Share this article

print logo


Roots keep nourishing America's music.

Folk, bluegrass, the blues, gospel, country western, Tejano, Cajun, zydeco and Native American are the many splendid stylings that evolved from our ancestors and generations before them.

This musical Darwinism is the grist for "American Roots Music," a four-part PBS series (not scheduled locally yet by Channel 17), as well as four, one-hour episodes on VHS and DVD, a hefty coffee-table book laden with photos and text, a four-CD boxed set and a single-disc sampler, all of which hit store shelves Tuesday.

Jim Brown, whose past ventures into the realm of musical documentaries have won him a fistful of awards, heads up this ambitious project, the itinerary of which spans the 20th century, and pays particular attention to the early years of the century, when the advent of radio and recording technology brought the music of indigenous people of mountain, delta, hill and dale to the grasp of the rapidly urbanizing masses.

It's a daunting work, and by virtue of its vastness runs the risk of being criticized for perhaps being too simplistic and definitely exclusionary. Lots of folks in Chicago and Buffalo will wonder why polka was somehow overlooked.

Academic maulings aside, "American Roots Music" is rich in archival footage of some pretty interesting musicians and attempts to make chronological sense of this nation's musical melting pot.

For every Robert Johnson, Mahalia Jackson and Woody Guthrie there are a Sam Phillips, Bonnie Raitt or Pete Seeger to add a contemporary touch to historical perspective. It's this intimacy that makes the series compelling.

For example, there's Raitt's erotic take on the growling, ramrod blues of Howlin' Wolf, whose menacing physical appearance mirrored the macho resolve of his music:

"There's no one who can live up to that promise of sweaty maleness," said Raitt.

"From the moment I saw him I said, "Take me, take me, take me' - and I'll be in love with him the rest of my life."

Add in Willie Nelson's short-and-sweet on the mass appeal of honky-tonk legend Hank Williams:

"He knew how to write about life on terms we could all understand."

And Pete Seeger on Bob Dylan: "If he hadn't been a songwriter he'd have made a damn good novelist because he sees the contradiction in things."

Other contemporaries engaged in four hours of roots gazing, to name a few, are Marty Stuart, Ricky Skaggs, Robbie Robertson, Doc Watson, Keb' Mo', Arlo Guthrie, Mavis Staples, Merle Haggard, Ralph Stanley, Gillian Welch, Steve Earle, B.B. King, Bela Fleck, Ray Benson, Studs Terkel, Earl Scruggs, Kitty Wells, James Cotton, Marshall Chess and Koko Taylor. Kris Kristofferson is narrator.

Highlights of this four-part digest:

Part 1 whisks you from popular acceptance of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, an African-American choral group from Reconstruction-era America, to the early blues of Robert Johnson and Bessie Smith; also, the birth of the Grand Ole Opry and early country stars such as Uncle Dave Macon and Roy Acuff; Thomas Dorsey sees the light and does a career shift from bawdy blues, creating a hybrid of the blues and spirituals called gospel.

During Part 2, Gene Autry and his cowboy ballads become a cultural staple of the Depression years; Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys introduce Texas swing and its textures of blues, tradition and modern; Okie Woody Guthrie sings of hard times and the common man; Bill Monroe invents bluegrass, described as folk music on overdrive; radio popularizes the blues of Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Lockwood Jr.; Sam Phillips, believing he could make a billion dollars if he could find a white artist who could sing the blues, stumbles onto Elvis Presley.

Part 3 shows Chicago as home to a blues migration from the South, with such names as Muddy Waters, Little Walter, James Cotton, Willie Dixon and Howlin' Wolf. B.B. King produces the royal flush for blues popularity as "The Thrill Is Gone" tops the charts in 1970; African-American vocal groups blaze new gospel trails; the Weavers defy the rigidity of McCarthyism and become a beacon for a coming folk revolution that showcases the likes of Bob Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio.

Cajun and zydeco, the native music of southwest Louisiana, captures a national audience in Part 4; the border of Texas and Mexico incubates Tejano, or Tex-Mex, a potent regional music that borrows a bit from several cultures; new directions in roots music are forged by such musicians as banjoist Bela Fleck, hip-hop-gospel performer Kirk Franklin and alt-country artists Steve Earle and Gillian Welch.

In its immensity, "American Roots Music" is billed as a landmark project. Its cachet is illuminated by a roster of collaborators such as the Library of Congress, Smithsonian Institution and National Endowment for the Arts, as well as the Rock and Roll and Country Music halls of fame.
"American Roots Music," the book, is less wed to chronology and milestone and more focused on the anecdotal.

Picture Bonnie Raitt and bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell goofing with friends at the Philadelphia Folk festival in 1970.

Blues greats Willie Dixon, Memphis Slim and Big Joe Williams cut a New York City sidewalk pose in 1961. Pete Seeger, with ever-present banjo, poses with the family at his Beacon, N.Y., home in 1958.

Blues harmonica great James Cotton tells how Sonny Boy Williamson handed him the reins to the legendary bluesman's band in 1949 or 1950, and how Cotton, then a youngster, foundered at the helm, leading to the band's demise in a couple of months.

If there is a weak partner in this undertaking, it's the four-disc retrospective, which annoyingly groups songs by genre instead of the subtle, more interesting, interpretation of the years. Still, there's lots of great music just briefly touched on in the series, and the liner notes are handsome, well organized and expressive.

The beauty of the information age is the ability to enter a cultural forest and quickly sculpt a grove.

According to producer Brown, conception to completion took 3 1/2 years -- a mere blip when considering this project's scope.

The release of "American Roots Music" may not be a watershed event but it does comes at a critical time for this country, with Americans of all stripes and principles compelled to unite, recoil or seek out a new meaning in lives homogenized and stuffed sausage-like and headfirst into economic indexes.

A return to the roots -- "where the deep waters flow," as Ricky Skaggs puts it -- is just the prescription.


There are no comments - be the first to comment