American Roots Music Documentary

If you want to know where the MTV generation came from, just look in the hearts of the European, African and Latino immigrants who came here over the years.

PBS begins a comprehensive, four-part documentary, American Roots Music, tonight. "Nearly every immigrant that came to America brought folk songs with them," says narrator Kris Kristofferson.

When the recording industry first began, the early producers were looking for product. The fresh talent came from cowboys, hillbillys, jazz musicians and gospel singers who were creating new forms of American music.

Their stories are being told by a New York filmmaker who wants to preserve this history. "Whether it be county, blues, gospel, bluegrass, tejano, Native American, folk, these are the first [types of] music that get recognized as American folk music," said Jim Brown, who worked with Ken Burns on the Civil War series.

"This is the working-class vernacular of American culture," said Brown. "There's something so honest and compelling about this music that I felt that maybe it would have a wider audience."

"This music was a force within many communities to help them survive," said Brown. "And also have good times, joyous times, dances, and courting."

Preserving Folk Heroes

The task of documenting roots music spanned four years, as Brown researched 175 archival sources and interviewed performers including Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson and Pete Seeger who talk about their own musical heroes.

Raitt has long worked to highlight the early blues musicians, and Brown says she "literally cried when she saw some of the footage of people who had been important to her." Brown grew up going to see Bob Dylan perform in New York's Greenwich village and was also personally driven to document folk history and the earliest recorded forms of American music.

The footage assembled is simple as strong performances stand alone, without the type of glitz now associated with the music industry.

There are singing cowboys out on the range, banjo strumming hillbillies and itinerant gospel singers finding their record sales in the millions in the 1920s.

Later came a young Aretha Franklin, who took her father's gospel stylings and emerged as the "Queen of Soul."

The series also tackles racism and the struggles early blues musicians experienced while trying to get radio airplay. "Even though country music is on the radio it's not until the 1940s that black southerners get on the radio," said Brown. Once there, the music thrived.

Brown says some of his favorite performances in the series are from the blues. "There's two Howlin' Wolf songs that were absolutely incredible," said Brown.

There are also clips of harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson with James Cotton. "As a little boy [Cotton] was handed over to Sonny Boy Williamson," said Brown who includes what he describes as a "smokin'" version of "You've Got My Mojo Working."

Ready to Rock

The series may start out in America, but it ends up in Britain, as the early rock 'n' rollers knew they wanted to sing like the blues men of the Mississippi Delta.

Island Records and Palm Pictures founder Chris Blackwell produced the series' companion CD set and recalls noticing the influence of blues singers abroad.

"I was in England in the very early '60s," said Blackwell. "The Who, The Rolling Stones, Steve Winwood, Joe Cocker and many others searched out the recordings of the blues artists and assimilated their music into the root of what became the British Invasion."

Blackwell says even people who are not fans of blues or country music should tune in to "hear and see the roots of the music we listen to every day on the radio and to learn how pure music used to be."