"American Music Roots" arrives almost a year after Ken Burns' landmark "Jazz" series, and this survey, premiering tonight on PBS, is modest by comparison. It's just four hours, compared to 19 for "Jazz," and is trumpeted by only a fraction of the publicity.
But the subject matter occupies an equally vital place in America's cultural legacy--the various "roots" music styles, from blues and country to gospel and folk, that blossomed during the 20th century and now serve as the soulful foundation of contemporary pop music.
This is the music of giants--folk's Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly; gospel's Thomas A. Dorsey and Mahalia Jackson; country's Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams; the blues' Robert Johnson and Son House.
The raw passion and insight with which these singers and songwriters chronicled the frustrations and joys of everyday life in America later ignited the imaginations of Elvis Presley and Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. They in turn inspired another generation of rock, hip-hop and country artists.
The four-part series, which airs on consecutive Mondays, offers a stirring, if severely abbreviated, look at this movement, which started on the fringes of mainstream pop but eventually shattered pop's timid boundaries.
As engaging as the story of the roots music itself is the way contemporary stars speak with about the early influences.
* Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards fumbles around trying to find the words to convey the magic of Robert Johnson, whose "Love in Vain" was one of the Stones' key tracks on 1969's "Let It Bleed."
* Multi-Grammy winner Bonnie Raitt describes Son House as the place where the blues began for her. "He's tapping into something that is as primal and as rich and as beautiful as any music you could ever hear."
* Country singer Marty Stuart lauds Woody Guthrie, the master of the protest song: "Woody showed me you could take a guitar into the middle of injustice and do something about it ... [and that] a guitar ain't just for entertainment on Saturday night.... Sometimes it's a weapon."
* Pete Seeger, himself a folk legend, tells about the way a young Bob Dylan picked up the Guthrie torch: "If he hadn't been a songwriter, he would have been a damn good novelist because he sees the contradictions in things, which poets see.... And also he's not afraid to speak out."
Much of the power of "American Roots Music" comes in its dramatic telling of how radio and records helped these musical strains move from regional isolation to a national audience and mutual interaction.
The opening shots in tonight's episode, quite rightly, are of the land itself--the lakes and mountains that were waiting when Europeans and Africans came to this continent centuries ago, bringing with them the musical traditions of their homelands. (Native American music, of course, was already present, and is showcased in Episode 4, along with Cajun, zydeco and \o7 tejano\f7 .)
The Grand Ole Opry radio show, which debuted in the 1920s on Nashville station WSM, played an essential role in making national stars of such country figures as Uncle Dave Macon and Roy Acuff.
Radio also helped greatly in exposing the blues, starting in 1941 when Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Junior Lockwood went into KFFA, a Helena, Ark., station, and convinced management to give them a 15-minute daily show.
The program aired during the lunch hour, and B.B. King, a former farm worker, recalls in "Roots" that the show inspired him years later to move to Memphis and pursue music full time. Eventually, King got his own show on station WDIA, reportedly the first station in the country devoted exclusively to black music.
The format was an instant hit, making Memphis such a magnet for blues artists, including Howlin' Wolf, that former disc jockey Sam Phillips opened a studio there in the early '50s to record them. He eventually discovered Elvis Presley, who had been listening to both WDIA and the Grand Ole Opry.
Presley's first single on Phillips' Sun Records was a country-accented version of bluesman Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's "That's All Right." It served in many ways as the "big bang" that created rock 'n' roll.
The next "big bang" moment occurs at the end of Episode 3, when Dylan arrives on the '60s folk scene in New York City. His journey would eventually blend the commentary of folk with the energy of rock in ways that would make him contemporary pop's most influential writer.
John Sebastian, who had considerable pop success himself in the '60s as the leader of the roots-oriented band the Lovin' Spoonful, recalls Dylan's transformation.
"I met Bob Dylan in the basement of Gerde's Folk City," Sebastian recalls good-naturedly. "He was still playing the kind of jug band music I liked. I found him quite enjoyable, [but I] didn't take it too seriously.