Last Sunday’s Armistice Day marked the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, which led to the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian empire of which my grandfather Max was a citizen before he emigrated to the United States in 1914. He left his home in Berezhany, Ternopil, in what is now Ukraine, as a result of the typical Hunka family desire to avoid conflict (as I like to think of it; that sounds better than fleeing military service); with typical Hunka family luck, however, the United States entered the war in 1917, three years after he arrived in New York. I mention this only to suggest that my long-time interest in Central and Eastern Europe has a somewhat personal origin, and though I’ve never been to Ukraine myself, about twenty years ago I spent a year in the region, so I’m always drawn to headlines and literature about these borderlands between Europe and Asia.
It’s also worth noting that as a young, unskilled, and uneducated laborer fleeing the violence in his country, he wouldn’t have been allowed into the United States had Donald Trump anything to say about it.
Karl Kraus, the great Viennese satirist, called the Habsburg Empire of the era an “an experimental station in the destruction of the world,” and the years following his death in 1936 continued to bear him out. It was only following the cessation of hostilities in 1945 that, cognizant of the harrowingly destructive wars they’d suffered over the previous 31 years, Europeans theorized that closer economic and cultural ties like those promised by a European Community may prevent further conflict. Until now, they’ve been right; there have been no European land wars in more than 80 years. At solemn Paris ceremonies marking Armistice Day last Sunday, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel appeared to appreciate that; obviously, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, both of whom managed to show up late, did not.
The nationalistic tendencies among Europe’s nations, and especially within the various communities of the Habsburg Empire, were one of the most important ingredients in the impetus towards the violence of 1914 and the despair that came after. Alas, these tendencies seem to be once again leading to greater conflict, as Anne Applebaum recently reported in this important essay for last month’s Atlantic magazine. Applebaum traces both the personal and the historical implications of this polarizing nationalist tendency, common enough here in the United States as it is in her adopted country of Poland. It is a sobering read in the wake of last week’s Armistice Day festivities; you can find it here. And me? I suppose I’ll be lifting a glass to the memory of the Habsburgs — as ambivalent as their downfall was — at Cafe Katja this afternoon.
In doing a little background viewing as I read The Ukrainian Night: An Intimate History of Revolution, Marci Shore’s 2017 history of Ukraine’s Maidan protests and their aftermath, I came across the Netflix documentary Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, released in 2015 and directed by Evgeny Afineevsky. Unlike Shore’s book, Afineevsky’s film covers only the events of the 2013/2014 winter in Kyiv during the Maidan, but it is nonetheless illuminating. Citizens in Western Ukraine were fighting at first for their right to join the European Union — but later, to align themselves with the human rights and democratic traditions of the West — in the face of Russian-led efforts to keep Ukraine within the Russian sphere of influence. The film, developed from the viewpoint of the protestors, may prove an inspiring example to those who have become cynical about the efficacy of protest against a totalitarian, corrupt government. (That’s already the case in Venezuela.) But in Ukraine, this protest had a high human cost, as the documentary reveals, and even today, four years later, the future of Ukraine, still engaged in a war with Russia in its eastern regions, is far from certain. (And what impressed me was the extent to which Kyiv resembled the great cities of the former Habsburg empire such as Vienna, Budapest, and Prague, rather than Moscow or even Belgrade.) Of just as immediate relevance is the fact that, as Timothy Snyder pointed out in The Road to Unfreedom, Ukraine served as a laboratory for Russia’s disinformation campaign strategies, which they then rolled out for the U.S. election of 2016 — not to mention Paul Manafort’s suspicious ties to the region.
As Shore mentions in the preface to her book, “I hope that the chapters of this book about the war in the Donbas can play some small role in providing a human face to yet another tragedy of the kind Neville Chamberlain described as a ‘quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.'” Winter on Fire certainly does so; it lacks detachment, but not passion; those seeking a more objective view of these events will have to look elsewhere. The film was a 2016 nominee for the Best Documentary Oscar, as well as a nominee for the “Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking” Emmy. You can watch the documentary on Netflix; the trailer is below.
If you need a little help getting into the holiday spirit this year, I suggest you head on down to the Sheen Center on Bleecker Street on Monday, December 10, for a complete performance of Olivier Messiaen’s monumental 1944 piano work Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus (Twenty Gazes on the Infant Jesus). Originally composed for Messiaen’s long-time collaborator Yvonne Loriot, the two-hour, 20-movement work will be gang-performed by five prominent pianists — Anthony de Mare, Margaret Kampmeier, Taka Kigawa, Blair McMillen, and Marilyn Nonken — and accompanied by what the web page for the concert describes as “visual projections, compiled by Fr. Frank Sabatté, C.S.P., Senior Curator of The Gallery at the Sheen Center.”
The Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus is Messiaen’s highly personal celebration of the Nativity, and, as a devout Catholic, the significance he placed upon Christ’s birth. It is not the stuff of cheery Christmas carols and songs around the Christmas tree: in it, Messiaen draws on the iconography of Medieval and early Renaissance religious art and literature in the telling of the Christmas Story in which the birth of an extraordinary infant is marked with joy, love and awe tempered by a portentous sense of what is to come in adulthood. The individual movements, with their special titles and Messiaen’s own short, poetic explanations, are like staging posts in the great theological story, musical “stations of the cross,” if you will, leading to a conclusion which is both terrifying and redemptive.
Messiaen is an acquired taste, though I’ve acquired it, and you may acquire it as well. You’ll be able to decide for yourself on December 10. I’ll see you there; tickets available here.
I spent quite a bit of time this week listening to a new album from Eden & John’s East River String Band, and a few minutes yesterday urging you to buy yourself a copy. On Wednesday I also threw in Cephas & Wiggins’ great performance of “John Henry.”
As long as I’m posting about classic American music, I close out the week with the below Ann Charters recording of Joseph Lamb‘s “Ethiopia Rag” (1909). Although ragtime piano has become almost synonymous with the music of Scott Joplin, this obscures the fact that there were many other ragtime composers and pianists who deserve their time in the limelight as well. Lamb is certainly one of these; along with James Scott, he and Joplin form the triumvirate of great ragtime composers. Born in 1887, Lamb lasted the longest, passing on only in 1960, but not before recording this album at his Brooklyn home a year before his death.
Charters studied with Lamb for a short while (her husband was Samuel Charters, who wrote The Country Blues, and she herself went on to write the first scholarly biography of Jack Kerouac); she recorded “Ethiopia Rag” along with several others on this album, released nearly a decade before Joshua Rifkin’s landmark Joplin recordings. I’ll have the melody dancing in my head later today at Cafe Katja. See you there, or here next week.
When American roots music is celebrated, it’s usually done so with the Ken-Burns-like solemnity of PBS specials like American Epic — eminently worthwhile, but also studded with the kinds of celebrities (Willie Nelson, Jack White) who can tart up the joint enough to guarantee a least-embarrassing rating. All well and good, and if PBS can do its bit to put this kind of music in the public eye, then sure, you can have my five bucks a month to keep the squirrel running in his wheel. But really, this history-minded survey class favors the past rather than the present, and if you want to hear this music and see it performed today — live, as it was meant to be heard and performed — then you have to look elsewhere. And the next best thing to hearing it live is to listen to contemporary musicians who still feel it important to keep it out there, as entertainment of the highest quality rather than a trip down memory lane. Not that it’s going to make anybody rich, as this band recognized 30 or 40 years ago.
So it was with extraordinary pleasure that I sat down last night with Coney Island Baby, the new album from Eden & John’s East River String Band, a local outfit based in the deep East Village, which has been performing “a vast spectrum of traditional American Blues, Country and Pop music ranging from the late 19th to the early 20th Century” for more than a decade. To call the 17 songs on the album “roots music” — in the sense that PBS will tell you that true roots music is exemplified by groups like the Carter Family — is somewhat misleading. Eden Brower, John Heneghan, Robert Crumb, and Ernesto Gomez, the core group of the ERSB, have gathered together here a wide-ranging repertoire, from traditional blues and rags to more recent (relatively speaking) standards like “Nobody’s Business if I Do” and “He’s Funny That Way.”
This is not particularly concert music like formal ragtime, nor, when it was first written and performed, was it meant to be. Back in the day, before the Victrola, the only way to hear music was to either hear it live or play it yourself: pick-up bands who took possession of a gazebo or bandstand in a small American town for a parade or barbeque, roadhouses and juke joints in more remote regions of the south, an occasional visit from a touring minstrel show, or a few hours just sitting around with a few friends on somebody’s porch. (It’s something that Charles Ives knew well.) Coney Island Baby, at its best, puts you in the room with Brower, Heneghan, Crumb, Gomez, and the rest for spirited, relaxed musical good times.
Brower fronts the band with a solid, whiskey-dampened (if not whiskey-soaked) voice, a bright, mature sensual full-bodied woman’s tone instead of the girlish puerility of most contemporary female singers (as the father of two girls about ten years old, I’ve heard enough of these to last a lifetime). She’s bawdy and even a little beyond on “Moonshine,” “Skinny Leg Blues” and the delightfully dirty “Adam and Eve,” though capable too of some sensitive nuance on songs like “Nobody’s Business,” “He’s Funny That Way,” and maybe my favorite song on the album, “Arlena.” She’s backed by Heneghan on a strong, energetic guitar that offers a few of the rougher-in-the-best-sense moments (he gets his due on his sole solo cut, “Desert Blues”) and Crumb’s vibrant and subtle ukelele, mandolin, and banjo, while Gomez contributes a terrific harmonica, especially on “Moonshine.” The “Sometimes They Show Up If They Feel Like It Players” — Pat Conte on fiddle, Eli Smith on banjo, Jackson Lynch on fiddle, Geoff Wiley on bass fiddle, and Walker Shepard on guitar — fill out the one or two instrumentals on the album.
It’s worth pointing out that the term “American roots” is a little specious. The music that the ERSB performs may be characterized as distinctly American, but it’s only because that we’ve grown to hear it that way. This music didn’t magically spring up from the indigenous American soil but instead was the product of the music that was brought to these shores by a variety of immigrants and exiles, voluntary and involuntary: it has its origins in the music of Europe, but equally in the musics of Africa, South America, Asia, and even Hawaii. It doesn’t take long for enthusiasts of this music to go down the paths of its true origins. Heneghan does so in his own John’s Old Time Radio Show, often joined by Crumb, which I highly recommend; along with recent episodes about yodelling and ukelele music, Heneghan has also recently featured programs on early recorded African, French, and Brazilian music. Check it out, and do your part for immigration.
If you want to support this kind of music and the research that inevitably follows once you’ve developed an interest, why not cough up the monthly sawbuck that buys you membership in Smithsonian Folkways Recordings? Better yet, support your local band by purchasing a few of these fine offerings. And best, play them for your kids. My daughters Goldie (10 years old) and Billie (a year younger) joined me in listening to Coney Island Baby yesterday evening, and immediately started snapping their fingers and tapping their toes along to Eden, John, and the rest of their stylish gang. They loved it. So I’m doin’ what I can to corrupt the next generation. Order the album for a measly $14.99 (they’re throwing postage and handling in for free) and tell ’em Goldie and Billie’s dad sent ya.
An informative 2015 interview with Eden Brower and John Heneghan can be found here. And below, the East River String Band performs at this year’s Brooklyn Folk Festival: