An Old-Time Adventure in the Czech Republic
In March of 2022, Susan Platz and I had a harrowing adventure in the Czech Republic. We were invited by the old-time fiddler Radek Spindler to teach and perform for the 30th Fiddle Farm festival in Ceska Lipa. A few years ago, he invited old-time masters Brad Leftwich and Linda Higginbotham as musical guests. It goes without saying, Susan and I were extremely honored to represent old-time music in the Czech Republic so we eagerly accepted the invite.
The “Fiddle Farm” is Radek’s school for old-time fiddling. It consists of mostly Czech fiddlers who are obsessed with American old-time music. Some of them also play bluegrass and most, if not all, play traditional Czech tunes and songs. They have a wonderful thing happening there that most of us are totally unaware of.
We arrived in Prague after a long flight full of mask-challenged passengers and flight attendants who were equally unconcerned. Oh well…
So our hosts were as excited to see us and as we were to meet them. They were even donning t-shirts with pictures of Susan and I on the front. We left the Vaclav Havel airport which I remember seeing in the Frank Zappa documentary and drove two hours into the cold night. We traveled into the countryside just outside the town Ceska Lipa. We saw many deer en route and countless, large peculiar wooden poles protruding crookedly from the ground. They are used for growing hops, a very important ingredient in one of the world’s greatest beers.
When we arrived at our inn where the daily intensive workshops were to take place, we were greeted with chocolates and Pilsner Urquell beer, the ambrosiac staple of the region. Never have I had a better beer in a more magical moment. We played several tunes with our hosts before retiring for the evening.
The following week was utterly fantastic and unforgettable. With two translators we taught about six hours a day and melted many brains and fiddle bows. Susan and I taught some classic old-time repertoire, as well as some more obscure tunes. The fiddle workshops centered around our emphasis on traditional bowing techniques as well as rhythm fiddle seconding. We were able to get them rocking their bows like Tommy Jarrell and Uncle Bunt Stephens for the first time.
In the evenings we would jam with the participants and on a couple occasions Radek and his old-time band would perform in Civil War costume. They call themselves the 9th Illinois Regiment String Band, named after an actual calvary regiment that were comprised of Czech soldiers. Their multi-instrumentalist banjo player David Koucky has an uncanny resemblance to Abraham Lincoln. In fact, he often performs as Abraham Lincoln during their shows!
At the end of our week with Fiddle Farm, we performed in the city of Ceska Lipa. It was quite the production. We performed at a music conservatory that was built during the Communist era. The Fiddle Farm band officially released their first CD there. The governor of Ceska Lipa attended and broke champagne on stage. It was filmed with multiple cameras (with a crane shot even!) and the audience was tightly packed. We had live on-stage English to Czech translation by our workshop student Mirek Patek and the adrenaline, surprise and excitement helped us forget about our sniffles and exhaustion.
Following the after-concert fanfare, we headed back to our cozy little inn only to find all of our students together with fiddles in hand. They wanted to honor a little request of mine: to hear traditional Czech music. The joy and tears were flowing for the next several hours. The late hours of the evening became a night of song, laughter, dancing and homemade alcohol. It was the ultimate closing chapter to one of the greatest weeks of my old-time musical life.
The next morning Susan and I woke up terribly ill. I thought a knife had been lodged deep in my lungs. The sniffles and “allergies” were actually COVID. We were not able to say our final farewell in person to our new Fiddle Farm family. Instead we were taken to Prague where we canceled our flights, quarantined and slept while navigating multiple bureaucracies hoping to get back home. We were thrust into the worst week and a half of our lives after just experiencing real magic during the sublimely beautiful Fiddle Farm week. Luckily my fiddle student back home Caitlin Reed used her experience as an infectious disease doctor to help us survive the fiasco and get back home. She is what we call “bad ass.” Now we’re back to tell the tale and we wouldn’t trade it for anything!
We are dying to go back.