Is American "Roots Music" here to stay, or will it peter out like the "folk revival" of the 1960's?
April 9, 2002 11:39 AM   Subscribe

Is American "Roots Music" here to stay, or will it peter out like the "folk revival" of the 1960's? The recent PBS series, as well as re-issues of classic bluegrass sets, portend well for those of us who love bluegrass. But is it just a flash-in-the-pan? What was the magic behind O Brother, Where Art Thou? Does anyone remember the old masters like Doc Watson, Merle Travis, or Vassar Clements? (Not to mention the Queen of the genre, Mother Maybelle Carter.) Or maybe you prefer the newcomers like Alison Krauss/Union Station.
posted by mrmanley (21 comments total)
As the article linked to says, it's an on-again, off-again romance. But one of the things that makes this roots music is that it's always around. It may be less popular next year, but there will still be artists who continue to work in the genre and other artists who will be influenced by the genre. In the meantime, I'm glad I can easily pick up CDs like the remastered "Will the Circle be Unbroken" which is noticeably improved over the original CD release.
posted by maurice at 11:54 AM on April 9, 2002

I like all of it, both the old and the new. And I loved watching Songcatcher on DVD, seeing and hearing such newgrass luminaries as Iris Dement inhabiting the roles of the Appalachian mountain singers and pickers and learning more, as Janet McAteer's character did, about where that music originated, much of it from English folktunes.
posted by Lynsey at 12:04 PM on April 9, 2002

Great links, mrmanley. While you seem to be primarily about the bluegrass part of it, your first link, about the great American Roots Music series, touched all the bases, including zydeco, gospel, swing and blues, and I would put the subject of your last link, the Carter Family, down more in the country section (whatever that is).

All of which conveniently brings up a question that's been puzzling me lately: Among all the "Americana" bands, why is there no tribute paid to what is arguably the first and greatest of the genre, The Band? I understand that when you're giving props through cover versions, interviews, etc., it's logical to go back to the source. But Robbie Robertson & Company broke some serious new ground, and were at least 10 years ahead of their time in connecting American rock back with its roots. They deserve better cover versions than Joan Baez. Who out there wants to see Jayhawks do "Caledonia Mission"?
posted by luser at 12:10 PM on April 9, 2002


What amazed me (you can look at my blog entry for today to get more detail) is that there's this whole river of music that flows underneath the "popular" label -- rock, roots, country, jazz, practically a whole universe of stuff that most people aren't even aware of. Good music is wonderful in the way it presents a lineage: you can travel back and back, finding ever-earlier antecedents to the music you're listening to.

I always think of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground as one of the great "lost treasures" of modern music, but my wife informs me that they were a bunch of talentless yoyos with weird hair. It takes all kinds, I guess.
posted by mrmanley at 12:16 PM on April 9, 2002

Everyone has favorites. But for lovers of The Band: it is just about ready to be re-released in a spruced up version.
posted by Postroad at 12:31 PM on April 9, 2002

For fans of the Band, the new, remixed and remastered by Robbie Robertson himself version of The Last Waltz, complete with 4-CD soundtrack
posted by Lynsey at 12:36 PM on April 9, 2002

A good place to start is the Rounder Records 25th Anniversary Box Set. Two disks each of Folk, Zydeco, Bluegrass, and Blues. I highly recommend it.
posted by johnjreeve at 12:58 PM on April 9, 2002

San Diegans have been enjoying the Adams Ave Roots Festival for almost 30 years now. It's not a huge festival, but there aren't too many finer ways of spending an April afternoon in San Diego.
posted by stefanie at 1:04 PM on April 9, 2002

I've appreciated almost all genres of music since the age of five. Bluegrass and old time roots music (folk, country & western, etc) are STILL ear candy to me. All I can say is, even though I never saw O Brother, Where Art Thou, I got CHILLS just hearing the Soggy Bottom Boys ensemble play "I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow" on a late night talk show sometime last month. I watch them all (except for that tool Carson Daly), so I can't remember which one it was on.

You can hear a sample of this song here in the different variations that they used in the movie's soundtrack.
posted by beejaywhy2k at 1:16 PM on April 9, 2002

Oops, sorry---mrmanfield already posted a link w/song samples on it.
posted by beejaywhy2k at 1:21 PM on April 9, 2002

ugh. forgive me, got your nickname wrong there...

posted by beejaywhy2k at 1:22 PM on April 9, 2002


No prob. I once had a job where the dotty old cleaning lady called me "Barney" for almost two years. I just started answering to it; she was a sweet thing and meant no harm. (Besides, there's a charming British lilt to "Manfield" that the more Teutonic "Manley" doesn't quite have....)
posted by mrmanley at 1:31 PM on April 9, 2002

Well, the sixties folk revival kinda collapsed under the weight of it's own purism, rather than any major taste shift. The exact time of it's death can probably be traced to the moment Bob Dylan plugged in his Stratocaster at Newport.
Ironically, Dylan's(and others) bastardizations and mutations of the traditional folk forms are more in keeping with original tradition of the music, if you think about it.
This isn't to say I don't like listening to blues or country in it's original form or by more traditionally iclined revivalists, I enjoy it immensley. I just think that the pattern of discovery-revival-bastardiztion-mainstream-absorption and back again is connected to waxing and waning of traditional musics popularity.
posted by jonmc at 1:53 PM on April 9, 2002

If you like O Brother, then be sure to check out the documentary Down from the Mountain [Amazon link]. It's a good little introduction into bluegrass in the guise of a documentary about the music behind O Brother (and the concert it inspired.)
posted by ahughey at 1:58 PM on April 9, 2002

I'll tell you the secret of the "O Brother" album: It's a gospel album! It is a Christian music CD. There are only a few songs on that album that do not allude to God, religion and traditional Christian beliefs. Look who produced it! T-Bone Walker. People are hungry for this kind of message, and this ancient music puts enough distance between the religious sentiments and personally offensive contemporary proponents of Christianity, to enable ordinary people to partake of them without qualms.
posted by Faze at 2:13 PM on April 9, 2002

With all due respect to Merle Travis and Doc Watson, they're pretty much youngsters compared to the musicians of the first and (I think) greatest wave of roots music. The period I would recommend to anyone digging into this music began in 1925 and dragged to a halt in the mid-'30s with the Depression.

The key is that the first electric recording equipment was introduced in the early '20s, which meant that, for the first time, good-sounding records could be made outside of laboratories. Companies began packing recording equipment into the trunks of cars and heading out to the rural hinterlands to get America's virgin music onto shellac.

The records didn't sell more than a few thousands copies each, and those only regionally (Jimmy Rodgers and the Carter Family were the great exceptions), but that was lucrative enough that thousands of recordings of this type were made: fiddle music, Cajun hollers, banjo songs, jug bands, English ballads, skits with guitar backing, reels, hymns, and some truly strange, now-extinct stuff like shape-note singing. In nearly every case, the musicians had never been recorded before and had no familiarity with the idea of a record industry. But they were usually popular musicians; entertainers. As a result, so much music of this time is almost heartbreakingly fresh without being naive, or sounding like museum pieces (as in Alan Lomax' recordings).

Harry Smith cut the perfect slice out of this music in his Anthology of American Folk Music, which every American should own. But I also like the work John Fahey started at Revenant, especially American Primitive: Raw Pre-War Gospel, and the complete works of Charley Patton, one of a handful of the greatest American musicians.

Also central is "Uncle" Dave Macon, a ridiculously great showman and fine banjo player with his feet in minstrel shows and vaudeville. You also can't go too wrong with the Carter Family, the Memphis Jug Band, Bascom Lamar Lunsford or (if you can't stand record-scratching noises) the latter-day Dock Boggs.

A good page full of RealAudio transcriptions of 78s from this era can be found here.

Why anyone bothers with early-60s revivals of stiff, clean white people singing "folk" music is beyond me. All the weird, knotted, scratchy, touching, idiosyncratic, beautiful stuff is from years before that.
posted by argybarg at 2:15 PM on April 9, 2002

Huddy Ledbetter AKA "Lead Belly"

"My girl, my girl, don't lie to me.
Tell me, where did you sleep last night?
In the pines, in the pines, where the sun doesn't shines
I shivered the whole night through"
posted by sharksandwich at 2:36 PM on April 9, 2002

Why anyone bothers with early-60s revivals of stiff, clean white people singing "folk" music is beyond me.

Agreed, argy. I remember hearing a record of some collegiate "folk" group singing "Tijuana Jail" and thinking "Right, these turtleneckers would last about 5 minutes in a Mexican Prison."
posted by jonmc at 2:42 PM on April 9, 2002

Sharkie: The song In The Pines has a pretty long history, that pre-dates Ledbelly by some time. There's a good article about it here. My favorite version is by the Louvin Brothers.
posted by skwm at 5:28 PM on April 9, 2002

awww. 'Barney' is a cuuuute name LOL!

Hey--I went over to The Region Between and saw your link to the Mark Knopfler and Chet Atkins album. I have to say I did like all the samples, enough to add the title to my 'must buy' list. Of course the list is null and void until I can afford to pay for things other than utilities, rent and groceries!
posted by beejaywhy2k at 7:18 PM on April 9, 2002

On a related note, Bravo had a great "Bravo Presents" on Johnny Cash a couple of nights ago - Sunday, I think. [They were clearly trying to redeem themselves for the Bravo Presents on Barry Manilow the week before.] Several of the names above were directly connected to The Man in Black. (Jimmy Rodgers was a big influence, toured with the Carter Family...)

On JonMC's note: Cash recounted being circled by a scrawny guy that "looked like he hadn't showered in weeks" while sitting in a recording studio in New York. The guy stopped circling, looked at him, and said "Man, you're beautiful." Cash shifted uncomfortably in his seat, unsure of what to say, and finally asked the guy what his name was. "Bob Dylan," he replied. Cash grinned, "Bob Dylan? I have your records!"
posted by lizs at 10:21 PM on April 9, 2002

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