Multimedia, Mississippi: It doesn’t take much of a metaphorical mind to conceive of Mississippi River geography in terms of the development of American music. In 1919, a seventeen-year-old German-American boy got onto the deck of the Sidney, a Mississippi riverboat that was tied up in his hometown of Davenport, Iowa. On board, he heard a black cornetist playing with the ship’s orchestra and struck up a brief friendship with him. The kid liked the cornetist’s style so much that he returned to his own playing with renewed vigor when the ship had pulled away and headed upriver. The kid was Bix Beiderbecke. The cornetist was Louis Armstrong. (These details come from Stephen Bergreen’s Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life.)
In one sense, then, the creators of the multimedia project River Of Song: A Musical Journey Down The Mississippi were only doing the logical thing when they chose, in the words of Elijah Wald (the Boston-based music writer who accompanied series director John Junkerman on the song-gathering expedition), to use the Mississippi River “less as a focus of the film than as a narrative device, a way of tying together dozens of otherwise disparate styles and approaches to music making.”
The result of their approach, however, is something entirely new, a document that could almost make you hopeful about the fate of American popular music in the 21st century. The project, produced by the Smithsonian Institution, includes a four-hour PBS television series, seven hours of public radio broadcasts, a 2-CD set on the Smithsonian Folkways label, and a 352-page book from St. Martin’s Press.
Beginning at the river’s headwaters in Northern Minnesota and ending on Louisiana’s Delacroix Island, where some people still speak Spanish, River Of Song sets out to capture the sounds being made at this moment along the banks of the Big Muddy. The most charming thing about this series, apart from the superb performances it contains, is the way it delights in its own complete arbitrariness. There is no effort made to connect, in proper musicological fashion, the various styles and traditions set before us.
This method, unashamedly random in every sense but the geographical one, is announced by the sequencing of the first two songs: “Powwow Song” by Chippewa Nation, a group of traditionalist Ojibwe Indian drummers from Inger, Minnesota, and “22″ by Minneapolis all-women rock band Babes in Toyland. Hardly a seamless flow. But the seams are the point of these films and their accompanying soundtrack, both of which seek to celebrate diversity rather than smooth it over with scholarship and heavy production. It’s the gumbo, rather than the melting pot.
Visually, River Of Song doesn’t feel particularly high-budget, which seems a virtue. It’s doubtful, for one thing, that a producer capable of providing high-budget funds would have let Junkerman and Wald concentrate on obscure performers to the extent that they do. Plus, the occasionally shaky camera and background distraction add to the folky authenticity of the shows: We’re not watching D.L. Menard sing “La Porte D’en Arri Re” on a studio lot that’s been tricked-out to look like somebody’s backyard; we’re in D.L.’s backyard in Erath, Louisiana.
It’s so rare that we witness music being made outside the context of recording and professional performance that the footage of, for instance, the Bob Lewis Family doing “Born To Be With You” gives off the glow of discovery. There they are, standing in a circle in a park somewhere in Illinois, harmonizing beautifully. Do people still do that? Of course they do, but it’s no less shocking to see it on TV (which you’ll be able to do, by the way, starting January 6).
The series is narrated by singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco — perhaps an odd choice, given that she’s from Buffalo, New York, nowhere near Mississippi River territory. But she does a fine job, bringing a genuine love for outsider music to her role, and her name is sure to bring listeners and viewers to this deserving project.
Highlights, you say? There are many. But the Mississippi bluesman Big Jack Johnson — the kind of guy about whom people whisper, “Hey, he’s the real thing” — doing an acoustic “Catfish” made me lean in toward the screen. And Irma Thomas’ live rendition of “Time Is On My Side” alone might be worth sitting through all four episodes. She charted with this song in 1964, before the Rolling Stones decided to cover it. “At that time,” she says, “that was what they called the ‘British Invasion,’ and I got invaded by the British.” Her powerful delivery brings out subtleties in the vocal that Mick Jagger wasn’t up to, and she doesn’t bring quite as much spite to the chorus. Thomas doesn’t have to gloat, like a woman trying to convince herself, about time being on her side. She knows it’s on her side. And you will come running back.
With River Of Song, The Smithsonian Institution has done an admirable thing. I for one am sick and weary of the box-set phenomenon, which has changed roots recordings from something that young musicians would excitedly rush home with from the junk shop into something to be worshipped at $60 shrines replete with sacred texts written by guys who sound like they’d stab you if they heard you say that a few decent songs have been recorded since the end of the Great Depression. This new series is never reverential; to be so is a kind of mummification. Rather, it’s curious, open, without an agenda. The musicians included seemed to have sensed that openness on the part of the filmmakers, and met it with their own. Their artistry proves that the river of North American song hasn’t dried up yet.
The TV series River Of Song: A Musical Journey Down The Mississippi goes out to PBS affiliates on Jan. 6; check local listings for air times in your area. (Most stations will be showing it sometime during the month of January — some in one four-hour block, others in one-hour daily or weekly segments. The radio version of the series is seven hours long and will air on various public stations nationwide during January.
The Smithsonian Folkways 2-CD set, which gathers 36 songs from the series and includes a 48-page booklet, was released on Dec. 1.
The St. Martin’s Press book, authored by Elijah Wald and John Junkerman, is due out Jan. 13.