American Roots Music
By Caroline Horn
Find your own heritage in American roots music. Explore the distinctive musical styles that define our culture, and learn how, and where, to listen
American music is a record of our history. Many of the immigrants who have come to our shores have brought with them the music of their homelands. Exploring this musiclearning how it evolved and finding ways to incorporate it into your own listening repertoirecan be a wonderful way to celebrate your family's heritage.
Over the centuries, as settlers arrived and faced new daily struggles, their music took on unique forms. On the bayou of Louisiana, Acadian settlers sang French lyrics against the swells of their accordions. Nearby in the Mississippi Delta, enslaved people turned to blues songs and spirituals to help them endure hard labor. In the mountains of Virginia, families sang the plaintive songs destined to influence generations of country musicians. Around Texas campfires, cowboys sang tunes that would later morph into Western swing and honky-tonk. And for some time, these and other lush, singular styles of music evolved in isolation.
But over the first half of the twentieth century, an extraordinary combination of technological innovation, expanding commerce, migration, and social change pulled our diverse communities together. By mid-century, our sense of "folk music" had broadened and nine distinct musical stylesfolk, blues, bluegrass, country, Cajun and zydeco (the respective styles of Louisiana's Cajun and Creole communities), Tejano (the music of Mexican Americans in Texas), Native American, and gospelcame together to make up what we now call American roots music.
In 1877, Edison invented the phonograph, which allowed people to hear "captured" music unlike their own; by the early 1900s, the updated Victrola was a treasured possession of many rural families. Entrepreneurs like Ralph Peer (of Victor Records) ventured to the South in the 1920s, recording blues singers and virtuoso fiddlers to attract new customers. Peer also introduced Americans to the "blue yodel" of Jimmie Rodgers and the melancholy songs of the Carter Family, two foundations of country music.
During the Depression, when recordings were an impossible luxury, radio provided free exposure. By 1934, station WSM in Nashville was broadcasting almost nationwide. Its weekly show, the Grand Ole Opry, played the barn-dance music of rural musicians. In the forties, when banjoist Earl Scruggs joined Kentuckian Bill Monroe's band to create an accelerated string-band sound, the Opry filled the airwaves with bluegrass music," a name Monroe coined in honor of his native state.
Radio also brought validation to musicians who were listening. In 1941, KFFA in Helena, Arkansas, was the first radio station to put black musicians such as bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson on the air. These broadcasts inspired Mississippi-born B.B. King to travel to Memphis to see if he could earn more money playing music than he could driving a tractor.
Social and political shifts also helped bring traditional music to the fore. Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal populism sanctioned government support of musicologists such as John Lomax to document the music of field workers and convict chain gangs. At Angola Prison in Louisiana, Lomax met Huddie Ledbetter ("Lead Belly"), one of America's first nationally-known folk musicians, and arranged his pardon so that he could create the recordings that would be emulated by later troubadours Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.
The Civil Rights movement brought a spirit of inclusion to the music scene, recognizing the indigenous music of many ethnic groups. Finally, in an ironic twist of timing, audiences gathered to hear the drumming and chants of Native Americansthe first inhabitants of this country.
During the nineties, some contemporary performers turned away from synthesized music in search of simpler sounds. Today, singer-songwriters such as Steve Earle, Gillian Welch and Lucinda Williams introduce audiences to roots elements.
Traditional bluegrass has become more popular lately, largely thanks to the inspired soundtrack for the Coen Brothers' movie, O, Brother, Where Art Thou?, which features veteran such as singer Ralph Stanley. Conceived as a soundscape for a film set in Depression-era Mississippi, the album became a surprising blockbuster. Perhaps it's the natural appeal of acoustic instruments, such as banjos, fiddles, and guitarscombined with universal themes like love, faith, and honest toilthat keeps this music compelling.
Whatever the explanation, there's no better time than now to tap into your musical roots. Though this music is still not mainstream, there are some easy ways to bring it into your life.
As you plan future travels, consider stopping along the way for a concert. Some favorites include MerleFest: An Americana Music Celebration in Wilkesboro, NC (www.merlefest.org); the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest (www.nojazzfest.com); the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Telluride, Colorado (www.bluegrass.com/pages/telluridehome.html); and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. (www.folklife.si.edu/CFCH/folklife.htm).
These are spring and summer events, but you can learn about roots-music festivals throughout the year on the Internet. One good site is Festival Finder (www.festivalfinder.com).
Seek out college and public stations, as they frequently feature traditional music. Search online for station listings; many shows are even broadcast over the Internet.
Two exceptional roots-music shows are nationally syndicated. Nick Spitzer hosts American Routes (www.americanroutes.org) from the University of New Orleans, celebrating traditional genres with interviews and musical tributes. Mountain Stage (www.mountainstage.org), a weekly concert broadcast from Charleston, West Virginia, features live performances of roots and contemporary acoustic music. Check their websites for broadcast information.
FILM AND DOCUMENTARY:
In addition to O, Brother, Where Art Thou, roots music provides an evocative backdrop in period films such as Bonnie and Clyde and Matewan. There are also some wonderful videos that explore this music, including High Lonesome: The Story of Bluegrass Music, which features legend Bill Monroe; Down From The Mountain, a documentary about the musicians in O, Brother; and American Roots Music, a riveting four-episode PBS series that includes historical and contemporary footage of twentieth-century musical pioneers.
As you explore these different resources, you will see how the various genres of roots music reflect our cultural diversity. From the "high lonesome" ring of bluegrass to the visceral moans of the blues, from the buoyant charm of a Cajun two-step to the meditative drive of a Native American drum circle, ours is a rich musical legacy for which we may be very thankful.
Starting a Collection
Begin your CD collection, consider one of the roots-music anthologies available at major music stores; these provide an inexpensive introduction to the various genres. Once you have identified some favorite styles and performers, you can delve into their recordings. For hard-to-find releases, go directly to one of the record companies that specialize in this material, such as: Smithsonian/Folkways (www.folkways.si.edu), Rounder Records (800-768-6337; www.rounder.com), Sugar Hill Records (919-489-4349; www.sugarhillrecords.com), or Shanachie Records (800-497-1043; www.shanachie.com).
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