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AMERICAN ROOTS MUSIC

 by Richard Lewis

 

You may have read about a series of programmes called “American Roots Music” that was broadcast last year on American television on their Public Broadcast Service. There were four one hour programmes featuring historic and contemporary footage of many of the 20th century’s pioneering artists. The publicity material that accompanied the series had this to say:

Like America itself, this historic television series is diverse in its scope, democratic in its intentions, and dense with riches. From city or country, black or white, these sounds emerged from a cultural maze to define our country’s musical heritage. These are the “roots” of America’s popular music – blues, country, gospel, folk, Cajun, zydeco, bluegrass, tejano and Native American.

I’m not sure if there are any plans to show the series over here or if it has already been shown on one of the digital channels that I don’t yet have access to. However I do know that a double CD, a coffee table type book and a DVD are all now available. I browsed through the book but did not buy it as it seemed rather expensive but instead went into my local HMV and asked if they had the DVD. They didn’t but on confirming its existence they offered to order it for me. It was on sale for £17.99 so the shop assistant assumed it was a single disc DVD. I expected it to be performances by some of the artists featured in the series such as Muddy Waters, Hank Williams, and Bill Monroe etc. Imagine my surprise then when I went in a week later to collect my DVD to get a double disc set that included all four of the one hour programmes narrated by Kris Kristofferson plus bonus performances by Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson and others.

This is a simply wonderful series absolutely full of people and stories that fill you with joy. The first episode is called “When First Unto This Country” and looks at the early country music of Jimmie Rodgers and the early blues of Son House and Robert Johnson. The highlight has to be a stunning performance by Son House of “John the Revelator” that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. Later Robbie Robertson and Keith Richard talk about the influence and importance of Robert Johnson. Robertson says:

Did he write good songs? No, he wrote great songs!
Did he sing good? No, he sang as good as or better than anyone!
Did he play good? No, he played amazing!

And those still photos just haunt you!

Episode Two was called “This Land Was Made for You and Me”. Pete Seeger talks about the pioneering work of John Lomax as he collected the early cowboy songs. Then we meet and hear Leadbelly and see this amazing still photo of the young Pete Seeger at an early Leadbelly session. We hear about Woody Guthrie from both Alan Lomax and Studs Terkel and see the famous clip of Woody, along with Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry singing “John Henry.” This is followed by another wonderful version of the same song by Bill Monroe featuring what Mike Seeger calls “that high lonesome sound.” We meet members of Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys including Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and go on to other country stars such as Merle Travis, Kitty Wells, Ernest Tubb and the late great Hank Williams. Once again Robbie Robertson reminds us that if you want to talk about “hurting” then Hank Williams is the man as “he was just damn good at it.” It also reminds me of why Bob Dylan dedicated “Writings and Drawings”

To the magnificent Woodie Guthrie and Robert Johnson
Who sparked it off

Next we meet someone who was new to me but deserves all our thanks. Back in 1941 a white man called Sonny Payne on a radio station in Helena Port, Mississippi gave a break to two black musicians, Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Lockwood Jnr. He helped them find a sponsor and the King Biscuit Flour Hour was born. There is then the most incredible clip of Sonny Boy Williamson playing harmonica. James Cotton who was about 8 or 9 at the time describes it and we see Sonny Boy playing when suddenly he puts the end of the harmonica in his mouth, removes his hand a nd keeps on playing! James Cotton, who must be at least 60 himself, shows us how good he is but still is in awe of Sonny Boy. You have to see this bit. We go on to hear about BB King and the trip to Memphis where we hear from Sam Phillips and the birth of Sun records and Elvis.

Next comes one of my personal favourites, Howling Wolf and we move onto Episode Three “The Times They Are A-Changin’”.

This starts off with the migration of black people from Mississippi to Chicago. We hear from Marshall Chess who talks about how his father, Leonard, started Chess Records. We see Muddy Waters, Little Walter, James Cotton, Willie Dixon and The Wolf! Moving on we come to the arrival of BB King and then Gospel music. In this section along with Mahalia Jackson and The Staples Singers is the most incredible performance of “Down By The Riverside” by Sister Rosetta Tharpe. To see and hear her singing and playing the most amazing electric guitar makes even an unbeliever like me want to testify!

Then we move onto the folk revival. We see The Weavers in suits and evening dress singing Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene” and Woody Guthrie’s “So Long It’s Been Good To Know You.” We hear about The Kinston Trio, Harry Smith and see The New Lost City Ramblers on Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest TV Show. Prominent in this group are Mike Seeger and John Cohen which then leads us to the emergence of Greenwich Village and clubs like the Bitter End. We see and hear John Sebastian and Peter, Paul and Mary talk about a “yearning, aching for content and truthfulness” and this of course can only mean one thing – Bob Dylan!

Nothing in this part is new but it is still nice to see. Lots of those early John Cohen photos are shown, like the ones in that early Sing Out. We see a clip from “Don’t Look Back” and then there is a section about the importance of the Newport Folk Festival where we see and hear Clarence Ashley, Doc Watson and Mississippi John Hurt. This leads on to a discussion about Dylan’s appearance in 1965 when he went “electric” backed by The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. We hear from the usual suspects, Pete Seeger, Harold Leventhal and Peter Yarrow as well as Butterfield’s drummer Sam Lay. Once again there is a marvellous selection of still photographs.

Episode Three ends with a fine performa nce from Doc Watson as we move to the final Episode Four “All My Children of the Sun” which looks at the modern roots revival and the emergence of musical styles such as Cajun and zydeco as well as Mexican and Native American music. This includes Marc Savo y, Dewey Balfa, Clifton Chenier, Steve Riley, Robbie Robertson, Gillian Welch and Ralph Stanley.

I hope that I have given you a bit of a flavour of what is in store for you when you search this DVD out as I hope you will. Amongst other things it makes you feel so humble at the courage of all these musicians, including Dylan, who one day decided that this is what they had to do. The rest of us are so lucky to reap the rewards.

 

Woody Guthrie     Robert Johnson

 
 
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