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American Roots Music

Palm Pictures // Unrated // October 30, 2001
List Price: $42.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Gil Jawetz | posted November 7, 2001 | E-mail the Author

The American roots music world is a wide and diverse one. Any genre, from gospel to country to bluegrass to blues, could easily fill up a multi-volume documentary. In fact, when Ken Burns debuted his 19 hour documentary Jazz critics lambasted it for actually not being comprehensive enough. Still, American Roots Music attempts to create an overview of the entire roots music spectrum in about four hours. While this is an impossible task, American Roots Music still makes for some compelling viewing.

The impetus for this release is probably the recent bluegrass revival sparked by the enormous success of the soundtrack from O Brother, Where Art Thou? (which isn't mentioned here) but any excuse to give some credit to the pioneers of American music is worthwhile. The ultimate pleasure in American Roots Music is the performance footage. There is a good deal of archival footage of classic musicians as well as recently shot footage of some of the surviving old-timers and younger whippersnappers. Unfortunately, no songs are allowed to play out at length. They either cut off early or are narrated over. Still, it's great to see footage of Son House, Jimmy Rodgers, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and The Staple Singers singing with soul, energy, and grace. Whether the music is acoustic or electric blues, country or bluegrass, zykeco or cajun, American Roots Music makes the case that it's all great.

As a documentary, however, American Roots Music is a bit shallow. It tells the stories of many early black musicians and their record producers but doesn't acknowledge the disgusting ways many of these producers ripped the musicians off, many of whom never got paid for their creations. This is a major oversight. There are other miscalculations as well. No mention is made of patriotic American music, which is a part of folk culture and which would have given context to the political folk of Woody Guthrie and, later, Bob Dylan. Also, the final hour, which crams several genres together, doesn't make a convincing argument for Native American tribal chants being a part of American roots music. These chants and drum rituals are intertwined with religion, communication, government, and ceremony in ways that, say Grand Ol' Opry ain't.

The main point that American Roots Music tries to convey is that all of these disparate genres are part of the same tapestry. This is a legitimate point but by constantly cutting from blues to country to bluegrass during the first three episodes, American Roots Music seems disorganized and sloppy. Great musicians like Lightnin' Hopkins are mentioned in passing without any real discussion and, since the interviewees are only identified once per episode and are never credited by their group, it becomes easy to lose track of who's speaking.

Still, the music is great and there are some surprises, like when country singer Bob Wills' style is compared to blues singer Bessie Smith and suddenly it becomes clear that he is a white male cowboy singing in a black female blues style. Nearly all the music shown is great, from Peter, Paul, and Mary's early, energized "If I Had a Hammer" to Clifton Chenier's zydeco gumbo to Leadbelly's folk/blues "Goodnight Irene". (The only embarrassing clip comes from Robert Mirabel's Vegas-style self-proclaimed "Native American rock opera".)

For the most part the producers of American Roots Music display a real affinity for the music covered. They are particularly fond of the blues, possibly the greatest of all American artforms. Even though the blues, like all the genres covered, doesn't get the full treatment that it deserves, there is a definite sense of awe that is inspired by any discussion of musicians like Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Son House, and the inimitable Robert Johnson (who Keith Richards calls "the Bach of the blues"). Like most of the roots musicians highlighted, from Uncle Dave Macon to Johnny Cash, Mahalia Jackson to Mississippi John Hurt, these artists walked it like they talked it and that is the ultimate legacy of roots music: Total authenticity.

The interview footage and more recent performances are shot on video and look fine, if unexciting. The older footage varies from source to source, but most of it has a beautiful, vintage look. None of it is too badly damaged. It's a shame that more of this footage couldn't have been included.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 sound is a little disappointing. Kris Kristoferson's low rumble of a narration becomes muddy at times. Still, most of the music comes from humble technical origins and still sounds fine here.

There are three full length performances on each disc. Unfortunately, only one performance on each disc is from the vintage footage. Disc one features Bob Wills' hugely entertaining "Sitting on Top of the World". It's great to get a second look at his Bessie Smith-inspired style and bizarre facial contortions. The other two performances are Earl Scruggs' lightning picking "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" and Doc Watson's yodeling "Never No Mo' Blues". These are both fine performances but the video work is undistinguished. Disc two features Sister Rosetta Tharpe's "Down by the Riverside". As discussed in the documentary, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a controversial figure for playing electric guitar along with her gospel and for bringing spiritual music to the clubs. Her energy and style are so lively that it's easy to see how she overcame her critics. Also included are Steve Riley's barroom zydeco "Ossun Two-Step" and Velerio Longoria's tejano "Rosalito". It's a shame that more clips couldn't have been included.

American Roots Music is an enjoyable documentary, but it doesn't truly delve into the depths of history and emotion that helped create the vast landscape of the music that it covers. Few of the interviewees are able to hint at the passion and power behind the performance clips. Luckily, even though the clips are short, there are a lot of them. The film does serve as an introduction to a variety of music forms. From there it's just a question of hunting down the recordings that can move you. I would recommend the 2 disc Robert Johnson set The Complete Recordings and the six disc Anthology of American Folk Music as starting points.

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