Yiddish cowboy

I just want to talk about the fact that I listen to country music. A lot of country music. It represents the largest percentage of my music collection. I listen to it when I go to sleep at night, often for the entire night. I listen to it when I'm going to work and when I'm returning from work. I was in a country band for a year (albeit a novelty country band) and once released an album of country songs.

I mention this because this is not the sort of thing usually associated with Jews. In fact, it is so not associated with Jews that Kinky Friedman's entire career is rooted in how not Jewish country music is presumed to be.

I could mount a defense of country music. It's an extraordinarily diverse form, and it doesn't just draw from a dazzling variety of musical influences (if you have a band with a banjo, lap steel, and yodeling, you've combined African, Hawaiian, and Alpine influences), but also features an unexpectedly diverse selection of performers. I could name Jewish country performers, including Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel, Shel Silverstein, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and, in many of his songs, Bob Dylan.

But I don't need to defend country. I just need people to know that Jews are varied. We have wide-ranging tastes and interests.

I don't remember precisely when I started listening to country music. I think it was when I was a child. I had, and have, a taste for cowboy movies, and like cowboy songs very much. I grew up at the tail end of the 1960s and early 70s folk scare, and so we learned various American folk music styles in school, including square dancing and songs of the American west.

It was still a time when there were representation of cowboys just about everywhere. I watched cowboy movies for fun as a boy and with a growing interest as I got older; I began to increasingly appreciate how the genre tackled the mythology of the American west. Cowboy movies had moved into deeply revisionist and sometimes spectacularly weird territory by the 70s, and so they were less a celebration of the story of the American west than a troubled and troubling look at a time period that often was genocidal and psychotic.

I end up doing cowboy stuff now and then. I had my own cowboy show in Omaha, where I twirled guns and yodeled and sang cowboy songs and played cowboy movies for children. I wrote a play about Buffalo Bill that was produced in Omaha, and another about the Indian Congress of the Trans Mississippi Exposition that also played in Omaha. I recently learned that a cowboy poem I wrote is being anthologized in a collection of that sort of poetry.

I still dress in cowboy duds every so often, and feel usually comfortable in them. I'll probably get back to wearing them more, as casual wear, because I like them and I want to. It's my birthday today, and I might just swing by a western store uptown and treat myself to some more western gear.

But it's not just cowboy stuff for me. I listen to all sorts of country music: String groups, hobo songs, countrypolitan, outlaw country, country gospel. I listen to a lot of soul and jazz covers of country songs. I listen to country rock and rap music that borrows from country themes. I listen to cowpunk and soundtracks to blackspoitation films set in the American west and country music from Australia. I am a product of the 70s, and as a product of the 70s I grew up with working class rebel films and their music: Trucker songs, honky tonk fight songs, songs about factory workers storming off their jobs and urban cowboys drinking at corner dives.

So that's me, or a part of me, anyway. I lived in England for a little while, and that left its mark, especially in my taste for folk horror movies in which ancient paganism rises in rural English towns. I am Minnesotan, and so have a great love for local culture, including wild rice soups, plays about ice fishing, and lumberjack stories.

I try not to judge my own tastes, because we like what we like, and generally there should be no shame in feeling passion for and taking pleasure in art. I know that sometimes I seem to be a few different people, instead of just one guy, because my tastes are simultaneously so odd and so far-ranging, but they're all me.

And I know a lot of these seem really off-the-beaten path for a Jew. I was wearing my cowboy shirt and hat and discussing Yiddish with my girlfriend, and she mentioned that this might seem odd to someone passing by, a cowboy talking about Yiddish. An Irish-American cowboy walking a tiny one-eyed dog in downtown Minneapolis talking about Yiddish.

But this is also a Jew. This is really, authentically me, doing the things I like, and it would probably be worth it for people to expand what they presume a Jew is, what a Jew looks like, how a Jew dresses, what a Jew listens to, and who you might hear speak Yiddish.

Because I know I'm a little off-the-beaten path. But I'm not that off the beaten path. It's just that the path is broader and longer and, frankly, weirder, than people give it credit for.