Elliah Heifetz (pronounced “High-fits”) knows the value of a good song. He wouldn’t be here without him. The New York-based lyricist releases his first country album, first generation americanthis Friday, April 1. Produced by Andrija Tokic, the album defiantly claims country music on behalf of people whose authenticity within the genre is questioned.
Heifetz’s grandfather, a musician, was also a Holocaust survivor. His previous life as a conductor of mandolins allowed him to curry favor with one of the Nazi guards. Bored and tinkering with instruments looted from Jewish homes, the guard asked if any of the inmates could play.
With swollen fingers after enduring the inhuman conditions in the detention camp, he managed to play the guard’s favorite song from memory.
“The guard was so moved that he actually changed my grandfather’s placement. Instead of going to the death camp, he ended up going to a labor camp,” Heifetz says.
While first generation american does not deal explicitly with the Holocaust, the lesson of history informs Heifetz’s music.
“Stories that made me believe in the power of music. Not to be corny or anything, but they’re really foundational in how I approach music on a daily basis.”
Heifetz also sees a connection between his grandfather’s past and American folk music. “When you watch ‘The Devil Has Come Down to Georgia,’ who says the devil is the devil? What if that was actually another prison guard’s code in the United States?”
To that end, Heifetz wants to use his debut album to take stock of Americana and country music as a whole. first generation american questions what it means to be Americana and what it means to play music associated with American roots.
“Part of Americana is the obsession with nostalgia and authenticity. Anyone who claims there’s some kind of authenticity factor in country music that would keep someone with a funny name like mine, someone who’s not from the southern or western United States or wherever, that’s crazy When you look at the history of country music, it’s literally a bunch of mixed sounds of various immigrant cultures that all had different values.”
Heifetz points to the fact that country music is, in fact, the music of rural people of European descent from various countries brought together in urban environments during the Industrial Revolution. “There is not a single piece of the sounds of country music that is authentic and original in the short history of where it became most popular.”
Heifetz draws parallels between his experience as a first-generation American (he is the first of his father’s children to be born in the United States) and the history of country music as a story for dislocated people. .
“It was an exercise in accepting that myself and like saying, ‘I’m just going to claim my underdog status as hard as I can.
But, if anyone were to question Heifetz’s credentials, they would point to the long line of klezmer musicians in his family, the folk music of the Jewish people of Eastern Europe.
“We see other marginalized groups totally fighting for access to country music. I don’t know if it’s that hard for me to fight for access,” he says. “As evidenced by my album, I have definitely insisted that my status is first generation American, but you may not know that I am Jewish. I want to check my own privilege there.”
Heifetz felt he had something to prove with First generation American. “I have to prove that I can make music that sounds as folky as anyone else right now. So I really like to talk about what makes me different. I don’t regret doing this, but what makes me different is what drives my deepest thoughts and feelings, so why wouldn’t I write about it?”
Initially, Heifetz tried to avoid his fate, hoping to get out of the family music-making business. But after an internship at stereogum, he realized that he wanted to make music rather than write about it. A playwright friend of his hired him to write songs for his musical. Following their interest in early music, the couple wrote a folk musical about the Dust Bowl, called Dust can’t kill mewhich was presented at the prestigious New York Fringe Festival and again at the New York Musical Theater Festival.
Heifetz is currently working on a “country rock western” about a “lady bounty hunter” who tries to break free from a contract with the local sheriff. Musical comedy, Death of the Desert Roseis currently optioned for production.
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