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American Roots Music is the companion book based on the PBS series of the same name, resulting from three years of research and a unique collaboration between the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, Experience Music Project, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Public Broadcasting Service, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, AT&T, Rolling Stone Press, and Ginger Group Productions.
This book is the story of such sounds and the songs they come from and the people who wrote and sand them and the culture that inspired them. It is a story with many twists of plot, countless characters, and settings both rural and urban. In this story, musical strains cross boundaries and influence one another. One artist borrows from another, who borrows from yet another. Songs are reshaped with altered lyrics and fresh solos. Reinventions are plentiful, even unstoppable.
Call this the story of American roots music. Whether it was made on a back porch in a West Virginia holler, at a house party in Chicago, in a Mississippi juke joint, at a bluegrass cutting contest in eastern Kentucky, beyond the bayou in Cajun back country, or in a black Baptist church in North Carolina or Newark, New Jersey, this music has warmed us, enlightened us, informed us, touched us, defined us. We may not buy it in bulk, as we do our popular music. But we respect it and cherish it, much like we do tales told by a family elder or a poem with great meaning. And when we listen to it, we take great pride in its diversity and history, and we allow it to enter our soul and become an indispensable part of us.
Despite this, trying to further define the term "American roots music" is difficult and daunting. After all, since such American music forms as jazz, rock & roll, and hip-hop are practically undefinable, why would one as vague as American roots music be any different?
Even the term "folk music," which is intimately connected to roots music, is a challenge to define. Pete Seeger, who's called a great American "folksinger," dislikes the term. It has too much baggage, he says, and he's right. Over the years, folklorists have written full-blown essays in prestigious journals describing the music in great detail. Some of them made folk music and its culture seem all too complex and uninviting -- at least to the nonacademic audience -- and lost the spirit of the music in the process. At the same time, the media routinely labeled anyone playing an acoustic guitar or banjo a "folksinger," in effect abusing the term and making it little more than a cliché.
When music writers realized how badly worn the term "folk music" had become, many abandoned it. In its place they created American roots music in the 1980s and used it as a catchall phrase to describe any American music form that had influenced pop music and was a "root" of rock & roll, or as a simple substitute for folk. Instead of defining American roots music, many journalists just referred to it. The term worked quite nicely in print.
But any book titled American Roots Music must proclaim its territory. To start, American roots music might be defined as an updated and expanded evolution of American folk music. Alan Jabbour, one of the essayists in this book, says, "The terms 'folk music' and 'roots music' are loose nets that overlap one another." Noted folk expert John Cohen believes any differences that might exist between folks and roots music "are so blurred as to make them practically meaningless."
Folksongs and folk-music styles are passed on by oral tradition -- hearing a song, memorizing it, and recreating it for a specific community. Roots music is passed on in the same way -- but it is not the only way. Beginning in the early Twentieth Century, roots music began to embrace technology, using it to popularize itself, commercialize its artists, and become distinctly American in scope and breadth. The term had yet to be created, but the major "roots music" forms -- blues, hillbilly, country, zydeco, Cajun, Tejano, Native American, and rockabilly -- were either already born or about to be.
Roots music relies on a "directness" in addressing its audience, according t Charles Wolfe, another essayist in the book. The advent of sound reproduction in the form of recordings and of radio, television, and amplification enable roots artists to be powerfully direct and far reaching. In addition, the mass production of the automobile and the increase of better transportation systems -- railroads and highways -- made it easy for regional roots musicians to travel and perform far beyond their communities. This new technology and mobility created new audiences for music that previously had been confined by ethnic, racial, and geographic boundaries.
Radio did wonders for roots music, spreading localized sounds far and wide. The influence, for example, of the Grand Ole Opry radio show is astounding. Each Saturday night throughout the South and beyond, particularly in the Twenties, Thirties, and Forties, thousands of households -- white and black -- listened intently to the new program. Musicians counted on learning new songs and picking up ideas from the Opry performers. The number of would-be musicians who were inspired to pick up the guitar or banjo or muster the courage to sing because of what they heard on the radio is impossible to calculate, but the total must be huge. An additional influence on American roots music was the phonograph, which brought music from far away to the intimate confines of one's home. Songs could b4e played over and over at any time of the day or night and embraced emotionally by everyone in the household, not just the musician in it.
With "roots music" being collected, distributed, and commercialized by a growing number of entrepreneurs and scholars, a profound change occurred in the American music tradition. For decades, folk music had memorialized our history and cultural diversity and helped define our national identity. That task was now also assumed by American roots music.
So what, then, constitutes a roots musician? Such an artist is conscious of being part of the American music tradition. Often he or she feels a personal responsibility to carry on that tradition. The roots artist absorbs the cultural attributes of the music's origins, while eschewing the always shifting swings in contemporary pop culture. He or she adheres to and respects the dress, speech, and social habits that are part of the roots artist's community. Finally, the roots artist writes and sings songs that reflect such themes as gender and class relationships, regional and historical issues, and racial and ethnic tensions. The roots music artist is, essentially, the chronicler of the ongoing story of America told through song.
There are also few fences that separate roots music from the popular music that has evolved from it. For one thing, roots music has always been "popular" within its defined community. And since the advent of the recording industry at the beginning of the last century, more than a few roots musicians have made a decent living by recording their music and offering it up for sale. As far back as the 1920s when the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and Blind Lemon Jefferson -- to name just three American roots music icons -- made records, commerce has been a part of the roots music story and continues to be so today. These days it is not uncommon for roots musicians and rock stars to share the same bill, minimizing the differences between popular and roots music. The radio industry uses and equally earthy term to describe roots-influenced music: "Americana."
Thanks to the reissue of hundreds of old, long out-of-print albums on compact disc -- another technological advance that is tired to the roots music story -- today there is more of this music available than at any other time. The earliest country recordings, the first jazz and blues records, obscure prison and work songs, black spirituals, and white cowboy songs are stacked in CD megastores near the latest pop, rock, and hip-hop hits. If that certain recording you are searching for is not at your favorite store, it's a good bet you'll find it on the Internet, the most recent technological innovation impacting American roots music. And if all that wasn't enough, what hasn't been rereleased might have been reinterpreted. Thus, if you can't get a certain roots music song from the original artist, you might be able to find it redone by a contemporary roots musician with the resultant sonic clarity of the modern recording studio.
In the past quarter century, interest in American roots music has risen dramatically. Festivals featuring various roots music forms occur across the country every spring, summer, and fall. The Chicago Blues Festival alone draws more than one hundred thousand fans to Grant Park on the shores of Lake Michigan each June. In New Orleans, the city's annual Jazz and Heritage Festival attracts an equal number of roots music lovers to its fairgrounds and clubs. Fiddlers' conventions in the Carolinas, folk festivals in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and Native American powwows on reservations, back east and out west, not only celebrate American roots music in the Twenty-First Century but also help to preserve our rich music heritage, despite the increasing encroachment of cultural homogenization.
American Roots Music is surely not an exhaustive version of this country's roots music history. Our book does not try to account for every major artist or musical development that occurred in the Twentieth Century. To accomplish such a goal would take several volumes. Instead, American Roots Music presents overviews of each of the major roots music genres, featuring artists whose work is emblematic of their times and whose stories are meaningful and historically significant. These musicians' recordings continue to stand out above many others, even though they may have been made fifty or sixty years ago.
If American Roots Music is considered a "history," one that documents the past hundred years in musical terms, let it be known that America's roots music history is a living, ongoing history. All of the music forms presented in this book are alive and well; they've lived in the past, they live in the present, and all indications are they will live in the future.
As much as possible, the essays in this book reflect the American Roots Music television series. We've asked the writers to translate the general themes of the documentary into words and concise chapters, which, taken together, unfold the American roots music saga. The authors of these essays are among the best and most knowledgeable authorities in American roots music. Their perspective and understanding of its history, as well as their keen ears and deep connection with American music culture, provide a wealth of insight that you, the reader, will no doubt find compelling and valuable. Also ion these pages you'll hear from the musicians themselves, who describe their work and the music of those who influenced them.
Ultimately, American Roots Music is meant to be a guide to what we, the editors, hope will be your journey through the many roots music forms that came of age in this country last century. We have taken such a journey, and we can attest that the rewards are many. (Robert Santelli)