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ETSU documentary: The Czech Republic loves its bluegrass

Rex Barber • Sep 17, 2013 at 7:13 AM

When you think of bluegrass, your mind probably doesn’t conjure up images of Central Europe.

But there is a very vibrant and engaged bluegrass culture furthering the genre in homes, venues and campgrounds all across the Czech Republic, as evidenced in “Banjo Romantika: American Bluegrass Music and The Czech Imagination,” a documentary by East Tennessee State University faculty members Lee Bidgood and Shara Lange.

“It’s a really amazing story,” Lange said of how bluegrass came to the Czechs.

Lange said during World War II, the Armed Forces Network broadcast American music. Some of that was bluegrass, which was forbidden under the communist state. Czechs who heard it deemed it representative of freedom.

Bluegrass music made its way into Czech tramping, an activity that involves hiking and backpacking and camping and was very popular in that country as a way to escape modern pressures.

“And so Czechs would hear some of this music and they fell in love with the music, partly because they liked it because there was a tramping tradition over there but also because it sort of represented freedom,” Lange said.

Under Soviet rule, American bluegrass music could also be perceived as a form of protest.

Because of the restrictions placed on people under the Soviet Union, Czechs did not know what a banjo really looked like, so they built their own based on the music they were able to hear. In fact, the “father” of Czech bluegrass, Marco Cermak, actually made his own banjo without ever having seen one, Lange said.

“The music kind of grew over there and one thing that’s interesting that we talk about in the (documentary) ... is that (folk music legend) Pete Seeger came over to play ... and when he played people realized, ‘Hey, there’s a whole other string on the banjo,’ ” she said. “So that was a real turning point, too, for the music. So we sort of talk about that history and we say, ‘Well, it means something different now, because it’s not communist-era. Anyone can buy any kind of music, so what does the music (bluegrass) mean now?”

Lange and Bidgood shot footage for a week in the Czech Republic. Portions of the film were also shot at the Down Home, 300 W. Main St., where Czech bluegrass band Druha Trava played some bluegrass tunes and explained their meanings.

A sneak peak of the documentary will be presented Monday at 7 p.m. at the Down Home. Druha Trava will also perform that night.

“It’s kind of a sneak preview for our community and Johnson City and also the university,” Lange said. “A lot of people worked on this project. But besides that we also have the band Druha Trava, one of the bands in the film... are going to stop and play. So it’s pretty exciting to have the band from the film there to play.”

The event is supported by the Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music Studies program, Department of Communication, and the Honors College. Doors will open at 6 p.m. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for students. More information about the documentary is available at www.banjoromantika.com.

To request more information or accommodations for persons with disabilities, email Lange at langes@etsu.edu or call 439-7572.

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