The high lonesome sound meets the shtetl

Margot Leverett and the Klezmer Mountain Boys play Club Helsinki on Saturday night

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., May 26, 2003) – On the surface, the old-time, twangy string-band music of Appalachia and the American South and the bittersweet, klezmer sounds of Bukovina and Ukraine might seem worlds apart.

But for clarinetist Margot Leverett, who has spent the last 20 years
immersed in the Old World sounds of the shtetl, there always seemed to be a common ground between the high, lonesome sound of bluegrass and the poignant cry of klezmer.

“Every once in a while I pick up something to complete my musical education, and by chance I ran across a CD of Ralph Stanley and I loved it so much I listened to it a million times,” said Leverett in a recent phone interview from her apartment in Queens, N.Y.

“I especially loved the fiddle fills, so I started trying to figure out how to play them on the clarinet.”

Leverett, who has been active in klezmer since the mid-1980s as a solo artist and bandleader and as a performer with groups including Mikveh, the Klezmer Conservatory Band, the New Orleans Klezmer All Stars, and the Klezmatics, began wondering what klezmer would sound like in a string-band format instead of the typical arrangement laden with accordion and brass.

So she pulled together a few musician friends who were versed in bluegrass and klezmer to explore the confluence of the two musics in a rehearsal. “We just started trying to see what would happen,” said Leverett. “We played a klezmer tune, and then a bluegrass tune, and we put them together, and it was gorgeous.

“It wasn’t what I pictured at all. I had in mind this lighthearted, happy band. What came out when we played was this beautiful, soulful music of the heart. To hear klezmer with all strings gives it an Old World, deep, Hungarian sound, together with a richness. Bluegrass has that same soul. They just fit together amazingly. It was incredible.”

Thus was born the Klezmer Mountain Boys, whose fusion of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and the shtetl comes to Club Helsinki (413-528-3394) on Saturday at 8:30. Bottom of the Bucket will open the show.

The Klezmer Mountain Boys includes bassist Marty Confurius, who helped launch the klezmer revival with Andy Statman (who has also explored the relationship between bluegrass and klezmer) in the mid-1970s, and who has performed with Vassar Clements, Jerry Douglas and Bela Fleck; guitarist Joe Selly, who has played with Phoebe Snow, Vassar Clements and Tex Logan; fiddler Kenny Kosek, who has performed with Jerry Garcia, John Denver and James Taylor; and mandolinist Barry Mitterhoff, who has played with Tony Trischka, Jorma Kaukonen and Hazel Dickens.

“Amazing things emerge when you put these two musics side by side,” said Leverett, whose mastery of the classic, immigration-era style of playing, as heard on her solo album, “The Art of Klezmer Clarinet,” has garnered her the reputation as the greatest living exponent of the style.

“We’re putting klezmer as it is right next to bluegrass, where they reflect each other and bring out what is deepest and most beautiful, and also the humor.”

Leverett says that in retrospect, it’s not surprising that klezmer and bluegrass would blend naturally. “They’re not really that different – rhythmically, they’re sometimes very similar,” she said. “Freylekhs [fast klezmer dance tunes] and the fast bluegrass tunes have quite a bit in common, and both feature virtuoso fiddle playing.

“I think the reason people don’t think about them together is that these gospel-singing, Southern mountain white people wouldn’t have anything in common with these immigrant Jewish people. But actually there are amazing similarities. They’re both religious people from isolated, rural communities whose music speaks to their lives.

“Bluegrass music really spoke to their nostalgia for home, and many of the songs are about regrets over having left the farm and longing for home. Many of the Jewish tunes are the same -- aside from the political upheavals and dangers, Jews were leaving Russian shtetls and moving to cities for economic reasons.

“The more I read about bluegrass music and the people who made it, the more I see these parallels. In klezmer you have music passed down from fathers and sons and family bands and quirky and amazing personalities like Naftule Brandwein and Moyshe Oysher. It’s the same in bluegrass and country music -- they have analogous characters.”

A Midwestern native who studied classical and avant-garde music at Indiana University, Leverett played various styles of music before discovering klezmer. She played clarinet, saxophone and bass in rock bands in her younger days, and after graduation she went to Paris and played with Algerian Berber musicians.

But there was always something missing. “I knew I was looking for something, but I didn’t know what it was,” she said.

She was at a recording session in New York one day working on an avant-garde project when the drummer mentioned that he and some friends were starting a klezmer band, and asked Leverett if she’d like to audition for the clarinet seat.

“I knew what klezmer was -- I had heard it -- but I had never tried to play it,” said Leverett. But she went to the audition on the same day that singer-accordionist Lorin Sklamberg auditioned for trumpeter Frank London, violinist Alicia Svigals and drummer David Licht, and by the end of the session, the Klezmatics were born.

Like many of the musicians of the klezmer revival, Leverett found herself a mentor. In her case it was clarinetist Sid Beckerman, who learned to play from his father, Shloymke Beckerman, who with Dave Tarras and Naftule Brandwein was one of the three most influential immigrant-era klezmer clarinetists.

“Sid was waiting for someone to pass the tradition onto. and he treated me like a daughter, which in some way was even more valuable to me than the tunes themselves,” said Leverett. “He and his wife were just so supportive, and they made me part of the tradition. He was just like a dad.”

Like some of her peers, Leverett’s discovery of the tradition went beyond the realm of the musical, penetrating her very spirit and soul. In her case, as a self-described “Midwestern WASP,” this led her to study the religion and culture underlying the music. She eventually underwent a conversion to Judaism.

The greatest challenge with her new project has been using the clarinet to play bluegrass fiddle tunes – although in another striking parallel, it mirrors the role of the clarinet in klezmer, where the instrument usurped the violin as the lead instrument in the early 20th century.

“This is my instrument,” said Leverett. “I’ve tried to play piano and string instruments, but they’re just not part of my body the way clarinet is. If I want to play bluegrass, I have to play it on clarinet and alto saxophone.

“I think it sounds great. It’s unexpected, and audiences respond well to it. It works. Someday I hope to be a virtuoso bluegrass clarinetist.”

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on May 30, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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