American Roots Music
Directed by Jim Brown
Narrated by Kris Kristofferson
[We reviewed the DVD Edition of American
Roots Music. There is also a VHS tape version and two CD compilations.]
This four-hour PBS special is a mess of a
tour of what director Jim Brown and writer Charles Wolfe consider
American Roots music. As far as we know, outside of this video,
there is no consensus on what makes one artist "roots"
while another not. The video does nothing to help define the genre
except maybe that it's music that old Rock stars like. It's pretty
but it's useless.
Why is Mexican and Tejano music "roots"
when Cuban and Puerto Rican music isn't? How is Western Swing, with
its jazz influence, "roots" when apparently Jazz isn't?
How are the Blues "roots" when Jazz isn't? B.B. King is
a wonderful, influential musician but he's most known for electrifying
the Blues. How is this "roots"?
There is no point of view and no perspective,
so this ends up being a disjointed mess, even if it's enjoyable
to watch the various musicians and vintage clips. But all the performances
are highlights that get shoved to the background when narrator Kris
Kristofferson needs to return to the script. Worse are the nagging
questions that make us conclude that this documentary does more
harm than good. How can you mention Western Swing and not mention
Milton Brown and His Brownies, the acknowledged founders of the
genre? How can you use Bob Wills as an example of Western Swing
and then show clips of him performing Texas fiddle music? How can
you talk about Woody Guthrie and not mention his more popular (at
the time) brother, Jack Guthrie, especially when he had the hit
Oklahoma Hills, a great example of the music that inspired
both Hillbilly and Folk musicians?
The whole thing has a Baby Boomer-PBS smugness
to it. It's an aesthetic, not a genre. With this superficial perspective,
it ends up being little more than Easy Listening for a new generation
of senior citizens. These musicians deserve much better.
When we first casually listened to Lo' Jo, we thought they were
a bad Les Negresses Vertes knock off. This French group does have
a whiskey-stained voice, there are accordions and they do sound
as if they are having fun, all like Les Negresses Vertes, but after
giving their album, Mojo Radio (World Village 468003), a
serious listen, it becomes apparent that Lo'Jo has a sound that
is distinctively theirs. And it's worth checking out. The influences
are primarily from Europe and North Africa but there's a keen sense
of theatrics and Popular music that make this a compelling disc.
The late bluesman Jimmy Witherspoon has never gotten his due, as
far as we're concerned. Fantasy Records' Original Blues Classics
series has recently re-released his Bluespoon, coupled with
a pop oddity, Spoon in London (Prestige OBCCD 591-2). Not
essential, but the more Witherspoon in print, the better!
Band members and old pals of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys are
making some great Western Swing as Playboys II on the Glad label
out of Texas. Their newest is We Remember Tommy Duncan (Glad
CD7030). Duncan was a legend and only fellow legend (and Playboys
II vocalist) Leon Rausch could do him justice. As with many of these
recordings, the sound is too bright but it's a solid set worthy
of your attentions.