Friday, July 28, 2006

Roots Music: An American Journey

A couple weeks ago my dad gave me this Rounder compilation out of the blue.

I had him proofread some stuff a few months ago for my grad school application in which I mentioned "roots" music and he asked me to explain what that meant. I actually had a really hard time. It was easy to list constituent genres: folk, country, blues, etc., but I couldn't give a definition that included the right stuff but also excluded the rest. He asked if Johnny Cash was roots music and I said I guess he was. Then he asked about the Statler Brothers, of whom he is a fan, and I didn't know what to say. Definitely not anything recent of theirs, but maybe their early stuff is. In the end I had to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart: I can't define it, but I know it when I hear it.

Anyways, he saw this four-disc box set at Barnes & Noble and got it for me.

It's a fairly good round-up of the most prominent genres/styles (or whatever you want to call them) that can be clumped under the term "roots" as well as a few tracks from lesser-know genres/styles. The set is a little heavy on stringband/old-time/bluegrass, but cajun & zydeco, a variety of Mexican-Americans styles, and a broad range of the blues also receive good-sized representation. The first two discs are meant to be an overview of "hard-core traditional styles" and the last two "roots-derived music and interpreters of folk traditions." I'd argue with their placement of several tracks, but overall I can see this organizing pattern.

There are also tracks from a bunch of places that don't fit that well into one of these larger groups: one Hawaiian song, one Mardi Gras Indian song, one New Orleans brass band song, one klezmer song. There are also some holes. Shape note singing and sacred steel have both been gaining popularity recently, but aren't included. Overall, though, I think that this is a pretty good overview when you consider that it is all taken from the catalogue of one record label.

In the coming months you might see some records by some of the folks in this set appear here as I explore their other work.

Rebirth Brass Band - Just a Little While to Stay Here

From Rounder
From Amazon


Happy In Bag said...

Man, this box is a great place to get one's bearings. And Rebirth is so fun.

J said...

A vocal take on this tune is on Geoff Muldaur's "Secret Handshake" disc...the two versions compliment each other.