The origins of American roots music can be traced to the early 20th century, when rural American musicians were able to record their songs for the first time. Many of these songs were the result of blending their own traditional, culturally-specific, musical forms and instruments with the music of other cultures found in America. These diverse styles formed the basis of what would eventually become modern folk, blues, country and western, jazz, gospel, Cajun, zydeco, Tejano, rock and roll, and other popular American music styles. So let’s get to the heart of American roots music.
Rhiannon Giddens's follow-up to her highly acclaimed solo debut, Tomorrow Is My Turn, is more raw and personal with a mix of original tunes, traditional songs, and two songs from the civil rights era. A founding member of the country, blues, and old-time music band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, multi-instrumentalist Gidden’s music mixes miles-deep historical roots with contemporary sensibilities.
The collection of musical forms, styles, and genres known as música Tejana evolved primarily in South Texas during the 19th century. As immigrants moved into Mexican Texas, they brought their unique musical heritages with them. Over time, the indigenous Mexican music incorporated rhythms from French dance music, German polkas, Latin American mambos, and other European and African traditions. Non-traditional Mexican musical instruments such as the accordion, violin, saxophone, and the 12-string bajo sexto bass guitar became standard accompaniment. Tejano music developed its own distinctive sound, eventually taking on characteristics of American country and rock in the 1950s and ’60s and exploding in popularity in the ’90s with musicians like Selena Quintanilla-Pérez and Emilio Navaira.
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Cajun music as it is known today can be traced back to early Acadian, French, Creole, and Anglo-Saxon folk songs. These early ballads and lullabies, typically concerned with troubles and hard times, were often sung a cappella. For the most part, they were performed at home and passed down orally from generation to generation; however, the singers of these traditional songs were eventually accompanied by simple instrumentation. On The Legacy, American singer-songwriter and accordionist Jo-El Sonnier is accompanied by harmonica, acoustic and electric guitars, percussion, drums, bass, fiddle, and steel guitar. The Legacy earned Sonnier a Grammy Award for Best Regional Roots Music Album. Although Sonnier had been writing songs since the age of eleven, this is his first recording of all Cajun-French originals.
Contemporary blues group the South Memphis String Band consists of Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars and the Black Crowes, Grammy-winner Alvin Youngblood Hart, and Jimbo Mathus of the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Their debut album features songs by Blind Willie Johnson, Johnny Lee Moore, the Mississippi Sheiks, and A.P. Carter, as well as originals. On this 2010 outing, the trio have succeeded in producing a recording that sounds like it could have been made at least 80 years earlier. Featuring acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, Dobro, and other string instruments, along with the occasional harmonica and kazoo, plus plenty of heavy foot-tapping for percussion.
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Selections from the soundtrack of the PBS television documentary series, American Epic featuring a diverse array of contemporary musical artists covering songs first recorded during the early 20th century; recorded live by Jack White and T Bone Burnett on the only 1920's-era recording device in existence.
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In the span of just 40 songs, Birthright offers an expansive overview of American Black roots music, from old-time banjo and traditional jazz to Mississippi hill country blues, demonstrating the pervasive influence of these styles on popular culture from country to hip hop. This rollicking ride through the joyful landscape of African American musical invention includes essays from musician/scholars Dom Flemons and Corey Harris, as well as an essay and track notes by co-producer Ted Olson.
From the Smithsonian Folkways archives, Classic African-American Ballads is a sampling of an important, historic, and engaging slice of America's Black music heritage. The heyday of the Black ballad tradition (1890-1920) left a lasting strain of creativity and a monument to African American life of the time. Ranging from songs created from the heritage of the English ballad, to social commentary vilifying abusive white authority figures, to "blues ballads," this album reminds us of the enormity and constant evolution of African American musical tradition.
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Born of the British ballad, its American offspring was the blank canvas for all types of tales, the more calamitous or scandalous, the better. Jesse James and Billy the Kid, train wrecks and hurricanes, the Titanic and Tom Dooley, fatal lovers' quarrels, and foiling the devil, all and more were normal fare, served up in a song. Classic American Ballads contains 25 tracks of time-worn tragedy drawn from the deep fount of the Smithsonian Folkways archives.
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The music from the Coen brothers’ 2000 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? was more than just a soundtrack, it propelled bluegrass, roots music, and Americana into the spotlight. Ten years later, the album was expanded to include a second disc of previously unreleased recordings including cuts from Van Dyke Parks, Fairfield Four, and the Cox Family. This platinum selling album won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 2002.
Arthel Lane "Doc" Watson was an American guitarist, songwriter, and singer of bluegrass, folk, country, blues, and gospel music. Winner of a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, his fingerpicking and flatpicking guitar skills, as well as his extensive knowledge of traditional American music, were highly regarded. Live at Club 47 captures Watson before an audience in a small Cambridge, Massachusetts club shortly before his commercial breakthrough at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival. On this intimate, crisp recording Watson demonstrates his mastery of the acoustic guitar, banjo, harmonica, and autoharp. Watson's unadorned, expressive vocals are irresistible, delivered with genuine warmth and sincerity.
The Weavers were an American folk music quartet based in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. Founded in 1948, the group sang traditional folk songs from around the world, as well as blues, gospel music, children's songs, labor songs, and American ballads. Originally consisting of Lee Hays, Pete Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman, the group sold millions of records at the height of their popularity, during the late 1950s. The Weavers received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. They set the stage for the ‘50s and ‘60s folk revival, bridging the gap between folk and popular music, and folk and the topical song, paving the way for artists like Bob Dylan.
The Harrow & the Harvest is steeped in the early country, bluegrass, and Appalachian mountain traditions that are dou Gillian Welch and David Rawlings trademark. Though it engages rock and roll and blues motifs, the melodies and lyrics reflect the darkness and melancholy of Gothic Americana. Sparse instrumentation, acoustic guitars, banjos, harmonica, and hand-and-knee slaps illustrate a near-symbiotic musical interplay, with rhythms, melodies, and countermelodies exchanged organically, interlocked in the moment.