Lovers of the banjo, fiddle and mandolin blend cultural identity and religious faith to create a uniquely American sound
This Passover, my friend Lester Feder sat at the head of his family’s Seder table, strumming away on his banjo and belting out Hebrew lyrics with a big-voiced Appalachian twang. As a bluegrass and old-time musician myself, I was familiar with Lester’s wailing sound. As a Jew, I’d been to countless Seders. But the transposition of these traditions was like nothing I’d ever imagined.
For Feder, a Northern Virginia native, fusing his American identity with his religious heritage through music was a natural development. “I feel far more connected to the old time traditions of the upper South than the Ashkenazi traditions of Eastern Europe,” he said. “I wanted to make a Seder that was my own.”
“Jewgrass,” as this fusion is sometimes called, is played by a diverse group of old-time and bluegrass musicians. Among them are New York City Jews who grew up during the 1960s folk revival, orthodox Jews who sing Hebrew prayers set to bluegrass melodies and klezmer musicians who infuse their music with Appalachian fiddle tunes. These lovers of the banjo, the fiddle and the mandolin have found a uniquely American way to express their Jewish cultural identity and religious faith.
Feder, who holds a doctorate in musicology from the University of California, Los Angeles, says African slaves brought the banjo to the United States and with it, the frailing style (banjo strings are brushed downward with the back of the fingers or nails) associated with old-time music. Old-time, the precursor to bluegrass, developed in America during the 19th and early 20th centuries, incorporating the musical traditions of African-American, Irish, English and Scottish communities. Bluegrass emerged in the 1930s when Kentucky native Bill Monroe fused old-time music with blues and jazz influences to create a new sound. Unlike old-time, which emphasizes the fiddle and melody, bluegrass music’s distinctive features are instrumental solos and bluegrass banjo—a hard-driving style in which the player picks with three fingers.
Over time, this music became associated with a romanticized notion of rural America: people sitting on their back porches strumming the banjo, living “authentic” country lives. Jews were drawn to this music, partly because of the romanticized ideal. “Jews are a religious minority in largely Christian country,” Feder says. “Southern music has been a way for them to connect to that mainstream American identity.”
Bluegrass lyrics celebrate country living, but many of the people singing them are city folk. Jerry Wicentowski grew up in Brooklyn in the 1960s and fell in love with bluegrass during the folk revival. For religious Jews like Wicentowski, there was a rebellious element to being a fan of the music. Bluegrass became his escape. During the week, he studied at an insular yeshiva; on the weekends he played guitar in Washington Square Park.
After earning a Master’s degree in Hebrew and Semitic Studies and then drifting away from Judaism, a series of life events led Wicentowski to return to religion. Eventually, he found himself a man with two strong identities: a Jew and a bluegrass musician. He began to fuse the two. Wicentowski worked on an album with mandolin virtuoso Andy Statman called “Shabbos in Nashville,” which featured Jewish songs in the style of 1950s bluegrass. Later, he founded his own band, Lucky Break. The Minnesota-based quartet bills itself as “uniquely American, uniquely Jewish,” by mixing “the stark beauty of Appalachian music with Shabbat Z’mirot,” or Sabbath songs.
Robbie Ludwick, a Hassidic Jew from Silver Spring, Maryland, is the only Jew in his current band, The Zion Mountain Boys. Ludwick lives in an orthodox community, davens daily and spends most of his free time playing the mandolin. His band mates have impressive independent music careers but are drawn to the unique sound of Ludwick’s music—songs that blend traditional bluegrass with Hassidic melodies called niguns.
Ludwick connects with the themes of redemption, faith, and fortitude expressed in Southern music. Before Ludwick found his way to Orthodox Judaism, he was a heavy metal rocker and self-described misfit. Today, he’s a father of three. “There’s a love of family, nature, and the land in bluegrass,” he says. “It’s wholesome.”
Jerry Wicentowski’s band also has non-Jewish members. Because Lucky Break has a largely Hebrew repertoire, he writes out lyrics phonetically. Still, it’s not easy to fit Hebrew lyrics to bluegrass melodies. Hebrew is a terse, sharp language; Hebrew twang is an oxymoron. “Structurally, it’s hard to put the stress on the right syllable,” Wicentowski says.
Religious restrictions also make it difficult for some Jewish bluegrass musicians to build a career. Judaism forbids playing musical instruments on Shabbat, which spans from sunset Friday evening through sunset Saturday evening. This is especially problematic in the summer months, when most of the bluegrass and old time festivals are held and the days are longer. Because of these restrictions, Lucky Break and The Zion Mountain Boys play most of their performances at Jewish venues and occasionally reach broader audiences.
Margot Leverett and the Klezmer Mountain Boys, a klezmer-bluegrass fusion band based in Manhattan, play various venues around New York City. Klezmer is the secular, festive music of Eastern European Jews, and its sound has much in common with fast-paced fiddle tunes of old-time music and the hard-driving banjo of bluegrass. Margot Leverett, the band’s clarinetist, calls it “dancing music.” It’s hard to feel unhappy—or sit still—when listening to a live performance. But Hassidic niguns and old-time ballads that Leverett also loves, share a darker connection.
Historically, she says, “Jews and Southern Appalachian people have a lot in common. They’ve been driven out of their homes, have lived hard lives, and have used music for strength.” Leverett’s vibrant blue eyes tear up when she talks about the displacement that poor Southerners experienced in the 1920s, when they were forced to leave their homes and seek out work in the cities. “There’s the same homesickness in Jewish folk songs,” she says.
“American life allows different groups to be inspired and influenced by one another,” Wicentowski says. “This isn’t an uncommon thing in American experience and it’s not uncommon in the Jewish experience,” he adds. “Jews have done this wherever we’ve gone over the millennium.”