By Lee Bidgood
Toward the end of 2007, while in the Czech Republic for a yearlong stretch of dissertation research with Czech bluegrassers, I heard about Kosodrevina. I had to ask around at first, as I wasn’t sure what it was — there’s a bluegrass festival in Slovakia? Up on top of a mountain? In the middle of winter? I should make clear that I wasn’t surprised to learn about a Slovak event of this type. While focusing on the Czech scene, I heard about how bluegrass-related music has flourished in Slovakia as it has among Czechs, starting with nineteenth-century interest in the American Wild West, the tramping movement starting ca. 1900, the presence of American military radio that brought country music (including bluegrass) to Czechoslovaks starting in the 1950s, the Folk and Country fad of the 1970s-’80s that brought the banjo and country songs to pop prominence, and the current presence on the bluegrass scene of artists, instruments, and technology from central Europe.
Over time I learned more about the event, the Kosodrevina Muzikantský Kemp (Musicians’ Camp). It takes its name from the lodge where it takes place, a communist-era structure that, inside, resembles the prefabricated and slowly crumbling dormitories where I stayed while living as a student in Prague. This lodge or chata is at 4,900 feet above sea level on a mountain named Chopok in the Lower Tatras, a mountain range of the Inner Western Carpathians in central Slovakia. Asking around, I
heard stories: of legendary jams, equipment laboriously hauled up the mountain — and someone who arrived on Friday night after the chairlift had closed and hiked through the snow (with instrument, of course) over a mile, up 1,000 feet in elevation, in the snow. It seemed a place, a gathering, a phenomenon that led to the creation of vivid experiences and stories. I was intrigued.
While back in the Czech Republic as a Fulbright Scholar in 2019, I was invited to travel to Kosodrevina and sit in on fiddle with an impromptu band thrown together for the occasion. In addition to keeping up with the top-shelf musicians I was supposed to perform with, I decided to document the event so that others could have a sense of Kosodrevina, the place, the people, and how it all comes
together. I was also interested in gaining new perspectives on the upland and mountain areas of eastern Czechia and western Slovakia, as this area fits within the geologic/geographic frame of the Appalachians/Carpathians International Conference, a project that I have participated in since 2015. In my ongoing research into this border/mountain area I am paying attention to the neighborhood of the Czech city Ostrava, center of a coal mining industry that is winding down — and a node of bluegrass activity. Members of two bands from the Ostrava area were a part of the 2019 Kosodrevina gathering, indicating how people in this region were making bluegrass music across the political boundary and the mountains.
I’m not a filmmaker — co-producing a feature-length documentary (Banjo Romantika, dir. Shara Lange, 2015) made that clear to me. However, I am an ethnomusicologist for whom sound and visual recording has been a central fieldwork methodology. Recently, I have joined with others in my field in thinking seriously about how field recording, instead of being an extractive process in which cultural resources are mined, might be instead a process through which resources for the community are created.
Video is a powerful way to connect members of the worldwide bluegrass scene — video captures details of performance practice and social setting that allow a person in the U.S. or elsewhere to compare and contrast Czech and Slovak approaches to bluegrass with the way they make music. As I post files to social media platforms such as YouTube, I am participating in the documentation of and discourse on music that non-academic participants take part in every day. Video is much more accessible to community members than the academic articles and book that I have produced. Media that I create also address one of the most clearly articulated requests that I have received from Czech bluegrassers — to “…tell our story,” to show folks in the United States and elsewhere the vitality of the Czech (and Slovak) bluegrass scenes, and perhaps to validate their non-contextual bluegrass practice.
I was learning on the go in 2018-2019, figuring out how best to use the equipment I had to capture usable images and sound. I practiced shooting in low-light conditions, using settings that limited me to a shallow depth of field, and using manual focus — autofocus didn’t work in low-light situations like Prague’s Balbinka club, where I recorded the Czech-Slovak band G-Runs and Roses. At the Balbinka and at Kosodrevina I shot some of the stage footage from the side and thus my focusing moves back and forth across the line of musicians, highlighting them in turn, which can emphasize the individual focus on singers and instrumental soloists. I shot mostly in black-and-white to minimize the variables I had to pay attention to. As I started editing the film, I used the fact that some of the outside, establishing shots were in color to emphasize the separation of the weekend world of Kosodrevina from the normal life going on outside.
I am always itching to cram in more context — to tell more stories about all of these fascinating individuals, their bands, the communities where they grew up, the makers of the instruments they are playing, and so on. When collaborating with filmmaker Shara Lange on Banjo Romantika, this desire to explain sometimes conflicted with Shara’s commitment to observational methods and her desire to show rather than tell. In this project I’ve indulged in a bit of explanation, inserting title cards with information about people and groups. I’m striving to find a balance between modes of engagement that privilege knowing as explanation and knowing as understanding, keeping in mind the different frames for reception that Czech, Slovak and other viewers might bring.
The 2022 edition of the Camp took place March 18-20, with a large “STOP WAR” banner joining the event’s name and the Slovak flag on the stage backdrop. Kosodrevina is 170 miles from the Ukrainian border. Czechs and Slovaks have been feeling the effects of the war as they care for refugees. Slovak musician and manager Roman Ač is the organizer of the Kosodrevina event. On Monday, May 16, 2022, he posted to Facebook a report from his work housing displaced persons: “A young lady, with two plastic bags in her hand, and 3- and 10-year-old boys. She was told a few hours ago that her husband had been killed. War is terrible” (author’s translation).
This film is still a bit blurry in places. Still, I hope that it will join other media projects help to create connections and understanding across borders, and make our sometimes abstract ideas about universal humanity more concrete. People living in the neighborhood of the war in Ukraine seem a long way from those of us who enjoy mountaintop musical experiences in Appalachia. Still, many folk there share joys that seem very similar to the ones that resonate with us in Tennessee.
Lee Bidgood is associate professor and graduate coordinator of Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music Studies in the Department of Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee State University.