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Before 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 or two.

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 music documentary.

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.

American Roots Music will begin broadcasting nationally on October 29th. Check for local listings.

Janine Nichols on May 30th, 2006 at 11:23 am 

where can i see this?? not on netflix….??

sounds amazing, let me know!
thanks for doing this…..

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