Texas Bohemia Revisited (CD and DVD)

Various Performers

Trikont US-0384

CD Disc 1: 1. Joe Patek Orchestra - Wonderful By Night;  2. Shiner Hobo Band - Grinders Polka;  3. Shiner Hobo Band - Orphan Waltz;  4. Red Ravens - Little Bit Of Heaven;  5. Praha Bors. - Corn Cockle Polka;  6. Shiner Hobo Band - Frankie & Johnny *;  7. Joe Patek Orchestra - Mexico;  8. Louis & His Old-Time Band - Pepita;  9. Victor Caka Orchestra - Trail In The Forest;  10. Red Ravens & Czechaholics - A Ja Sam *;  11. Red Ravens & Czechaholics - If I Were A Bird *;  12. Joe Patek Orchestra - Born To Lose;  13. Shiner Hobo Band - Springtime In The Rockies;  14. Vrazel'S Polka Band - Beautiful Shepherd Polka;  15. Victor Caka Orchestra - Oh! Meadow Polka;  16. Louis & His Old-Time Band - Alamo Schottische;  17. Shiner Hobo Band - Fraulein;  18. Joe Patek Orchestra - Red & White Polka;  19. Moulton Jam Session - Scooters Polka *;  20. Praha Bros. - Tic-Toc Polka;  21. Joe Patek Orchestra - Deer Waltz;  22. Shiner Hobo Band - Shiner Song *;  23. Red Ravens - So Ein Tag So Wunderschon Wie Heute.

DVD Disc 2: ;  1. Shiner Hobo Band - Krasna Amerika (Film);  2. Shiner Hobo Band - Shiner Song *;  3. Shiner Hobo Band - Angel Polka;  4. Shiner Hobo Band - Krasna Amerika;  5. Shiner Hobo Band - You Are My Sunshine;  6. Shiner Hobo Band - Blue Skirt Waltz;  7. Shiner Hobo Band - Frankie & Johnny *;  8. Red Ravens & Czechaholics - If I Were A Bird *;  9. Red Ravens & Czechaholics - A Ja Sam *;  10. Red Ravens - So Ein Tag So Wunderschon Wie Heute *;  11. Tuba Meisters - Wer Soll Das Bezahlen;  12. Tuba Meisters - Blue Skirt Waltz;  13. Tuba Meisters - Shiner Song;  14. Tuba Meisters - Julida;  15. Moulton Jam Session - Scooters Polka *;  16. Moulton Jam Session - If I Were A Bird;  17. Schubert, Peter - Old Ulm - Kleiner Rueckblick.

* Asterisked audio CD tracks derive from asterisked film footage on the DVD.

Cover picture Texas Bohemia Revisited is the third CD of music from the German and Czech (Bohemian and Moravian) communities in Texas, compiled for Trikont by writer, musician and broadcaster Thomas Meinecke.  Previous volumes were Texas Bohemia (US-0201, issued in 1994) and Slow Music (US-0222, 1996).  A decade-and-a-half is a long time between volumes in a series, and I wonder - perhaps quite wrongly - whether the CD might not have been compiled if Peter Schubert had not taken Thomas Meinecke back to Texas, to appear in and facilitate the film Krasna America.  Whatever the road to this package's appearance, though, it will be welcomed by all fans of the sometimes raucous, sometimes lyrical, often strangely moving music that it presents.

There are similarities between the musics and cultures of the German and Czech communities, most obviously in terms of rhythm (sometimes, indeed, the oompah-pah of cliché, but usually a lot lighter, more lilting, and even more swinging than the stereotypes would predict.)  There are also similarities in the band line-ups - saxophone and brass choirs of varying sizes, members of the tuba family, surprisingly funky drummers, usually one or more accordions, sometimes electric guitar and bass - and in the dances done to the music - waltzes, two-steps, polkas, schottisches, and the slow dances (usually, it seems, accompanied by covers of Anglo pop and country hits) from which Slow Music takes its name.

The four Tuba Meisters, filmed playing at a festival in Fredericksburg, seem to intend their music for seated listening, and to consider it a presentation of German heritage, of which the Tyrolean hats and shorts are perhaps also a manifestation.  Their music is played on two tenor, a baritone and a bass tuba (these may not be the correct technical terms, but they convey the sound of the ensemble) and is surprisingly and delightfully light and lyrical.

Otherwise, however, the bands heard and seen here play music that's of and for their communities, and especially for the dancers.  Watching the bonus footage, which is by some distance the most valuable part of a valuable package, makes the music's functional nature abundantly clear, even if only one couple takes to the floor when the Shiner Hobo Band play Blue Skirt Waltz.  (It may be, in this instance, that - as people used to do on Islay when one local couple quickstepped - the sitters-out are simply choosing to admire the dancers' moves.)

That this is participatory music, with little separation between the musicians and their audience, is made clear in many ways by the film footage: the ladies standing below the stage, encouraging the Red Ravens and Czechaholics; the queue (for food? for the toilets? for CDs?) behind the Shiner Hobo Band; and above all, perhaps, when the accordionist on Scooters Polka says 'Hey, I like your partner,' to an off-screen dancer mid-number.

If appearances are to be relied upon, most, though by no means all of the audience, and especially of the dancers, are middle-aged and older.  (This is not the only time when I was reminded of Shetland dances.)  The Red Ravens and Czechaholics were filmed at the 22nd Annual Victoria County Czech Heritage Festival, and it seems that some people see the need for a preservationist agenda, but even this Heritage Festival self-evidently features living, community-based music.  The area where there's a clear and urgent need for preservation is that of language: the Texas-German dialect is down to some 3,000 speakers, and Krasna America includes footage of linguist Hans Boas, addressing a meeting of mainly elderly people about his project for documenting a language he realistically expects to become extinct.

Food and drink - meaning, of course, beer - are important aspects of dances in both the Czech and the German communities, and a certain laddishness, not unrelated to alcohol, is sometimes apparent in the musicians' self-presentation; promotional t-shirts reading 'Czechaholics Drinking Team' and 'Czechaholics Groupie' tell their own story.  The Shiner Hobo Band, sponsored by Shiner's famous Spoetzl brewery, incorporates elements of self-parody - hobo costumes, the leader conducting with a sink plunger, novelty instruments - which nudge the music a little way towards what one might call the Adge Cutler approach to traditional music.  Only a little way, thankfully; the musicians' playing is assured, the instruments are skilfully balanced and their ethos is serious, even on numbers that seek to amuse.  (One such is Frankie and Johnny, whose croaking, 83-year old singer is better appreciated visually than on an audio-only track.)

I seem to be spending more time on the DVD than the CD.  That's because the visual images add new dimensions to one's understanding of the music and its contexts; it's important, therefore, to say that the CD contains much fine music, especially the tracks by the long-defunct Joe Patek Orchestra, and A Little Bit of Heaven, the Red Ravens' version of a swamp-pop hit.  Of particular interest are two schottisches by Louie and His Old-Time Band, recorded in the 1940s, and featuring very tight and punchy brass arrangements.  Led by Louis Scheel, whose 93-year old brother is interviewed in Krasna America, the Old-Time Band was 'Herr Louie and His Little German Band' until 1941, when global events mandated an abrupt change of name.

German communities' lives in Texas, and elsewhere in America, were considerably affected, of course, by the two World Wars, and by other political pressures: given their dominance in the brewing industry, Germans were never the Prohibitionists' favourite ethnic grouping.  The German-speakers interviewed for the patchwork of oral histories in 'Krasna America' favour a narrative that emphasises striving, and getting on well with their neighbours (Anglo, Comanche, Czech, Hispanic and African-American.)  I suspect - without having done any research, so I'm willing to be told otherwise - that this construction of memory glosses over some of the stresses and tensions of life as it was actually lived.  In Luckenbach ('immer noch ein Treffpunkt für spät-hippies, freaks und bikers'), 'Big Bo' Kern recounts his mother's memory of having to go behind the barn to speak German during the Second World War; and two of the Shiner Hobo Band haven't forgotten what happened in Czechoslovakia in 1938 and afterwards:

On the other hand, the fast-paced polkas by the Praha Brothers feature David Fraga, a Tejano trumpet player who sings in phonetic Czech; sometimes, it seems, the melting-pot does reach the melting-point.

Speaking of intercultural understanding, I should mention that the narration of Krasna Amerika is in German, as is much of the interview material (Meinecke and Schubert's encounters with the Czech subculture are mostly conducted in English), and that there are no subtitles, either in German or any other language.  My command of German is fragmentary, but I was able to get the sense of most of the conversations, with the occasional aid of a dictionary; it's only fair, however, to warn anyone who has even less German than I do of a potential problem.

As noted above in connection with Slow Music, Czech and German musicians have incorporated Anglo pop and country music into their repertoires (in this collection, hear, especially, Born to Lose and the GI-back-from-the-Rhineland's lament Fraulein; elsewhere, Leroy Matocha's brass and accordion-heavy arrangement of Cotton-Eyed Joe on Texas Bohemia is a treat.)  Adolph Hofner became a star in both western swing and Czech music, without, to my ears, bringing much of either culture to the other, but when Bob Wills added brass and reed choirs to the Texas Playboys in the thirties, their sound seems to owe something to local influences as well as to the nationwide popularity of big band swing.

That's not the only influence that Czech and German musicians have had on other subcultures in Texas and southwest Louisiana.  Famously, the accordion was brought to Texas by German settlers and salesmen in the nineteenth century, and made its way into the local French-speaking communities, both Cajun and African-American.  Hispanic musicians and dancers were perhaps even more strongly influenced, both by the introduction of the accordion and by their German neighbours' waltzes, polkas and two-steps, which they took in exciting and creative new directions.  It's a pity, therefore, that the band seen playing at a Tejano music awards ceremony - perhaps an unrehearsed ensemble of poll winners? - has severe tuning and co-ordination problems.

'In this "hidden America",' says Revisited's press release, 'traditional sounds from Central Europe suddenly became interesting.'  That may be to underrate the music of the old countries, by applying the kind of perspective that still makes some white Americans more comfortable with the Rolling Stones than with their inspirations; but we must be glad that Thomas Meinecke's encounter with the musics and cultures of Texas Germans and Czechs, as well as inspiring travel writing, a novel, and radio plays, has generated Texas Bohemia Revisited and its predecessors.  The music is lively, warm and winning, and the performance footage, especially, is important as both entertainment and documentation.

Chris Smith - 3.12.11

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