Roots music

July 19, 2012

Tony Sarabia and Richard Steele

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This weekend, the Old Town School of Folk Music debuts its new festival: The Square Roots Festival. Actually it’s Folk & Roots Fest with some new twists, partners and locations (no more blankets set up in Welles Park). But the mission of showcasing genres such as bluegrass, folk and a bit of African music remains the same.

We thought this was a great opportunity to delve into a style of music that encompasses well, lots of styles: American Roots Music.

Broadly speaking, American Roots Music is bluegrass, country, blues, gospel, old time and jug, jazz and string band. I know I’m probably missing something but if it’s music that is native to the U.S., or was born out of foreign musical traditions on a level where the music experts realized was distinctly new, than it’s considered roots music.

The roots of roots can be traced to the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, when job seekers from small rural communities went looking for work in the big cities, bringing their regional musical traditions along with them. Of course folks like Alan Lomax played a big role in turning on big city folks to "old timey" and rural blues music.

Adaptation has always played a key role in the lasting survival of what we call roots music. We’ve seen traditional American music amplified, sped up in tempo, sung in different languages and given a more pop flavor and it has remained roots music.

So before you hit Lincoln Square this weekend for the Square Roots Fest, take a look at some of mine and Richard Steele’s picks in American Roots. You’ll also find some picks from Bau Graves; he’s the head honcho over at the Old Town School of Folk Music and he’ll be joining Richard and I when the talk turns to roots music.

So here are my picks:

I thought it appropriate that my first pick come from a legend that we just lost to the big honky tonk in the sky. The voice of the great Kitty Wells is soulful even in its thin falsetto delivery. It always sounded so pained — and it never fails in bringing me back to the singing I remember as a little boy in my great uncle’s Pentecostal church in Pilsen. Wells was a pioneer in country music; she was the first female country singer to top the U.S. country charts with her hit “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels."

The song turned Kitty into the first female country star. That status came despite a radio station ban on the song. You see, in 1953, the men running the show in Nashville didn’t want that from their female country artists. But women in 1953 loved the tune and so eventually the station’s bucked the ban and got on board.

Wells’ courage paved the way for artists such as Loretta Lynn and Hazel Dickens. Sadly she dies on July 16th. Wells ranks as the sixth most successful female vocalist in the history of Billboard’s country chart.

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is one of those band names that many folks may have heard at one time or another but who may not know much about their music. The country rockers have been around since 1966 but really came to the attention of a bigger audience in 1972 when they gathered some of the big names in bluegrass and country such as Mother Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs and Merle Travis, along with a few rockers, for the first Will the Circle Be Unbroken release. The second Circle II featured Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash and John Hiatt among others and it went gold and won two Grammys.

"Some Dark Holler" comes from Circle III, which is a tribute to Mother Maybelle. Dwight Yoakam takes the vocal of this obscure tune written by an even more obscure rockabilly and country artist Bill Browning and gives it his signature honky tonk stamp. The dobro solo here is a thing of beauty.

Perhaps one of the least known chapters of American Roots Music is what is known as negro string music from the 1930s. The music sounds like a mix of church music, field hollers, blues and jug music.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops is a trio of young African American musicians who’ve taken the music to a whole new level without betraying its roots. And they’ve done their homework; learning the songs and history from an 80-year-old African American fiddle player.  The band employs not only fiddle and guitar but also banjo, jug and even bones to bring life to a music that’s full of life.

City of Refuge is from the band’s 2010 release Genuine Negro Jig.

Richard Steele:

Joan Armatrading is a singer, songwriter and guitar player who has many influences in her musical DNA. She born in 1950 in the Caribbean on the island of St. Kitts. Her family moved to Birmingham, England, when she was a child. At an early age, she worked very hard on mastering piano and guitar. She got her first record deal in the early ‘70s. Her music encompasses a variety of styles from around the world. Into The Blues was her first journey into that form. This track called “Mama Papa” reflects on her early childhood in St. Kitts and has a real roots music feel to it.        
 
Pop Staples was a singer, songwriter and guitar player. He was also the patriarch of one of the most celebrated families of gospel, pop and R&B music. The Staple Singers are a Chicago treasure,and their music was always rooted in the family spirit. So much so, that Pop Staples rarely recorded as a solo artist. The Grammy-winning album Father Father was one of those rare occasions .
 
This track entitled “Jesus Is Going To Make Up (My Dying Bed)” is a testament to the special bond Pop Staples had to religion throughout his entire career.           
 
Josh White’s story is a fascinating journey into the life of a black man who was raised in the Jim Crow South. It’s the story of a man who overcame the roadblocks of racism to become a successful singer, songwriter, guitar player and actor. He moved to New York in the early 1930s. That’s when his career began to take off as he expanded his musical universe to include many genres of music. Unfortunately, his social protest music put him directly in the sights of the McCarthy-era investigations. He spent a number of years trying to clear his name while performing mostly in Europe. 
 
This song called “Hard Time Blues” reflects on the plight of Southern blacks living in poverty.