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TV Review: Series explores grass-roots evolution of American music

Sunday, October 28, 2001

By Nate Guidry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When the Fisk University Jubilee Singers sang "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "This Little Light of Mine" and other songs in the late 1800s, little did they know that their music would lay the framework for much of American music.

Spirituals, as these songs came to be called, shed light on the horrors of slavery, expressed faith in God and often provided hidden messages.

Thanks to PBS, that music and more will be explored in a four-part series beginning tomorrow (10 p.m., WQED/WQEX) and running on consecutive Mondays.

"American Roots Music"

When: 10 p.m. tomorrow and the following three Mondays on WQED/WQEX.

Featuring: Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt, among others.


"American Roots Music" traces the development of American music during the 20th century -- blues, gospel, country, bluegrass, Cajun, zydeco and folk, Western swing, Tejano and Native American.

The series is produced by Jim Brown, who previously directed "The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time!" and "A Vision Shared: A Tribute to Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly." His "Roots" documentary examines the culture, politics and dreams that gave birth to the music as well as many of the musicians responsible for its brilliance, including Bessie Smith, whose plaintive, edgy voice helped shape early blues.

Filmed at locations such as the Cajun Mardi Gras in southwest Louisiana, the Lakota Reservation in South Dakota and the Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee, the series captures the essence of early American music.

It's a wonderful synthesis of music, photographs, archival film clips and interviews with artists as diverse as Muddy Waters, Mahalia Jackson, Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Bonnie Raitt, Marty Stuart and Gillian Welch.

Other highlights include an interview with Alan Lomax, one of the main architects of the folk revival.

"Footage of these musicians lay scattered in various private and public archives around the world," says Brown. "Probably only a handful of filmmakers, collectors and record producers were aware of the extent of this body of work, and I feared that future generations may never get to see it."

A companion book, with a forward by Bonnie Raitt, as well as a four-CD boxed set of music drawn from the show also are available.

The first segment of the series, "When First Unto This Country," follows the music from its origins in Europe and Africa through its maturation into spirituals, blues, country and gospel.

Episode two, "This Land Is Your Land," explores the commercialization of music, emphasizing movies, recordings and radio. The program features Western swing, bluegrass, honky-tonk and traces the origins of the blues scene in Memphis.

The third program, "The Times They Are A-Changin'," explores the folk and blues revival. With this period came the Vietnam War and events like Woodstock, Altamont and the Newport Folk Festival. Songs of protest were being sung by Joni Mitchell, Tom Paxton, Country Joe McDonald and the great Bob Dylan, whose recording of "The Times They Are A-Changing" perhaps best described that era.

The final episode, "All My Children of the Sun," examines Cajun and Creole culture, the popularity of Tejano music and the evolution of the Native American music form.

All told, the four-hour series is time well spent: You'll hear some great music and get an education in the process.

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