Roots Music

Jonathan Bellman

I know the phrase “roots music” as a marketing blurb, delivered with the same faux-global assurance and sophisto authenticity as the phrase “world music.” Whether it has any real meaning or not, it seems to be used to designate musics that are older, that follow (according to Wikipedia) “pre-commercial music traditions.” I wonder what that means, really; before musicians wanted a profit? Accepted money? When music was just—ah—a spontaneous, sincere outpouring? When Woody Guthrie worked a bar on a nickel beer at a quarter a song, was that not commercial? One would never claim that—say—the Monkees were roots music, or that house music is, nor that field hollers are not. Still, the distinction between roots and commercial, like that between high art and low art, or cultivated music and vernacular music, is not really all that clear, nor all that helpful. Often the highest, most cultivated art has vernacular influences (in the concert repertoire, often unrecognized because they are vernaculars from long ago), and vernaculars themselves are often cultivated (and, indeed, commercial) in ways that escape the notice of commentators. The Hungarian-Gypsy café music used by Schubert, Liszt, Brahms and many others as musical raw material was probably as cultivated, through repeated performance and practiced ensemble inflection, as any concert music of the time; it just wasn’t written down by the ensembles that played it. Once popular music, folk or otherwise, hit the recording studio and production enhancements it became in many ways more cultivated than concert music. How about the folk-revival, good-time groups that preceded him, like the Weavers and the New Christy Minstrels? (Groups like those so hilariously and mercilessly lampooned in the film A Mighty Wind.) Or were they “commercial” because they went after record sales, and did lots of “entertainment,” playing to the audience and so on along with their music? Pure entertainment—jokes and shtick and so on—has never been far from roots music, just as programming considerations and audience-pleasing pieces have never been far from cultivated music performances.

Perhaps “roots” go a bit deeper than they are usually given credit for.

For Chanukah, my brother gave me a CD by the Klezmatics, Wonder Wheel, which consists of songs made up of Woody Guthrie poems/lyrics and music by members of the group. I was not intimately familiar with the Klezmatics, so I didn’t really know what to expect. The roots heard on this recording include: white hymnody, klezmer (which shows up in various concentrations on many tracks), mariachi, raga rock, Irish song, sea chantey, Caribbean, and more. These are all done superbly; the musicians seem to have listened to all these styles to the point of speaking them as a mother-tongue. Hearing some of them for the first time—honestly—my throat began to stiffen. Laments about WWII with no hint of lessened resolve, multicultural celebrations, spiritual (but not narrowly religious) songs, activist songs, love songs. It’s all here.

This feels like roots music of my youth, especially because of the idealistic worldview, the hardworking socialist idealism of Woody Guthrie meeting the let-there-be-peace-on-earth-and-let-it-begin-with-me liberalism of the folk revival, where all the styles are somehow equivalent in representing “the people” and celebrated as such, and freely mixed and matched throughout. It is a celebration: on “Gonna Get Through This World,” we start with an Irish song motif, melancholy female voice in minor mode with guitar and frailing (I think) banjo. Before the first verse is over, is that a Jazz trumpet obligato? Imperceptibly, the keening choral lye-dye-dyes move toward an Eastern European mood, and a klezmer fiddle begins to comment. Song after song is not musical counterpoint but a counterpoint of musics, dovetailing elegantly with each other, no gesture being any the less Irish or klezmer or Jazz but all somehow working seamlessly together. (“There are only twelve notes,” Schoenberg supposedly said, “use them carefully.”)

There is a casualty, however, but the casualty is critical, not musical. There is a school of criticism, prevalent in recent decades, that distrusts musical borrowings of all kinds, often called musical exoticism, because of the power differentials it invariably locates in the borrowing process. Any local color flavor must mean some kind of theft, the powerful acting as colonizers of the powerless, subjugating them, essentializing them, etc. One of the odd results of this is that some of the most beloved music in the entire repertoire is distrusted by critics, but continues to be beloved of audiences. Surely many of us remember the pillorying of Paul Simon for his “appropriation” of the music of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, despite his friendship and support of the group, launching of their career outside South Africa, their frequently stated gratitude to him, etc. Critically acceptable uses of musical exoticism or transculturation were exceedingly rare (and, likewise, political); what matters is not the process or quality but who is interpreted as doing what to whom. If you’re oppressed, you can “appropriate” my musical gestures as some kind of socio-historical recompense, but if I’m not oppressed (in your view, or more often in the view of the critical commentators who would speak for you and your “plight”), your musical influence on me amounts to my theft of what is rightfully yours.

It is not too much to say that the position is essentially demolished by this record. Absent is any sense of ripping off, essentializing, highjacking of someone’s “voice” for profit by a more popular or commercially viable entity. It’s a “city” record, composed of a whole bunch of styles that flourish in a place like New York, all based on the poetry of the Oklahoman Guthrie. There’s something Great Society about it, the old dream of a cultural stewpot, rural and urban, and multi-ethnic.

Utopian and naive? Of course. Isn’t one of music’s better gigs taking us to someplace better? I can’t get the thing of my CD player.

Postscript: If you need more Guthrie—and you unquestionably will after this CD—get hold of the Grow Big Songs CD, a project of Arlo Guthrie and Woody’s other children and grandchildren, When Arlo sings “Needle Sing,” studio magic allows it to be a duet with his father’s old recording: Woody’s voice comes in on about the third verse, following a long “Welllllllllll,” as if he can’t bear staying in the next world when son Arlo’s got a song going. For me, this is one of the most emotional moments in all recorded music.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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3 Responses to Roots Music

  1. As far as I can tell, the very concept of “Roots” music is a sort of Museumization (in the Benedict Anderson sense) of music that is percieved as “indigenous”, “uncultivated” and pre-modern in some way. So old American folk music, blues, and early jazz are American Roots music because they date to times and places which we romanticise as pre-modern, because we can construct a narrative wherein the music primarily arose from and filled a social rather than an economic need, and because they appear to be sui generis rather than the product of cultivation by the economic elite. These are all things that our culture has dubbed “Authentic” and the concept of “Roots” music is a construct of Authenticity. When contemporary musicians borrow from or otherwise align themselves with Roots music they do so in part as a performance of Authenticity.
    Because Authenticity is also strongly tied to ethnicity, when the borrowing is done from the “authentic” music of a different ethnic group the borrower is often labeled as either a cultural colonist or a charlatan — this happens precisely because we percieve performance of roots music as performance of authenticity and the use of a music to which you have no cultural claim clashes with that construction and appears to give you away.
    Some musical borrowing is colonial (i.e. essentializes the borrowed music and its culture of origin) and some is not — but when critics are immediately suspicious of cross-cultural musical borrowing they too are participating in the process of cultural colonization. Living musics can’t be harmed by cross-pollenation; dead or museumized ones can be.

  2. Frank London says:

    My teacher, Charlie Banacos taught me, “There are only twelve notes,and they are all your friends.”
    Frank London
    Klezmatics’ trumpeter

  3. Jonathan says:

    Frank–thanks for posting. I cannot tell you how much I am enjoying this CD; there is an authenticity about it (whatever that means) that strikes me anew each time I put it on. Also, my favorite songs on it keep changing, which is the surest sign of a killer recording.
    Blessings on all of you!
    Jonathan

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