Advertisement

Archive for Monday, October 29, 2001

Music’s history noted

American Roots Music’ traces country’s musical evolution

October 29, 2001

Advertisement

— As a folk music-loving youngster in suburban New York in the 1960s, Jim Brown caught the ear of a town newcomer while playing a picnic gig with a jug band.

"Lee Hayes, who was a member of the Weavers, heard the band, invited us over and I became good friends with him," said Brown.

A youngB.B. King is shown in this undated handout photo. "American
Roots Music," a four-part series on PBS, traces the development of
uniquely American music genres, combining archival footage of King
and others, along with newly filmed performances and interviews
with artists and scholars.

A youngB.B. King is shown in this undated handout photo. "American Roots Music," a four-part series on PBS, traces the development of uniquely American music genres, combining archival footage of King and others, along with newly filmed performances and interviews with artists and scholars.

He began helping out the ailing Hayes with odd jobs and received a rich reward.

"I loved to hang around and listen to stories about Woody (Guthrie) and Lead Belly. It was at Lee's house that I met Pete Seeger for the first time," Brown recalled.

Brown's passion for the masters of folk guided his later career as a filmmaker. Among his acclaimed documentaries is "The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time!" about the trendsetting group that included Seeger.

His earlier films turned out to be appetizers. In "American Roots Music" on PBS, he lays out the whole rich banquet, tracing the roots and evolution of folk, gospel, country, blues, bluegrass, zydeco, Tejano and American Indian music.

The four-part "American Roots Music," with narrator Kris Kristofferson, airs at 9 p.m. CST on consecutive Mondays beginning today.


"This music comes out of change, people pushing the envelope," Brown said in an interview. "It's the music of working-class America, all these different ethnic groups, but in the process blended into something uniquely American."

Four-part harmony

A bounty of archival footage is included, as are revealing interviews with musical pioneers including Seeger, Earl Scruggs, B.B. King and younger artists whose work inevitably draws from the past.

The briskly paced episodes trace an intricate pattern of how nuances from one region or artist resonate in very different kinds of music.

"When First Unto This Country," the opening hour, traces the emergence of roots music in America from its European and African origins and its transformation into such forms as spirituals, blues and country. Included are the popularization of spirituals by the Jubilee Singers and the Carter Family's role in the birth of country music.

"This Land was Made for You and Me," part two, explores the commercialization of roots music and its growing presence in movies, television and radio. The hour tracks the rise of Gene Autry and other cowboy singers, country stars including Hank Williams and social activists Seeger and Guthrie, as well as the blues route leading to Elvis Presley's first big hit, "That's All Right Mama."

In "The Times They are A-Changin'," urban migration from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago fosters a new kind of blues and produces such artists as Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. In part three as well: Bob Dylan electrifies the folk music world, which is increasingly intertwined with youth culture and politics.

Ethnic groups previously excluded from the definition of American folk music are brought into the fold in part four, "All My Children of the Sun." The flourishing of Cajun culture in southwest Louisiana, Tejano music in South Texas and the evolution of American Indian music forms is examined. There's also a peek at the future of blues, country and gospel.

Collaboration time

Brown's institutional collaborators are as impressive as the artists he celebrates and include the Library of Congress, Smithsonian Institution and the rock and country halls of fame.

According to the filmmaker, "the stars aligned" to bring the project to life in the late '90s, with Bill Ivey, former longtime Country Music Foundation chief, leading the National Endowment for the Arts, and William Ferris, former head of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Brown knew both men and their passion for American music.

"Here it was, at the end of the century, and there were these two guys in key positions in government that really had an appreciation for the this type of music," he said.

While talking to Ivey at the Smithsonian's folk life festival, Brown casually suggested the NEA and NEH collaborate on a project about "maybe the greatest cultural achievement America has come to produce."

"He said 'That's a good idea. What did you have in mind?"' Brown recalled.

Brown blurted out a spontaneous answer.

"It seems to me there's a lot of great footage scattered around of all the innovators of different forms of American folk music, or roots music," he told Ivey. "It will remain scattered unless there's a way of putting it into a series or show that will allow future generations to have easy access to the material."

A small grant got the project rolling, which entailed two years of delving into 175 private, institutional and commercial film collections.

Defining moments

Brown particularly wanted the project to focus on defining moments in American music, such as Bill Monroe and his mandolin joining with banjo player Earl Scruggs to create bluegrass music.

Scruggs, still going strong and with a new album out featuring Elton John and Sting, is "very much a creative, innovative musician that is probably on a par with a Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington in the jazz world," Brown said.

"American Roots Music" relates the story of early country radio shows, including the start of the Grand Ole Opry, and blues programs that gave wide exposure to music otherwise heard only at black "juke joints."

"B.B. King, driving a tractor in the Delta, hears this radio show and, gee, realizes he can make more money playing music," Brown said.

Through the megaphone of media, local sounds became America's music.

"All of a sudden, this music that is originating on a community level crosses over geographic lines, ethnic lines," Brown said. "There's also back and forth between musicians, a lot of sharing. In a way, it represents the best of democracy."

Commenting has been disabled for this item.