Oklahoma Hills

I wasn’t born in the Oklahoma hills. The Guthries’ lyrics rang truer in high school, when my dad sang them with our family string band. But even though both my parents grew up in Stillwater, the cowboy’s life never much occupied them. My father’s parents emigrated from Germany after reading the Westerns of Karl May, a German novelist who never saw most of the places he wrote about. And my mother, the conservatory-trained daughter of an agricultural economist and a schoolteacher, sings more Schubert than Autry.

Nevertheless, my folks have a stake in the state’s cowboy ethos. The love of nature in these lyrics, the romantic yearning for the landscape—these were passed down to me. The Guthries’ rolling hills were my dad’s Cimarron; their blackjack trees were the forest across from my mom’s suburban house. Years later, running those woods and winding supine down that red turbid river made me feel I belonged.

The music itself took longer to reach me. But fiddle tunes, like cattle drives, aren’t bound by state lines. In high school, I started looking beyond my family band into the burgeoning bluegrass, old-time, and western swing scenes in my hometown of Brooklyn. Folk music is being reborn again in New York, and many of my favorite musicians there carry tradition a step past inheritance. That’s what I was going for in this video—“Oklahoma Hills,” intact but askew.

Eric, Angus, Dom, Eli, Griffin and I had never played together as a group until about twenty minutes before the camera started rolling. But there’s a certain joy in collective improvisation—moments when peculiar melodic and rhythmic streams seem to flow from the same source. The Oklahoma hills are not our home, but they’re our headspring, the source of this music.

“Oklahoma Hills” was originally written and recorded in 1944 by Woody and Jack Guthrie.

Hans Bilger (bass, vocals)
Eric Boodman (fiddle)
Eli Brown (trumpet)
Griffin Brown (drums)
Dominic Coles (guitar)
Angus Mossman (tin whistle)

Most of Hans’s pony-riding experiences occurred at the Jamaica Bay Riding Academy in Queens, New York. Oh, those halcyon seventh grade days. Write to him at hans.bilger@yale.edu.

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