the first time nor the last, my tendency to assume the worst about people I don’t know.

Read the full article at Nextbook.org.

*In the interest of full disclosure, I know Alexander, and probably owe him money. He wrote the excellent liner notes for our first and third CDs.