Review by Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
American Roots Music
Ken Burns’ Jazz hit the airwaves last January, the critical
sparks started flying. Some reviewers disliked the political
emphasis that related the plight of African Americans to jazz
development. Others noted the lack of footage of post-1960’s
jazz and every fan named at least one musician who should’ve
been covered, but wasn’t. Oddly, all of this criticism occurred
within the jazz world, an audience that Jazz never really
considered. Since the film never meant to be more than a lengthy
introduction, centered on social and political elements, most
of the analysis missed its mark.
Like Jazz, American Roots
Music has so much to offer it would be unfortunate if roots
fans got sidetracked. In four one-hour programs, American
Roots Music introduces viewers to the folk, country, bluegrass,
gospel, zydeco, Cajun, Tex-Mex, and Native American music that
has simmered and boiled in a huge US melting pot over the last
hundred years. Because it covers so much ground, American
Roots Music never pretends to be more than a thorough introduction
to the major styles and artists. While the program does cover
several contemporary artists—Bela Fleck, Gillian Welch, and
Keb’ Mo’—it’s mostly concerned with the founders of a particular
genre and how it developed. That means that the section on folk
covers Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and Pete Seeger but bypasses
John Gorka and Sam Bush.
For non-insiders, American
Roots Music offers the perfect introduction. One shouldn’t
worry too much over the use of "roots" as opposed
to folk or traditional. Director Jim Brown, like a number of
modern commentators, simply felt it was more inclusive than
older terms (folk, for instance, has seldom been used to describe
zydeco or Native-American music).
While each emigrant brought his
or her own songs to Plymouth and Jamestown, it wasn’t until
the music began to intermingle that it became a uniquely American
music. During the twentieth century scholars and musicians began
to recognize the distinct heritage of American music while the
phonograph, radio, and TV made regional music available to everyone.
Early on, roots fans and the
curious will find much to like about American Roots Music.
In the first segment, "When First Unto This Country,"
Kris Kristofferson narrates the rise of County music in the
1920’s and 1930’s. There’s the wonderful story of how talent
scout Ralph Peer accidentally tapped into a brand new rural
market by recording Fiddlin’ John Carson, and how he discovered
both Jimmy Rodgers and the Carter Family during sessions in
Bristol, Tennessee. These stories may be familiar to the faithful,
but the cream of the coverage includes rare footage of these
founding fathers and mothers of yesteryear. There’s a wonderful
clip of Rodgers singing "Waiting for a Train," and
when part one turns to the blues, a potent clip of Son House
shouting as he flails his guitar. Another nice touch is the
comments of latter day musicians like Merle Haggard and Ricky
Skaggs on the early founders.
Segment three, "The Times,
They Are A-Changin’," dips into the electric blues and
folk revival of the ‘50s and ‘60s. There’s a fun clip of the
Kingston Trio, decked out in their pinstriped shirts and singing
their mega-hit, "Tom Dooley." (A folk purist, watching
this clip, might even be tempted to point out that banjo player
Dave Guard seems to hit the wrong note on the intro.) And who
could resist a youthful Peter, Paul, and Mary singing, "If
I Had a Hammer, " or Bob Dylan singing the anthem that
gave name to this particular segment? It is particularly engaging
to hear Peter Yarrow and Pete Seeger sort out Dylan’s "betrayal"
of the folk community when he plugged in an electric guitar
at the Newport Folk Festival in ’65. Between Yarrow calling
Dylan "Bobby" and Seeger saying how much he liked
"Maggie’s Farm" (the amplifiers were just turned up
too loud), one would never guess what a spat this incident caused.
Traditional performers like Doc Watson and Mike Seeger also
recall the heady revival days and even take time to play a song
There’s much more. The rise of
modern gospel. Nice clips of Mahalia Jackson and the Staple
Singers. Sections on Cajun popularizer Dewey Balfa and contemporary
Native-American performer Robert Mirabal. Interviews with Keith
Richards, Gillian Welch, and Bonnie Raitt. And a nice folksy
narrative by Kristofferson.
Perhaps the outstanding achievement
of American Roots Music is the number of rare clips that
have surfaced. Imagine seeing a film of Leadbelly, including
color footage, singing, "Pick a Bale of Cotton," or
Woody Guthrie singing "John Henry." There’s old footage
of Lefty Frizzell, Howlin’ Wolf, Bill Monroe, Muddy Waters,
and dozens of others. Bob Dylan was kind enough to lend his
extensive private video collection—put together by Jeff Rosen—to
the project. It probably didn’t hurt that the Country Music
Hall of Fame, the Smithsonian, and the Rock Hall of Fame backed
the program. If for no other reason, these fabulous clips make
American Roots Music worth seeing.
Of course none of this would’ve
tied together so seamlessly without the guiding hand of director
Jim Brown. While Burns approached jazz as a novice, Brown has
emerged himself in film projects surrounding roots music for
twenty-five years. He won an Emmy for The Weavers: Wasn’t
That A Time!, directed programs on Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly,
and worked with Alan Lomax on the American Patchwork series.
This familiarity guarantees that the knowledgeable roots fan
will not be jumping up from his or her Lazy Boy every few minutes
to correct a mistake in the narrative. Brown also seems to be
on good terms with most of the folk community because a number
of high profile musicians—Pete Seeger, Ricky Skaggs—gave freely
of their time. Brown’s familiarity assures that American
Roots Music is warmer and more all embracing than your average
One could mention that American
Roots Music is educational and then talk about how the program
will help Americans better understand their ethnic heritage.
But "educational" always sounds a bit drab and this
program isn’t drab. It’s shot-through with the wonderful music
that has built the foundation for all American music, from rock
to pop to country. For roots fans it offers a chance to see
old footage of heroes and listen to contemporary musicians discuss—on
national TV—folk, bluegrass, and the blues. For those unfamiliar
with roots music, the program will be a fascinating history
lesson. Either way, American Roots Music offers an opportunity
for all Americans to learn about and celebrate the multiple
roots and branches of their distinct and rich musical heritage.
Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
Purchase this film at Amazon.