Come and listen in to a radio station where the mighty hosts of heaven sing
Turn your radio on, turn your radio on.
If you want to hear the songs of Zion coming from the land of endless spring
Get in touch with God, turn your radio on.
… thus began the first all-bluegrass radio program in Boston, in the fall of 1973. I know this because I was the creator of, and DJ for, “The Orange Blossom Special” which aired until I graduated from Brandeis University in the spring of 1975.
How I came to love bluegrass music is a long story. But what brings it up now is our Guest Artists for the February 22nd Rock Shabbat, Nefesh Mountain – a band which creates and performs Jewish bluegrass music. I asked Cantor Alexander if I could write this introduction to help you understand and enjoy something completely different from any Rock Shabbat service we have ever had.
Bluegrass is folk music – music that grows from the experiences of life, played on instruments that were available in the South in the middle of the 20th Century. Guitar, banjo, fiddle, bass; instruments which could be bought or even made inexpensively. Drums are not usually part of a bluegrass band; the banjo’s fifth string provides the rhythm. Sound mixers are often not available, so members of a bluegrass band move back and forth around the single microphone, allowing each singer and each instrument the opportunity to take center stage. Most important, bluegrass is moving music: I challenge you to sit still in your seat when it’s playing!
When you listen to bluegrass, there are two things to focus on: the instruments themselves, which take turns with solos like another American music style, jazz; and the vocal harmonies, which are unique in the way each voice mixes with the others to create a complex sound. The results may not sound like music you are used to hearing, but if you give it a chance, I think you’ll like it.
One major component of bluegrass music has always been gospel, which presented a challenge for me as a Jewish Studies major – at Brandeis University, no less. I stayed away from playing gospel on my show, but I admit that I heard some of the most beautiful and haunting bluegrass music when I listened to gospel albums. Which is why I was first intrigued, then excited when I heard about Nefesh Mountain. They have taken this southern, Christian-oriented style of music and turned it into authentic, Jewish music. Honestly, I wasn’t sure it could be done, but I have listened to everything they have recorded and… it works!
Since we began Rock Shabbat, we have been blessed with many talented Jewish artists sharing their music and their vision with us. We have been flexible with the “Rock” part, sometimes pushing more into Jewish folk music than rock and roll, but with each new sound we have learned more and more about the possibilities of Jewish prayer. Nefesh Mountain will expand our musical horizons in a completely new direction, too, and I can’t wait to pray with them.
Come join us on February 22nd at 8 p.m. If your knowledge of bluegrass music goes no further than “Dueling Banjos” and the theme song from the Beverly Hillbillies, I think you will be pleasantly surprised at how much more there is to hear. And if you ever catch me at a karaoke night, get the DJ to play “Rocky Top” and stand back – I blow it away!
Rabbi Don Weber