American Roots Music
is a four-part documentary. This landmark television program explores the development of uniquely American music genres during the 20th century. Each 1-hour episode features seminal historic footage and musical performances by the pioneers of American music and traces the cultural evolution that shaped and influenced our rich tapestry of music. Masters in the fields of Folk, Country, Blues, Gospel, Western Swing, Bluegrass, Cajun, Zydeco, Tejano and Native American music are celebrated. You will see rare footage and hear music from artists ranging from the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Son House, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, Clifton Chenier, Flaco Jimenez, R. Carlos Nakai, Bob Dylan and many more. The astonishing performance footage is placed in context by colorful interviews with some of the artists themselves, their peers, family and friends.
O Brother, wherever thou art, behold what thou and thy kin hath wrought. With the documentary American Roots Music
and its spinoffs (including a book
and CD collection
), producers Jim Brown and Sam Pollard clearly were influenced by the popularity of the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou?
and its music
. You won't be seeing Eminem and Mariah Carey here, or even Duke Ellington and Ray Charles, but rather a comprehensive, if flawed, four-part documentary examining the various cultural and ethnic folk traditions that blended together to create the rich, multi- flavored brew that is American music.
Narrated by Kris Kristofferson, each of the four parts is a little less than an hour long. Episode One offers a brief overview before detailing topics like the spread of music via Victrolas and radio, the early days of country music and the Grand Ole Opry, the rise of black gospel music, and seminal blues musicians like Son House, Mamie Smith, and Robert Johnson. Episode Two deals with western music (Gene Autry, Bob Wills), Bill Monroe and bluegrass, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, and more blues (Leadbelly, Sonny Boy Williamson, B.B. King). Episode Three, perhaps the best of the lot, takes on urban blues (Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf), black spirituals, and the early '60s folk boom, while Episode Four studies Cajun, zydeco and Tex-Mex styles, along with Native American music and more.
The style is standard documentary, with interviews and photos interspersed with new and old live footage. The producers tout the presence of "rare performances" by Guthrie, Waters, Monroe, Clifton Chenier, and many others, and they're fascinating. But for whatever reason (lack of time or maybe lack of faith in viewers' attention spans) none is presented in its entirety. It's a drawback that is remedied to some extent by the addition of six bonus clips (three on each DVD) that are complete, including wonderful vintage films of Western Swing master Bob Wills and the remarkable gospel singer/guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe. --Sam Graham