Roots Music Today: New Harmonies

Aired: June 26, 2011
Roots music has been defined as the “roots of rock and roll,” but it’s not just focused on the past. Roots music lives today, whether in contemporary musicians who are inspired by America’s musical history or in the songs and rhythms of immigrants who mix the culture of their home nations with American culture to create a vibrant, evolving art form. In this episode, Spook Handy a well-known musician who writes songs inspired by the music of folk masters like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and James Day, professor at the College of New Jersey, a musician who has been leading a group of students in researching the musical culture of Trenton, NJ, discuss what roots music means today. From playing new versions of old folk tunes to creating new musical roots in New Jersey, roots music is alive and well. Both guests are involved in the tour of New Harmonies: Celebrating American Roots Music, a Smithsonian Institution travelling exhibit which will tour New Jersey until December 2011.

How does roots music evolve while maintaining a connection with the past? In this clip, Spook Handy talks about Pete Seeger’s impact on the development of roots music in America and the political impact of his songs. Exemplary is Seeger’s “Last Train to Nuremberg,” a powerful critique of war, which is closely bound to its time period. Inspired by Seeger, Handy sings “Heading for the Hague,” a song he wrote that discusses recent events, such as those at Abu Ghraib.

Over the past decade, Trenton’s Latino/a population has increased 56%, according to the U.S. census. Many of these are immigrants, from places like Guatemala and the Dominican Republic, who are bringing music from their homelands to New Jersey’s capital city. In this clip, James Day discusses his students’ research in Trenton and how their musical ethnography shows that roots music is both a tool of assimilation and a way to maintain cultural tradition.

Woody Guthrie’s “Union Maid” is a political song. But when Billy Bragg and Dar Williams sang it they added lyrics that reflected more contemporary gender and racial politics. In this clip, Spook Handy and James Day talk about the connection between politics and roots music. Is it the lyrics that make a song political, or its social context? Or, is it when people come together to sing that we see the real political impact of this music?


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