To appreciate the diversity of ideas and experiences that have shaped our history, we need to be sensitive to the complexities and varieties of cultural documentation, to the enormous possibilities these documents afford us to get at the interior of American lives, to get at peoples long excluded from the American experience, many of them losers in their own time, outlaws, rebels who - individually or collectively - tried to flesh out and give meaning to abstract notions of liberty, equality and freedom.
-Leon Litwack, Ph.D.
Pulitzer Prize Winning Historian,
American Roots Music Adviser
What is American roots music?
The term "American roots music" may not be a familiar one, and requires some explanation. At the beginning of the 20th Century, the term "folk music" was used by scholars to describe music made by whites of European ancestry, often in the relatively isolated rural South. As the century progressed, the definition of folk music expanded to include the song styles - particularly the blues - of Southern blacks as well. In general, folk music was viewed as a window into the cultural life of these groups. Folk songs communicated the hopes, sorrows and convictions of ordinary people's everyday lives. Increasingly, music made by other groups of Americans such as Native Americans, Mexican-Americans, and Cajuns came under the umbrella of "folk music." It was sung in churches, on front porches, in the fields and other workplaces, while rocking children to sleep, and at parties. The melodies and words were passed down from parent to child, though songs - and their meanings - often changed to reflect changing times.
In the 1960s, awareness of folk songs and musicians grew, and popular musicians began to draw on folk music as an artistic source as never before. "Folk music" then became a form of popular music itself, popularized by singer/songwriters such as Bob Dylan, who helped pioneer the intimate, often acoustic performing style that echoed that of community-based folk musicians. Music writers, scholars and fans began to look for new ways to describe the diverse array of musical styles still being sung and played in communities across America, though most often not heard on radios. The term "roots music" is now used to refer to this broad range of musical genres, which include blues, gospel, traditional country, zydeco, tejano, and native American pow-wow.
What can roots music teach us about cultural identity in the U.S.?
Songs are an important cultural form through which people assert and preserve their own histories in the face of changing social conditions. Spirituals sung by African-American slaves; protest songs sung by 1960s youth; Texas-Mexicans singing the corrido; and "union songs"...
Developments in literature also shaped the way roots music was mediated and understood by a broad American audience. "Regionalism" and "naturalism, " two literary movements of the late 19th century, aroused a popular interest in what could be called the "national picturesque": the Plantation South, the Wild West, and the Appalachian Frontier. These movements helped create an interest in rural America and the musical forms associated with it. "Muckraking" writers such as Upton Sinclair were influenced by the politics surrounding the labor movement and helped raise the level of social consciousness about the problems inherent in industrial society at a time when folk songs were depicting the lives of working-class Americans.
âNeighborhood investigation shows him to be a very peculiar individual in that he is only interested in folk lore music, being very temperamental
and ornery. â¦. He has no sense of money values, handling his own and Government property in a neglectful manner, and paying practically no attention to his
personal appearance. â¦ He has a tendency to neglect his work over a period of time and then just before a deadline he produces excellent results.â (from the FBI file on Alan Lomax, 1940â1980)
Alan Lomax and unidentified man, Aragon, Spain, 1952