Digging deep into music's history

Preview: Sounds unique to America, from Cajun to bluegrass to zydeco, are examined in this documentary.

October 29, 2001|By Susan King | Susan King,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PBS ushered in 2001 with Ken Burns' lavish 18-hour exploration of Jazz. And, beginning tonight, the network offers up American Roots Music, a four-part series exploring such unique American music forms as blues, gospel, country, bluegrass, Cajun, zydeco and folk.

"It was just quite accidental that both" - Jazz and American Roots Music - "happened around the same time," says executive producer and director Jim Brown, an Emmy Award winner responsible for the acclaimed music documentaries The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time! The Hank Williams Tradition and Woody Guthrie: Hard Travelin'.

"Doing all of these documentaries over the years, it occurred to me that a number of the pioneers, the inventors of these unique genres of American music, were captured on film," says Brown. "But they were scattered all over the place. [I thought] maybe we could do the country a service by putting it together into one documentary so that people could have access to it."

Brown and his fellow producers, Jeff Rosen and Sam Pollard, culled clips from 170 different places, including collectors and museums. "Our main mission was to take these diverse clips of the pioneers of these music genres and put them in a body of work so future generations could have access to it."

Narrated by Kris Kristofferson, American Roots Music was filmed in such locations as the Cajun Mardi Gras in southwest Louisiana, the Lakota Reservation in South Dakota and the Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee. Interwoven with interviews and performances of such contemporary musicians as Bonnie Raitt, Keith Richards and Robbie Robertson are performances and interviews with such pioneers as Muddy Waters and Elvis Presley.

America is home to such a rich and diverse array of music because it is a melting pot, says Brown. "This story could have only happened in America," says Brown. "First of all, we are a relatively young nation. We don't have much of a cultural tradition. At the beginning of the 20th century, you would be hard-pressed to find people who would be able to describe what is America's musical tradition.

"We only have four hours," adds Brown. "We don't have 18 hours like Jazz did. What we are trying to do is paint with a rather wide stroke and do short stories about each genre, about key moments and key artists."

With the advent of railroads, highways and, most important, radio and records, the ethnic music that existed in America got "mixed up," according to Brown. "You got all of these forms that borrow from one another and these forms that emerge became uniquely American."

For example, country legends Hank Williams and Bill Monroe were influenced by black musicians.

In the case of "tejano" music, says Brown, "you have Mexican-Americans who were in Texas before America was America. But with Western development, all of a sudden there are Czechoslovaks and Germans building the roads, among other things [in Texas]. They bring accordions, and Mexican musicians begin to learn those polkas. Then they take it to another level - they add bass, drums and lyrics.

"All of a sudden, there is `tejano' music. There are all of these kind of things that go back from one culture to another. It's really a gumbo."

Susan King is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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