Elliah Heifetz
Photo: Courtesy of the artist via Bandcamp

Elliah Heifetz Is a ‘First Generation American’ Who Found His Identity in Country Music

Americana’s Elliah Heifetz finds himself in 21st-century America and wonders how he got here and what it all means on First Generation American.

First Generation American
Elliah Heifetz
1 April 2022

We first-generation Americans all have the same story. We never feel like we belong to either the old world of our parents or the new one into which we were born. On the positive side, this gives us a double vision. We see life through two sets of eyes and are grateful for our opportunities. It doesn’t matter if one is descended from Chinese, Russian, or Mexican ancestors; we know life is better than if our parents hadn’t emigrated.

And how do we know this? Sure, it’s primarily because of the stories we’ve been told about the family’s previous hardships. But the strongest and most compelling evidence comes to us in the form of popular music. As a kid in America, one only had to turn on the radio to hear the truth. Music spoke to us and connected us to our peers, even if it wasn’t made by people whose heritages were like ours.

Ellilah Heifetz references contemporary places and things such as “Costco” and “Chuck E. Cheese”. His personal story shares enough universal truths that first-generation folk from anywhere or anytime would know precisely what he’s talking about—big subjects like alienation, identity, capitalism, love of family, and such, even if the specifics are new.  

Heifetz embraces folk, country, and Americana as his own and finds commonalities between his situation with those roots artists from other places and times. His reminiscences of eating canned tuna and ersatz cheese from the dollar store or his sister having a candle-lit single donut for a birthday cake recall the stories of poverty found in the past of Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and so many others. That’s especially true of the most personal songs (“Living Proof”, “Anxiety”, “First Generation American”). When Heifetz sings of love for his mother and the sacrifices she has made, his music fits right in with that of other country artists.

While Heifetz comes from five generations of klezmer musicians, his melodies come from American sources. One can almost guess what movie soundtrack or old record he was listening to while penning his more modern lyrics about the state of the nation today. (Is that Marty Robbins casting a shadow on “This Land”?) But because each song has a distinct sound, there is nothing that seems especially derivative. He namechecks a litany of famous duetters on “Country Harmony” that captures this spirit of past influences still found in music today, even while ending with a yodel that mockingly reveals what’s history is history.

Heifetz is a funny guy, and part of what makes First Generation American so appealing is his constant barrage of humorous one-liners. He throws out phrases like “People try to fly, but they never break the ceiling” and “I saw the back of a neon sign, and just like the flag, it was made in China” as if they weren’t rich with social commentary and more personal statements. Heifetz sings things like “I’m burning money like its calories”, “I was raised by the Constitution and the cracks in the Liberty Bell”) as if they weren’t important. Of course, humor has always been an essential part of country music, and Heifetz’s use places him squarely in this tradition.

Even Americans whose families have been here for hundreds of years understand that the relationship between place and personal identity is complicated. Heifetz’s use of his family story and the larger culture in which he finds himself allows him to address the situation creatively. Like the rest of us, he finds himself in 21st-century America and wonders how he got here and what it all means. Maybe it’s all just a hoot and a holler, but that’s okay.

RATING 8 / 10
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