On Bohemian Bluegrass, Beer, Some Barbecue
and a Few Weeks in Prague
No other place in the world has a romance with American bluegrass like the Czech Republic. —Lee Bidgood
A fine beer can be judged by one sip, but it’s better to be thoroughly sure. —Czech Proverb
Send me, Gods! a whole Hog barbecued. —Alexander Pope
We’re drinking last-call beers about midnight in a subterranean Prague club where Ralph Schut’s bluegrass band has just completed its 3-set show. Lead singer and banjo player with G-Runs ’n Roses, he’s enjoying a Pilsner Urquell—I’ve got my usual, Kozel dark: “even its foam is dark!”—as he explains Czech bluegrass history. “In an odd way,” he says, “Communism helped popularize bluegrass here.” We’re at Club U Vodarny, which had quickly become my neighborhood bar for the month I was in Prague to teach travel writing, and tonight two American friends have joined me. Under Communism, Schut continues, singing in English was considered dangerous. So Czechs translated the country and bluegrass songs they heard over Armed Forces Radio and sometimes added Czech lyrics: “Once translated, they became more popular than certainly they would have become had they been heard only in English. And translated, they became part of the Czech musical culture and late 20th century heritage.” As a result, many Czechs grew up hearing tunes that they assumed were from their own culture but were in fact American bluegrass and country songs.
After Ralph leaves, the man who’d sat at our table ignoring us while studying a military aircraft magazine looks up and says to my friend Luke, “That’s not entirely correct.” He arches his eyebrows towards the exiting Schut and adds, “He’s not from here, you know?” And then without actually refuting anything we’ve just heard, he explains a more nuanced timeline that’s guided the development of Czech bluegrass. For example, it was only after the Russian invasion of 1968 that Czech bands would risk trouble from authorities for singing in English or using English words for their band names. And the tanks came, in part he says, because of how lax the ruling regime had become. Then he explains his notions of why bluegrass in the Czech Republic is such a passion—although as in the U.S. one felt by a fringe market at best—and how it manifests itself in such Americana ways as old t.v. and Hollywood westerns, jeeps, boots, cowboy hats, and a club like U Vodarny. Tramping, he says, is this passion’s root. It goes back to early 20th century Czech obsessions with the novels of Jack London and Zane Grey—London’s novel The Road is a likely source for the term. Communist rule re-defined the phenomenon and during the 1950s, thousands of Czechs went on weekend retreats to gather ’round those fires and sing, not just American country and bluegrass but also some of their 10,000 or so original tramping songs.
“The music had freedom in it,” explained Ludek “Wolfi” Brancuzsky in Lee Bidgood and Shara Lange’s 2015 documentary Banjo Romantika. “When someone played banjo in a pub, there was protest against all sorts of things.”
Tonight, though, there’s no protest: just great bluegrass and beer in a locals pub you’d be hard-pressed to find unless you knew that the wrought iron spiral staircase just inside the street corner entrance to U Vodarny would lead you here, where most nights you’ll find a traditional music band playing for tips. You wouldn’t even hear the music until you were halfway down the stairs. One of several venues where bluegrass plays in Prague, this is an extraordinary little pine-paneled cellar club decorated in American Western: harnesses, saddles, horse collars. Lots of photos of horse riders, soft but ample lighting, crisp acoustics and comfortable seating with benches and a dozen tables along both long walls leading up to a slightly raised stage where the band seemed more an extension of the room than apart from it. It’s a clean and cordial place with tiled restrooms, its music space more a listening room than a club despite the draft beers that most everyone was drinking. A few also enjoyed dinner brought down from the restaurant above. The tables were mostly filled with Czechs for G-Runs’ excellent show, a mix of originals that sound like classics, and standards like “Deeper than the Holller” and “Blue-Eyed Boston Boy.” The instrumentalists’ solos—especially from Milan Marek on mandolin, Martin Burza on fiddle, and Ondra Kozak on guitar—brought frequent applause and whistles from an attentive and appreciative crowd. One of their fans, Pavel “Big Boss” Cikanek, would soon post their entire show, in four parts, on YouTube.
Ralph Schut was 19 when he moved from the Netherlands to the Czech Republic, not long after the Velvet Revolution, because of its strong bluegrass scene. As if to ensure his fate, his parents named him Ralph Christian Frederick Martin Schut, one name from bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley and two from C.F. Martin, who founded Martin Guitars in 1833, soon after immigrating to New York from Germany. Ralph’s father, Dennis Schut, is also an excellent singer and renowned flat-picking guitarist for the Dutch bluegrass band Spruce Pine, which he formed in 1977, when he also began organizing bluegrass festivals in the Netherlands. His introduction to the high lonesome came via the post-World War II musical pollination created by so many musicians serving in occupation armies. For him, it was a Canadian soldier stationed in Germany. “What a strange kind of music is this,” he recalled for his band’s webpage, “so quick and so much drive.” Both Schuts, of course, play Martin guitars—the instrument of choice, especially the D-28, for most bluegrassers—which are still hand-made in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, where C.F. Martin moved from a too-crowded New York City in 1836. Ralph Schut favors a slight change in the lyrics to “Free Born Man,” so that the singer hasn’t a “worn-out guitar” but “I got me a worn-out Martin I carry in a old tote sack; I hocked it about 200 times, but I always get it back.”
Soon after arriving in the Czech Republic, Ralph Schut joined Fragment, one of the leading second generation Czech bluegrass bands, with Marek on mandolin. He has since played—guitar, mandolin, and banjo—with several bands, often at the same time, including stints with Peter Kus and Famy and Roll’s Boys. A slender young man with thick brown hair and an engaging smile, he’s wearing a black G-Runs t-shirt and jeans. His entertaining intros and jokes are all in Czech, though the band sings almost exclusively in English, often with beautiful 3-part and sometimes 4-part harmonies. Schut, a solid guitarist and banjo player, is especially good at sounding like an old country man: it’s more than just dropping the ‘g’s, he explains: “it’s in the vowels.” He credits Peter Kus with introducing “vowel study” into the Czech way of presenting American bluegrass as authentically as possible. “First,” he explains, Kus “wrote Czech lyrics to American bluegrass songs that sounded like the American use of vowels”—although he often found in those lyrics a completely different narrative. After penning dozens of such songs, Schut adds, “Kus started writing his own bluegrass songs in English.”
But not until Lee Bidgood closely compared Kus’s translations with their American counterparts did it become apparent how different these narratives were. For example, Bidgood’s close reading of the Bill Monroe classic “Sweetheart, You’ve Done Me Wrong” as “translated” by Kus makes clear that although the melodies as performed by Kus and Monroe are similar, Monroe’s lyrics reflect a much more traditional bluegrass subject: a recent romantic breakup that’s left the singer “all alone” with “no one to call my own.” For Monroe (and co-author Lester Flatt) it’s a personal song that leaves the singer hopeful at its end for a time “when you will change your mind.” Kus doesn’t translate this at all, but writes a more literary and poetic song, making of it a yearning for a long ago and more generalized past. Instead of an incident-specific breakup, the singer’s anguish is more generally induced from a larger collective memory:
I wipe the nostalgia from my eyes,
when I remember my youth
a few loves from the corner,
a children’s book full of lies.
Schut has followed the Kus example impressively, penning several bluegrass songs that sounded so classically American that I found myself jotting down lyrics, sure that later I’d be able to Google who had originally sung them: “I thought that my ramblin’ would come to an end,” for example, and “Susanne, I’ve seen your smile, ain’t that lonesome,” and from a song I’d later learn was called “Sweet Marie”:
My mind takes me down to the old grove school.
Our hearts were in the country of that old radio.
Underneath the stars of that Southern sky,
We held each other close.
Today’s free market economy has helped transform the Czech Republic into a progressive state centered around Prague, the cultural capital of what was for centuries known as Bohemia and for most of the 20th century as Czechoslovakia. A strong U.S. dollar helps make it an excellent travel destination. With seven writing students, from East Carolina, UNC-Chapel Hill, and Clemson, I was there for a month of 2016’s spring. Among my surprises: how good and inexpensive the food was—steak, fries and a salad for $8. With lodging for about $45 a night, including breakfast; fast, clean and efficient public transit; world class shopping; history, art, and historic architecture everywhere; excellent inexpensive craft beer; and genuinely nice people, it’s easy to see why Prague is such a popular European shopping and vacation center. It’s also a live music lover’s paradise.
U Vodarny features on most nights live music for free. One night, an excellent country band performed, mostly in Czech, songs like “Ghost Riders in the Sky” and, in 5-part harmony “Fox on the Run.” On another, a delightful oom-pah band had everyone dancing. It’s a locals kind of club where Nova Sekce (“New Section”), an excellent all-Czech 4-piece band, is a recurrent favorite. Their lead singer and mandolinist, Tomas Tichy, translates bluegrass songs like “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” into Czech and arranges other American songs into bluegrass style. In “Ain’t Going to Work Tomorrow” and “I’m Going Back to West Virginia,” they mix Czech with English lyrics, making no effort to mimic dialect. “The Weight” featured 4-part harmony that had the crowd singing along in English: ”Take the weight off baby!” Once again, Big Boss was there to record the show for his YouTube channel.
I found one young fan, Carolotta, whose English was good enough to get Tichy to answer a few questions. He can’t explain why bluegrass remains so popular with Czechs. “It is fun music,” he says and shrugs, as though that’s explanation enough. Carolotta, who’s there with a friend wearing a “Bluegrass Rules” t-shirt, is trying to learn how to transform her violin into a fiddle. “Monogram,” she says, “they’re the best. And Pepa, the best on fiddle.”
I’d heard about U Vodarny from Josef “Pepa” Malina, fiddling youngest brother of Lubos Malina, who plays banjo in Druha Trava (“Second Grass”), by far the best-known Czech bluegrass band. They opened for President Obama at Prague Castle in 2009, and they’ve toured the U.S. with Tony Trischka and Charlie McCoy and the Czech Republic with Peter Rowan. On my first night in Prague, I caught their show at the New Town Hall in Prague, upstairs at Malostranska Beseda. It was a mesmerizing and enchanting mix of bluegrass, rock, and jazz, directed by mandolinist and lead singer Robert Krestan and staged in a grand concert hall accented by heavily curtained 10’ windows and high Gothic arched ceilings decorated with the remains of centuries-old frescoes. The building, established in the late 1400s, was rebuilt in 1784, renovated extensively in 1868, and modernized in recent years. The show’s impending start was announced, like an opera, with a bell and dimming of lights once before the massive wooden doors to the concert hall were closed and a hush of anticipation fell onto the sold-out crowd.
The iconic Krestan is a Czech musical legend, and the first band he played in, which also included Lubos Malina, was part of the soundtrack of the Velvet Revolution that without weapons toppled Communism in the Czech Republic in November 1989. Several of his original songs have now been translated into English, a task he says he could never do, despite his success as a translator of American fiction into Czech, most notably Jim Harrison’s Legends of the Fall. Like so many second generation Czech bluegrassers, he first heard bluegrass on the American Forces Network broadcast from Munich, on the other side of the Iron Curtain. He told the Phoenix New Times, “When I was very little, maybe 10 or 11, I heard the banjo on the radio and I was stunned. It was like a whole new life for me. So I found out what kind of instrument it was and what kind of music it was.” He discovered that “bluegrass music is ‘me’ music.” Krestan joined Poutnici (“The Pilgrims”) in 1979 and played with them for the decade leading up to the Velvet Revolution. During Communist rule, bluegrass was seen as “subversive,” he added, “because it was American.” He stayed with Poutnici until he and Lubos Malina, one of Poutnici’s two banjo players, formed Druha Trava in 1991, with the intention of making bluegrass that was uniquely Czech. “We weren’t born in Kentucky,” Krestan said, “so we play the music that we feel.”
With its understated drums and Lubos Malina’s saxophone and whistle, their show at Malostranska Beseda rarely approached traditional bluegrass. Krestan himself is such a presence that he seems center stage even when he’s backed into shadow to play an air mandolin while solos by Malina on banjo or Lubos Novotny on Dobro take over. No patter, rarely an intro to the songs to come, most of which were Krestan’s originals. Their cover of Dire Straits’ “Telegraph Road” was spectacular, played out in its movements like a jazzy folk symphony. Their encore of “Cryin’ Holy to the Lord”—one of two songs performed in English—proved they could still straight-ahead bluegrass it when they wanted to. After a fourth encore, a sing along that everyone but me knew, the show ended with the graceful synchronized bows that, I would discover, mark the close of Czech bluegrass shows regardless of their venue.
Lubos is the eldest of three Malina bluegrass brothers. In a brief conversation between Druha Trava’s sound check and performance, he says that, like most Czech bluegrassers, he was classically trained. Also like most, he’s shy and self-deprecating, even though he’s generally acknowledged as the premier banjo player in central Europe. He plays a banjo made by Zdenek Roh, who also made the banjo currently played by Trischka. It’s the sound of that 5-string banjo that captured the Czech musical imagination. Prior to its introduction, theirs was already a world of fine musical instruments, and for centuries Europeans had produced expert violinists, mandolinists, and guitarists on those instruments, but the 5-string banjo’s sound was new to most of their ears. Its driving sound also changed the way some Czech musicians would play their violins, mandolins and guitars as they began to emulate the American bluegrass sound that had been established by Bill Monroe on mandolin, Lester Flatt on guitar, and Earl Scruggs on banjo. When Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys took their name from Monroe’s home state, Czechoslovakia and most of Eastern Europe were coming under Soviet control. Though they were playing it from their start—Monroe recorded four songs with “bluegrass” in their titles between 1945-50—“bluegrass” wouldn’t become the standard name for this new sound until the mid-1950s, and its origin is still not agreed upon. One source says it was originally a “feud” word that arose from fans wanting to request of Flatt and Scruggs a song they had performed with Monroe, before their famous and acrimonious breakup in 1948. In order not to say Monroe’s name and risk riling Scruggs or Flatt, fans asked instead for songs they had popularized with their “blue grass” band.
The Scruggs sound on banjo inspired the first significant banjo maker in the Czech Republic, Marko Cermak, who vividly recalled hearing a banjo that he found out later was Scruggs’ on a late 1950s radio program broadcast on the Armed Forces Network: its sound was “fantastic, devilish, interpolated with the whinnying of horses. I probably stopped breathing and my heart must have stopped.” It would be nearly a decade before Cermak, who like other Czech musicians had known only the 4-string tenor banjo, discovered that the first secret to the banjo’s sound was its fifth string, an entertaining story that’s fleshed out charmingly as he ambles about his woods “camp” in Banjo Romantika. But in addition to the banjo’s extra string, the new bluegrass sound was also driven by a 3-finger technique for banjo picking that created the distinctive roll that drives through many bluegrass songs. A major shift from the previously dominant and old-time clawhammer style of playing banjo, the method was popularized by Earl Scruggs; along with Monroe’s fast mandolin technique and high, lonesome tenor vocals, it helped distinguish bluegrass as a musical genre separate from country.
Lee Bidgood, the go-to man for the dense and intriguing Czech bluegrass history and context, points out the difficulty posed by Czech musicians experiencing and then trying to perform bluegrass, without having had the tradition of old-time music to establish for them a context of vernacular string bands, the possibility to witness the music played live, or the familiarity of the instruments used to make bluegrass. Five-string banjos were alien to their musical experience, and the familiar mandolins and guitars had been modified by instrument makers to better suit the sound favored by American bluegrassers. By the 1920s, mandolins had been given a flatter instead of rounded back and an arched body by Gibson, and C.F. Martin had developed the longer necked “dreadnought,” its D-28 still the most popular bluegrass guitar today. But like American-made banjos, those instruments could not legally be sold under Communism. Even when attempted on classical instruments, their early efforts to play authentic bluegrass were further hampered by the absence of commercially available picks and strings—Marko Cermak’s banjo picks, for example, were “jerry-rigged and soldered together from a lunchmeat can.” Still, Czechs could improvise for the bluegrass sound on the mandolins, guitars, and violins already in country. But figuring out how to get that banjo sound without a 5th string presented a more difficult challenge. Cermak wasn’t able to resolve it until he saw a photo of Pete Seeger playing a 5-string—“I hope the banjo needs no introduction,” Seeger famously said, not knowing that in fact it did—at a 1964 Prague concert, and from that photo, he designed a prototype and started building banjos until he got one with the sound he sought.
Bidgood, a former mandolin player for the Steep Canyon Rangers, now teaches in East Tennessee State University’s bluegrass studies program, where, in tribute to an early 20th century American phenomenon that started in Germany with performances of Italian music, he has also recently organized a mandolin orchestra. The documentary Banjo Romantika grew out of his dissertation research on Czech bluegrass, which is the basis of his book forthcoming from the University of Illinois Press. Czechs are admired by other European bluegrassers, he writes, for their “technical ability and artistic expression.” European bluegrass hierarchies, he explains, put U.S. acts at the top, but when European promoters can’t afford an American bluegrass band for a festival, they often hire one from the Czech Republic. The Czech Bluegrass Association currently lists webpages for 180 bands. Of 48 bands represented on the exceptional 2-disc CD Ten Years of European Bluegrass (2007), nearly a third are Czech. And at the 2016 European World of Bluegrass competition for band of the year (won by the Estonian quartet Curly Strings), a quarter of the 32 competing were Czech.
On a beautiful blue sky afternoon with low humidity and a gentle breeze, the medieval festival at Steti is gearing up for its big musical attractions. The town’s name means “decapitation,” but some online translations confuse “steti” with “stesti,” which translates to “happiness.” Today, it’s an odd combination of both: happy folks celebrating a long ago battle that ends in staged decapitations. In many ways it’s like any small town festival in the states: vendors hawking crafts and food around a square at one end of which is a stage. Instead of hot dogs and burgers, it’s sausage with bread and mustard, traditional pastries, and $1.50 pints of Zlatopramen. Amidst medievally costumed re-enactors in town for the morning’s early 14th century battles staged by the Order of Black Knights, the town’s grownups sit at picnic tables from where they enjoy the music and panoramic scene that surrounds them. By far the most successful merchant is responsible for selling all the wooden shields, swords, and flails that the town’s boys assault each other with while the girls play “Ring around the Rosie” and “London Bridge Is Falling Down”—no cellphones in sight. Settled in 1314, this is a town that “remained mothballed in late medieval form” well into the 20th century. Here, and as it seems everywhere in the Czech Republic, everything is infused with history. At one end of the square is the Church of St. Simon and Jude, rebuilt in 1452; two blocks away, the Elbe River, noted by Ptolemy in the first century A.D., flows towards the North Sea. Their festival today has celebrated a military campaign waged in the region nearly seven centuries ago—everywhere in the Czech Republic this summer are celebrations commemorating the 700th anniversary of the birth of the beloved Charles IV. Its pageantry is reminiscent of an American Renaissance Fair but with tents of re-enactors pitched near those of Roma who, I learn, have settled around Steti’s public square to take advantage of its open unregulated park space and efficient bathrooms. The festival includes war and romance and beheadings, and then a full day of performances by puppet and dance troupes and musical acts.
Pepa Malina was glad to give me a ride to Steti, where his band, Monogram, was scheduled to play between Czech folk singer Pavel Dobes and the finale, country rock band Flerte, both of which would be Czech language performances. As he drove us from Prague through a lush, rural landscape dotted with big bright yellow fields of rapeseed, I tried to explain some of my frustration at being unable to communicate with locals, what a difficult language I had confronted. “Yes,” he says, laughing, “English a very difficult language.”
Quick humor permeates Czech bluegrass. The players all thoroughly enjoy their performances, and their between-songs banter often evokes laughter and repartee from their audiences. Many of their band names, like G-Runs, suggest that humor: the “G-run” is a guitar flourish popularized by Lester Flatt. Neil Rosenberg, the pre-eminent bluegrass historian, describes it as “an ascending phrase” that was a “variation on a common place phrase in much of American popular music.” It was used by a number of country guitarists prior to Flatt, who perfected and popularized it as a practical tool that allowed him to catch up with Monroe’s fast-paced mandolin at the end of every verse. So, coupled with its allusion to the American heavy metal band Guns ’n Roses, their name is a couple of jokes, though not as complicated as the humor behind Roll’s Boys, banjo maker and player Zednek Roh’s band, whose name puns on Roh/Roll, Lester Flatt’s classic banjo roll, and the luxury car. Some Czech bluegrass band names also play off a mix of English and Czech as well as the historical period, from the Russian invasion in 1968 until the Velvet Revolution in 1989, during which bands with English language names had to change theirs to Czech; others are simply funny riffs on American pop culture: Barbecue, Cop, Arrest, Krap, Whiskey Before Breakfast, Funny Grass, Monokl, and Jumper Cable, to name but a few. And their instrumentals are playful as well as dynamic—even their titles. Milan Marek calls one of his banjo tunes “Crossing the Minefield,” which speaks to Czech history and its occupation by Nazis during World War II in a way Americans might also miss.
Most of Monogram’s tight set at Steti was written by lead singer Jindrich Vinkler, whose songs sound authentic both lyrically and linguistically, and most are delivered in English. Like Schut, he knows how to drag and bend a vowel. The band’s elaborate, extended, and very serious sound check concluded with an a capella harmony chorus. Their arrangements, three-part harmonies, and instrumental breaks all combined to make a show that could headline anywhere. Formed in 1990, this was already arguably the best and most popular traditional bluegrass band in the Czech Republic before adding Vinkler as songwriter and guitarist and Pepa Malina on fiddle. When I run into Vinkler later, on a metro platform back in Prague, he deflects my compliments and instead can’t stop talking about what an honor it had been to come on stage after his childhood hero, the folksinger Pavel Dobes: “My father used to tell me I could be another Dobes, and that’s what I wanted, until I heard bluegrass, and then everything changed.” Like his older brother Lubos, Pepa Malina also downplayed his considerable talents, but he’s proven himself not only an excellent fiddler but also a songwriter, in Czech, and videographer. For several years he too was with Druha Trava but he enjoys Monogram for its strict adherence to traditional bluegrass style.
Filling in on bass for Monogram at the Steti festival is Svatava Hlávková, who also writes songs and plays in her husband’s jazz trio. Her vocals shine on a beautiful version of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talking at Me.’” Their one song performed in Czech is a Pepa Malina composition. When I ask him later if he can get me a set list so I can see whose songs they’re covering, he smiles shyly: “They’re all Hendrik’s songs.” The band makes a beautiful picture on stage in a late afternoon shade, and with such expert pickers and lead and harmony vocals and such a small town-family fair atmosphere to the casualness of it all, I imagine it a feel-good movie scene you’d want to go on forever. The re-enactors, mostly out-of-towners, done with their jousting, trials, and be-headings, have kept their tents set up as vantage points around the periphery of the square; I hadn’t caught at first that on their periphery, down near the public restrooms, were the Roma camps.
In the middle of the square, a 9-year-old boy slowly, carefully carries two beers—plastic cups of Zlatopramen held high—back to his parents. He takes a few small steps, stops for a sip from one cup and then the other. At the last of three sippy stops, just behind his folks, he eyeballs the cups to make sure their levels are equal, delivers the beers, and is off with shield and sword to join the medieval child’s-fray with his buddies, all played to a bluegrass soundtrack.
Czechs drink more beer than anyone; it’s literally cheaper than water and goes with any meal: on a Prague Sunday, 8 a.m., at “the largest flea market in Europe,” the beer garden was bustling. Czechs’ patron saint of beer drinking, King Wenceslas II (1271- 1305), who founded the city of Pilsen (from which we get pilsner), declared that everyone had the right to make beer, and until the late 1800s, the Saint Wenceslas Agreement of 1517 established the kingdom’s rules of beer making. The Czech Center of Public Opinion Research has found that “the largest section of Czech men and women think [drinking beer] is a part of Czech culture and tradition, that the drinking of beer belongs to the inhabitants of the Czech lands, and that it is something to be proud of.”
The first Czech master brewer, some say, was Gambrinus, who sold his soul to the devil to become the first mortal to brew beer. Gambrinus, they say, wasn’t Isis’ husband—as others claim—but in reality Jan Primus, born 1210 AD (never mind that Czechs had likely been brewing with hops since at least 859 AD). Primus beer has been brewed since 1252 at Pilsen, over a century after the first recorded brewery was operating in Prague. Czechs were the first to brew from hops, and for the first quarter of the 11th century brewers were exclusively monks. Public breweries established in the 1200s at Svitavy, Budjevoice—also known as Budweiser—and Pilzen established the commercial standards that protected the high quality of Czech beer. These standards and traditions helped Budjevoic protect its Budvar beer and keep the American Budweiser from using its name in the Czech Republic. (The legal wrangling over international rights to calling a beer “Bud” began soon after Budweiser was founded in America, in 1876, and continues today, between AB InBev and Budvar). The introduction of bottom-fermented beer, at Pilsen in 1842, ushered in a second golden age of brewing in Bohemia; by 1850, there were 1052 Czech breweries. By 1950, soon after the nationalization of breweries under Communist rule, that number was down to 260, and by the time of the Velvet Revolution, in 1989, there were only 71. The revolution opened the way for a revival of Czech brewing prowess, and the beer scene there continues to grow even as it flourishes with the increased popularity in recent years of craft beers. Of about 250 Czech breweries today, more than 20 are in Prague, where beer was first brewed at the Brevnov Monastery in 993 AD—and is still brewed today.
At U Vodarny, I first ordered a Kozel because of its logo, a grand and tough old billy goat rearing up, a big frothy mug held between his front legs. Later, I’ll learn that it’s the beer a Bohumil Hrabal character starts drinking when he wants to prove he’s a common man, not some elite quaffing an import. One of the best and most prolific of the World War II generation of Czech writers, Hrabal (1914-1997) loved the pubs of Prague, which his characters, like he, frequented. U Zlateho Tygra (“At the Golden Tiger”) boasts in its marketing of his fondness for drinking there; his portrait adorns six offerings of Postrizinske beer, named from one of his novels and brewed in his hometown of Nymburk. Hrabal’s oak coffin bears this inscription: Pivovar Poina, “Poina Brewery,” commemorating where his mother met his stepfather. Beer, he wrote, is a catalyst that “puts the language into motion. It unties the imagination.”
Drinking beer was one of the very few activities Franz Kafka (1883-1924) enjoyed with his oppressive father. Kafka was a self-described “passionate drinker” who rarely drank to excess but, according to his biographer Reiner Stach, enjoyed watching others drink. His beer of choice is not known; Stach reports only that he enjoyed Czech beer, which in the early 20th century had solidified a rebuilt reputation as being among the finest anywhere. Kafka, whose grandfather ran a brewery, grew up during the second golden age of Czech beer which, by the time he turned 17, was being bottom-fermented in hundreds of breweries. Kafka didn’t much care for music—he’s said to have enjoyed American marches but never cited a particular march or composer. He died more than twenty years before bluegrass was created.
Hrabal was born to an unwed mother who married his stepfather when he was 2; he grew up in a loving and supportive home, unlike Kafka, whose turbulent relationship with his father permeates almost everything he wrote. It took an American brewery in Texas to come up with a Kafka beer. The label for Martin House Brewing’s seasonal Kafkaesque, an “imperial smoked black rye oaked raspberry IPA,” looks like a menacing still frame from Orson Welles’ 1960 take on Kafka’s The Trial. How a beer that’s "nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical" has become marketable in today’s world is in itself Kafkaesque.
“Kafkaesque,” like “Orwellian,” is one of those literary descriptors that transcends the writers who created them. You’d have to read Thomas Wolfe to understand "Wolfean," which describes his prose style, but Kafka’s work produced a single word that describes not just the frustrating absurdities of modern life that control his characters but how their dangerous and illogical patterns also control us. His stories make physically active metaphors of these powerful absurdities in stories like “The Metamorphosis,” his most personal comment on how he felt himself a failure in his father’s eyes. Its first sentence introduces us to a hero, Gregor Samsa, who “awakens from uneasy dreams” transformed into a giant dung beetle. Gregor “could not risk standing up” to his father, and near the story’s end, he’s forced to flee from his father, intent on squashing him with a shoe. In other stories, his heroes are controlled by industrial or government powers that invariably torture them. As an insurance adjustor, one of Kafka’s first jobs, he was tasked with determining claims to workers damaged by machines. In “The Judgment,” he meticulously details an elaborate and gigantic science fiction-worthy torture machine at work. He’s also often credited with foreshadowing the Holocaust, which he missed only because of his early death, in 1924, not quite 41 years old. During the war, his three sisters died at Auschwitz and in the Lodz Ghetto, the forced-labor “city” comprised of Jews and Roma.
My students and I stayed for our month in Prague’s Vinohrady neighborhood in a pension that in World War II had been taken over by Nazis and used as a nursery for infants stolen from their Czech mothers, peasant kids to be raised as part of the New Reich that would prevail. Seen as a sort of extension of the German homeland, the Czech Republic was spared the destruction suffered by its northern neighbor, Poland. Only the Americans bombed Prague, once an accidental 5-minute assault by 62 planes meant to be part of the destruction of Dresden but that instead killed 637 Czechs and left another 11,000 homeless, and a Sunday morning bombing that targeted industrial sites. There’s hardly any tangible evidence in Prague of the war, only an eerie sense of the quiet cleansing of its Jewish population, most pronounced in the New Jewish Cemetery, where I’d gone in search of Kafka’s grave, past a long wall lined with plaques memorializing concentration camp victims who left no body to be buried. Each plaque contains a name, a birth date and death year, and the place name of where they died: Terezin, Auschwitz, Maidanek, Treblinka, Sobibor. One of the saddest, most desolate and beautifully dark and meditative places in Prague, the New Jewish Cemetery was established in 1891 with a capacity for 100,000 graves because the original Jewish cemetery was full; it’s now lushly overgrown with lots of room for more graves. But not only are there rarely more graves to prepare, there’s hardly anyone to care for those that remain: 117,000 Jews lived in the Czech Republic in 1930; at least 97,000 died in the Holocaust, and most of the rest fled. Today, about 5,000 live in Prague. After the war, another kind of purge expelled three million German speaking-Czechs, which would have included the Kafkas, were they not all dead by then.
Kafka’s presence is especially pervasive in Prague’s Old Town, where he was born and spent most of his life just a few blocks from the Old Jewish Cemetery, where the oldest grave is from the early 15th century, and where you’ll find lots of tourists. Around town, you can buy Kafka-branded chocolate, bottle openers, boxes, stationery, glasses cases, a Kafka mini-bust, and all manner of Kafka-themed cards and books and maps that will show you how to find the Kafka Museum; the sculptor David Cerny’s "MetalMorphosis"—a shining 2-stories tall mirrored bust of Kafka that rearranges itself continuously; the Kafka Restaurant on Kafka Square; the Kafka Society; Kafka Hostel; and where Kafka lived, worked, went to school, drank, hung out, watched plays, and met his first girl friend. Some of the sites are still there; others have been redeveloped, like the enormous International Hotel, built on the spot where he lived while writing “The Metamorphosis.” In the building where Kafka’s father once owned a haberdashery is, today, the Torture Museum.
Whoever prepared the best barbecued chicken I’ve ever tasted will forever remain a mystery. But the memory of that taste will linger as I wonder when something close to it might come along again: moist yet solid, an unusually bright smoky flavor, with a slightly orangish sauce that wasn’t so much sweet as it was compelling.
Because I was new to this job of judging a Kansas City Barbecue Society-sanctioned competition—in this case, the second annual Bohemian Bluegrass & Barbecue—I wasn’t sure how to proceed as the taste of that bite faded. It was my first taste of the day, which would include samples offered consecutively of barbecued chicken, ribs, pork, and brisket, and I didn’t know what to do with the rest of the breast that sat before me, on a bed of finely shredded lettuce, or that it would remain, at day’s end, so indelibly marked as so good. At home, I’ve been a certified North Carolina whole hog cooking judge since the 1980s. For our competitions, I was used to sampling every hog cooked, and when there’s 75 of them and you have to take a bite with no sauce, one with sauce, and also try the skin, you learn to go slow and not fill up on the first good thing you taste. Today, with 20 cooking teams, each competing in all four categories, I figured to be looking at a minimum of 80 tastes coming up over the next couple of hours. So I passed on taking a second bite of the best barbecued chicken I’ll ever eat.
Because I wasn’t sanctioned as a KC judge, I was sitting in as a visiting judge, at a table of six that included a Swede, a Nederlander, an Estonian, a German, and a Czech. Maybe because I was from a different judging culture, maybe because of my Southern accent, I’d been invited to lead the judges’ pledge at our organizational meeting. We all stood, raised our right hands and swore in unison that each of us did “solemnly swear to objectively and subjectively evaluate each Barbecue meat that is presented to my nose, my hands and my palate,” so that “truth, justice, excellence in Barbecue and the American Way of Life may be strengthened and preserved forever.”
In the break before official tasting began, I wandered with a few of the judges out by the Vltava River, which was dotted with swans and tour boats. With a post card view of Vysehrad Castle across the river, we sat at a picnic table in harsh sun with Svijany drafts, another of the excellent unpasteurized beers brewed in the village of its name, this one since at least 1564. It reminded me of the Bernards I’d bought at my neighborhood Billa grocery the night before: “bottle conditioned” (with a metal-fastened cork) and made like all of the best Czech drafts with no additives, only water, hops and barley malt and fine yeast. The Estonian invited me for next year to judge a KC-sanctioned competition back home that’s built around an ice fishing tournament. As we strolled back to the dark pre-fab hall where, with four other tables of judges, we’d determine the day’s winners, he seemed nearly possessed by the memory of his first taste experience. He was 5, and his grandfather had smoked a pig in the family sauna: “For six weeks he dried the pig with salt and spices, and then in February he stopped up the chimney to our sauna and smoked that pig for a week. We couldn’t use the sauna all that time of course, but I’ll never forget that first bite, when he sliced it off that pig and gave it to me—my first taste memory.” He’s been searching, he adds, for something comparable all these years.
In a few minutes, I’d taste that divine barbecued chicken, but even as I chewed, it didn’t seem like such a big deal—it was simply my number one so far, with a bunch more to taste—mainly because I hadn’t before this day much thought about barbecuing chicken as a competitive skill. Still, I’d like to think that ultimately I went with the winner, BBQ Wiesel from Germany, or at least 2nd place, Southern Dutch BBQ from the Netherlands, who also placed second overall—although pictures on their respective Facebook pages make their barbecued chicken look too dark—and that one day I’ll get to sample their barbecued chicken again, to make certain. But I don’t even know if they were among the ones I tasted—at the end of our chicken-tasting round, I discovered that we’d only be tasting 6 to 9 of the entries from each category. Suddenly, with my minimum required bites down to 30 or so, everything changed, and as we too soon were at the briskets, I was wanting that first barbecued chicken back on my plate real bad. Like all the leftovers that would come after, it had already gone into a bag for someone’s dogs.
The first Bohemian Bluegrass and BBQ Festival, in 2015, boasted an outstanding lineup of Czech bluegrass bands, including the Rustic Robots, with Ralph Schut and Zdnek Roh from G’runs switching instruments, and Schut’s brother Christopher on bass. For the 2016 Bohemian fest, I looked forward especially to the bluegrass.
I try hard not to be a barbecue snob, but for us, barbecued chicken is no more in the conversation about barbecue than is brisket. I had signed on, really, for the bluegrass and to see what these international cookers could do with real barbecue. The bluegrass, however, got cancelled, and it shouldn’t really have been a surprise that what got served to judge as barbecued pork wasn’t anything like what we do at home, where the first rule is that it has to be whole hog. (At the judges school I attended, one of the students asked what to do if someone was found to be cooking a shoulder. “You’ll run into that once you get west,” the instructor said, “like over in Alamance County, and you’ve got to taste it and pretend like it’s barbecue and go on to the next one.”) KC rules for cooking pork, however, permit Boston butt, Boston roast, picnic and/or whole shoulder—whole pig not even allowed!—that, after being cooked, “may be separated and returned to the cooker” and submitted for judging as “chopped, pulled, chunked, sliced or a combination of any of those.” Of the tastes I got, three slightly resembled in appearance any kind of Carolina barbecue, but they each were a darkish shredded mess, hardly edible. I’d like to think for those three I tasted from the bottom on the list of competitors. For scoring, it was hard to compare these pitiful offerings with the exquisite tender pork medallions (Gecko BBQ, from Switzerland, won first in this category) but which, as the True ’Cue folks back home would say, might more properly be called smoked pork than barbecue, which in the Carolinas and much of the South—whether whole hog or not—isn’t a verb or adjective. Barbecue Is a Noun, Hayes Bostic and Austin McKenna’s 2005 documentary, is but one of many public statements on this subject.
Still, there’s much to be admired in the way these KC folks do it. They insist on blind judging and allow only meats cooked over wood, wood pellets, or charcoal, whereas the Carolina competitions are almost exclusively waged over gas grills; the judges meet the cookers face to face during the tastings; and it seems sometimes the trophies are just getting passed around to a few fellows from Newport, all gas cookers who’ll try to convince you “it’s in the sauce.” If you can find a wood cooker or two at a Carolina competition, they’re usually sited away from the rest, so their smoke won’t be a bother. But as Smokey Colwell said derisively at the ’cue judges school I attended nearly thirty years ago, “Any sumbitch with a timer can cook a pig with gas.”
The closest thing to what we think of as barbecue for Czechs is koleno, roast pork knee or knuckle, served bone in, and huge—as much as two pounds in a “serving.” It’s like a kind of mini-pig-pickin’, an East Carolina tradition of laying out for diners a whole hog on the grill on which it was cooked, though these days he’ll most likely be headless and legless. Still, koleno, like that hog, is served whole in a natural mix of meat and fat, which you have no choice but to eat in our kind of barbecue: lean and fat chopped up together helps define whole hog ’cue, though too much fat might give a restaurant a reputation for serving trash in its ’cue, instead of “just enough.” With koleno, you get to determine the mix. My friends Luke and Erica described theirs as a knobbly mass of meat, fat, and bone served on a cutting board, cooked to order with nearly an hour’s wait—plenty of time to sample a couple of house brews. It was served with a sauce not made from vinegar but dark beer at the oldest brew pub in Prague, U Supa—established in 1459, enlarged in 1529, renovated in 1722, and expanded in 1809—at 22 Celetna Street, near Franz Kafka’s birthplace. The meat, they recalled, was “sort of wrapped in bands of fat” that tasted “more like a very tender ham, like a Smithfield, only not as sweet.”
It’s this taste for fat that leads us to fatback and skins and to adding chunks of fat to our vegetables and why they’re over-cooked—to let that fat saturate!
Franz Kafka was a vegetarian who chewed every bite at least 10 times.
What exactly defines ’cue today is hotly contested but only by those who don’t know that it’s whole hog cooked slow over wood, augmented perhaps with a bit of someone’s secret recipe vinegar-and-peppers sauce. I live in eastern North Carolina, what we call "East Carolina, the 51st state," where you grow up knowing this truth, despite all the ruckus about shoulders, hams, briskets, ribs, mutton, hash and sauces made with ketchup, mustard, vinegar or by celebrities. Home is in swampy flat-lands in a cross-roads community five minutes up US 258 from Farmville, which New Orleans food writer Rien Fertel calls the "gateway to Pitt County, the literal and spiritual home of whole hog wood cooked ’cue." But he miscounts, says we have three—it’s 5!—of the country’s last dozen or so whole hog establishments that still make their ’cue with wood, smoke and fire. “Pitt County,” he writes, “could not be better named”—we look for taste behind any sign that advertises "pit cooked barbecue.” We’re “the barbecue belt” of the U.S., Fertel notes, home to the nation’s “oldest vernacular barbecue tradition,” where we’ve been slowly smoking whole hogs for nearly two centuries.
It’s a tradition, of course, that’s been around for much longer, caveman or Biblical in its origins, this cooking a small animal over wood. It’s still the primary method of cooking for 40% of the global population. Hogs seem to have most always been a New World favorite: Columbus brought 8 on his second voyage, the first voyages to Roanoke in the 1580s established hogs in eastern North Carolina, and we’ve been eating too much barbecue ever since: we’re also the buckle of the stroke belt of America, leading the nation in strokes for over thirty years.
The formulation and defining of bluegrass in the U.S. coincided with the golden age of barbecue in the Carolinas in a post-World War II economic boom that increased leisure time. Working-class fans of country music in the American South could more easily afford radios and record players as well as more comfortable cars, which, with better roads, assisted in the quick spread of barbecue joints. These were easy to build or cart to a roadside location, with no hot grease required. Hogs and the community-building celebrations that centered around hog killings had been central to this rural culture for decades, and it wasn’t a difficult leap to adapt pig-pickin’ basics for mass consumption. John Shelton Reed, the main man of ’cue studies, suggests that even the translation of “barbecue” to BBQ and ultimately to the totemic “Q” was a result of a shorthand created by local entrepreneurs to make their handmade roadside signs easier to construct.
As commercial ’cue was getting started, bluegrass was beginning to distinguish itself from country music, even as the latter was becoming an institution in Nashville. A host of factors had pushed country music into its modern era, without the “and western” descriptor. In the post-war boom, radios became more accessible and country music stars were popular hosts of early t.v. variety shows. To augment earnings, they pushed 45 records, both on the air and in live performances that became mainstays of rural fairs, political rallies, railroad whistle-stop tours, and fiddlers conventions. Originally called hillbilly music, it was a style first associated with string bands formed in local communities of the Depression era South, especially in the Piedmont regions where Appalachian refugees came in large numbers to find work in textile mills. Bill Monroe’s penchant for wearing fancy suits was one way of distancing him and his music from that hillbilly sound, and it was copied by bands like Flatt and Scruggs’ to help distinguish this new music even as it established a kind of dress that still marks many of the most traditional bluegrass bands.
For the better part of its first 25 years, bluegrass remained mostly a Southern thing, and pickers were hardly aware of how their sound had so thoroughly captured the emotional imaginations of Czechs. It began to escape the confines of the deep South in the early 1970s, with the formation of the New Grass Revival band and the release of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s guest star-studded album Will the Circle Be Unbroken? An important part of the subsequent embracing of bluegrass and traditional music by the American folk music movement was one of New York City’s most talented and endearing musicians, Citizen Kafka, who was named Richard Shulberg (1948-2009) at birth. Classically trained, he turned his violin into a fiddle while still in his teens, organizing his first bluegrass band while at a summer camp. His was the “brilliant, chaotic brain” behind the Wretched Refuse String Band, which included a young Tony Trischka on banjo. Although contemporary to what became known as the “new grass revival,” Wretched Refuse put its own spin on bluegrass. Their 1978 LP Welcome to Wretched Refuse! used Bill Monroe songs, one critic said, “as if Lord Buckley had waylaid them on the way to the recording session and plied them with illicit substances before handing them on to Slim & Slam,” best remembered, perhaps, for their 1938 hit "Flat Foot Floogee with the Floy Joy." The band performed bluegrass and old-time for over twenty years, using a “floating roster of as many as 80 musicians whom he considered to have been members of the band,” recalls banjo player Andy Cahan. He was 16 when he was welcomed into the band by Citizen Kafka. He recalls that “Richie was a zany extrovert, brimming with curiosity and knowledge about lesser known realms of culture, humor, and music, all of which gave Wretched Refuse its unique character. He struck me as a sort of a creative madman with a heart of gold.” Citizen rewrote lyrics to traditional songs, sometimes on the spot during a performance. “Bluegrass purists,“ Cahan adds, ”might have resented the way the band changed things around but Wretched Refuse wasn’t authentic to anything but itself.” Citizen Kafka and his band enjoyed the open air band competitions staged in the 1970s at the South Street Seaport in Manhattan, which attracted the city’s best traditional music players. Today, he’s most remembered as Pat Conte’s co-producer of the “The Secret Museum of the Air,” a roots and world music radio program that ran from 1990-96. Truly an incredible collection of rare, vintage recordings—most meticulously cleaned by Citizen before he played them for broadcast—each show is themed and comprised from his extensive collection of 78 records and reel-to-reels from the first half of the twentieth century; one of the best is a collection of early North Carolina string bands. Shulberg, who loved all kinds of authentic—that is, non-commercial—music, explained to a Japanese t.v. interviewer how, in 1976, he took his name: “Citizen is a member of the universe of man, everybody’s together. And Kafka, that’s the alienated individual.”
Band of Jakeys’ Tony Rose raises his eyebrows, suddenly interested in this tourist when I say I’m from North Carolina. “Do ya know of Tar’bro then?” he asks in a beautiful Scottish accent.
“Sure,” I say. Tarboro, chartered in 1760, is what passes for old back home. It’s a straight-shot 20 minutes north from Fountain, at 112 feet “the peak of Pitt County,” where my wife and I live and operate Fountain General Store, an occasional bluegrass performance venue in a 1916 brick building, “pretty old,” we think. The Jakeys are on break during their gig at the Beer Museum’s recently opened performance club across a street from the metro stop at Namesti Miru, just a few blocks from U Vodarny, and I’m enjoying a pint of Matuska, one of the best of the new local unfiltered, unpasteurized beers (think Red Oak, perhaps, but at $2.50 a pint). The Jakeys aren’t bluegrass; they play a kind of alt-Americana rock loud to a tourist crowd in a tourist club, mostly young men from Germany, the U.K., and U.S., likewise loud and gleefully passing joints around thanks to a 2009 law that okays possession of small amounts of virtually any of the drugs still illegal in the U.S. It’s not the sort of behavior you’ll find at U Vodarny, although there as in most public places, cigarette smoking is also allowed.
“And the Tar River Boys?” he wonders and tells me how he learned to play banjo in the 1990s by listening to a homemade cassette tape the Boys had made on someone’s front porch. “Ya can hear the dogs yappin’ in the yard, ya know?” he says, smiling broadly at the memory and adds that he wishes now he’d brought his banjo along for the night’s show.
But in all the years since, he’s wondered that banjo player’s name. “Buddy Zincone,” I’m glad to tell him. Buddy’s kept bluegrass going in East Carolina jams at his nearby Greenville home since the late 1960s; his daughter Alice plays bass and sings with Tommy Edwards’ Carolina Lightnin’; she co-wrote the Rhonda Vincent song “Last Time Loving You” with Rick Lafleur, the Grass Cats’ banjo player who moved from Canada to North Carolina because of its bluegrass scene. They’ve all (except for Vincent) played Fountain General Store often.
As I’m talking with a Scotchman about how he learned to play banjo from a local hero he’s never met, half a world away, it suddenly feels like one big bluegrass world, where the passionate pockets of fans’ll show up in sometimes the most surprising places. And it’s easy to see how bluegrass has grown and flourished outside the margins of pop music in the Czech Republic isn’t all that different from how it’s been back home.
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