How Did Bluegrass Take Off in the Czech Republic?

A century of tramping. By Matěj “Dědek” Baťha via Wikimedia Commons.

The Czech Republic has long been attracted to American culture and ideas. An idealized version of the American Western frontier has grabbed the attention of central Europeans since the 19th century, as have American ideals of national sovereignty. In 1918, for instance, the Pittsburgh Agreement was signed in Pennsylvania by Czech and Slovak nationalists attempting to gain support for an independent Czechoslovakia carved out of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

American music, too, has a long history in the Czech lands. Jazz was popular before World War II (and remains so). And, familiar to many Appalachians, bluegrass has a loyal following, from the big cities of Prague and Brno to the rural parts of Vysocina and south Bohemia.

“The music here has strong roots,” said Ondra Kozák, a Czech musician who was awarded guitarist of the year multiple times by the Czech Bluegrass Music Association. Kozák was attracted to bluegrass “by its groove, energy, and folksiness” when he was 15.

In some ways, Czechs were primed for bluegrass and American country music. The “tramping” subculture in the Czech lands was fertile ground for independent-minded youths interested in outdoor adventures before World War I. It grew out of the scouting movement that encouraged young people to explore nature. Tramping encompassed outdoor activities of all kinds: hiking, camping, fishing, sports…whatever action got someone out of the town or city.

American novels about the Wild West and stories by Karl May, an extremely popular German writer in the 1890s and 1900s, spread a romantic myth about the American frontier throughout Europe. Music was a popular aspect of tramping with friends: Contemporary Czech and American songs, folk songs, and military-themed songs were all popular.

As Czech tramp Vladimír Horák told Radio Prague in 2008:

Tramping is a particularly Czech phenomenon which you can’t find anywhere else on earth. Elsewhere of course people go into nature, there are climbers and horse-riders and so on, but Czech tramps are particular because they have their own special clothing, they have their own slang and they have their own songs. There are special rituals which are linked with different camps. And that is why tramping is special and why we love it.

American country and bluegrass reached European ears on a mass scale in the 1940s. With American troops occupying much of western and central Europe (and liberating the Czech city of Pilsen in May 1945), Europeans heard country and bluegrass songs played over Armed Forces Radio. Czech enthusiasm for the music grew.

“Two other important factors for the relatively high popularity of bluegrass here was the defiance against the communist regime and the band ‘Greenhorns’ (who were forced to change their name to the Czech ‘Zelenáči’), who sung standard bluegrass songs with brilliant Czech lyrics and got popular in Czechoslovakia in ‘60s and ‘70s,” Kozák said.

Bluegrass became countercultural. It was stained in the eyes of the communists because it was American. It was also connected to tramping, which encouraged independent action out of reach of the regime.

It also encouraged self-reliance: The banjoist of the Greenhorns, Marko Čermák, built a banjo from scratch after seeing a picture of Pete Seeger holding one during his 1964 concert in Prague.

As communist authorities were suspicious of American influences (especially after the Soviet-led invasion in 1968), bluegrass players skirted a sensitive line. They argued that country music was the music of the American proletariat and should be tolerated. Regardless of its official status, by the 1960s and 1970s, trampers could go into the countryside with their guitars, banjos, and mandolins, and play bluegrass with companions well-versed in the music. The oldest European bluegrass festival is the Banjo Jamboree in Čáslav, about 60 miles east of Prague, first held in 1972.

The spread of bluegrass in Czechoslovakia was an example of America’s cultural power. Pete Seeger’s concerts in 1964 and Johnny Cash’s visit in 1978 allowed Czechs to keep up with country music—in addition to whatever records they could smuggle across the Iron Curtain. During the communist era, the American embassy would even lend bluegrass records to interested Czechs.

Today, it’s not so difficult to get into bluegrass and country music. If a bluegrass jam isn’t happening nearby, it’s easy to connect with others on social media or through the Bluegrass Association of the Czech Republic. The scene is also very flexible because it’s not so heavily commercialized. “People really can do whatever they want to. It’s very idiosyncratic in a way, so there’s a lot of openness there,” said Lee Bidgood, an associate professor in bluegrass, old-time, and country music studies at East Tennessee State University and the author of Czech Bluegrass, a history of the music in the country.

The Czech bluegrass scene, Kozák said, has small “local units” around the country, rather than being concentrated in one or two places. Bidgood noted that much of the activity was concentrated in Prague during the ‘90s, but is now scattered across the country.

Czech players can have “a more deeply entrenched sense of ownership with this music,” Bidgood said. They’re interpreting the music in a new place and time, picking and choosing what to emphasize and what to change.

“The idea of taking on the figure of someone else is important in many forms of country and bluegrass music here, but I think there’s more of this ‘putting something on’ over there that comes with crossing the cultural divide through performance of bluegrass,” Bidgood said. “And I think that leads to different sorts of posturing, it leads to different sorts of possibilities for play, and also for self-reflection.”

Bidgood and filmmaker Shara Lange co-produced Banjo Romantika, a 2013 documentary that traces the history and impact of bluegrass in the Czech Republic.

Importing bluegrass can give Czechs space to do something different or adapt it to their own history. American and Czech bluegrass can be remarkably similar, but Czechs have a “more deeply entrenched sense of ownership of the music because there’s this long tradition of it that goes back through tramping,” Bidgood said. Their sense of ownership comes from mixing it in with a different tradition; Czech bluegrass has similar rural ties, but Bidgood said it has a different vibe and “a sense of distance or of irony.”

It also changed based on local circumstances. Religiously themed bluegrass music was rare during the communist era due to communist persecution of Christianity, and the Czech Republic remains an irreligious country (with a long history of aversion to religion before the communist era). Some bands, though, still play gospel songs.

Lyrics would also change, as Katerina Tepla described in her thesis on Czech bluegrass:

Czech lyricists, in general, rarely followed the American originals. We can assume that this was due to the political environment. Singing in English was not desirable and moreover, only a few people could speak the language. Original recordings of American bluegrass songs were not available. This resulted in Czech musicians writing lyrics that were different from the American ones, often avoiding religious themes, surprisingly frequently using American place names, sometimes preserving the original name of the song although changing the content.

Czech players have the detachment from the tradition of American bluegrass to see how odd it may look to adopt American music for their own ends, but it’s an example of how culture evolves. Bluegrass is another example that illustrates, as Bidgood put it, the American-ism that has been part of Czech culture for over a century.

That cultural evolution continues today. Czechs host dozens of bluegrass festivals every year and jams are a regular occurrence in many cities and towns. Prucha and Capek are internationally known for their craftsmanship of bluegrass instruments.

“Czech bluegrass in the European context really stands out by the number of bands, great players, and festivals we have,” Kozák said.

The history of bluegrass in central Europe isn’t so well-known in the United States. But it’s an example of how widespread American culture truly is and how other cultures re-interpret our own.

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Anthony Hennen is co-founder and managing editor of expatalachians and managing editor at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal in Raleigh, North Carolina.