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What Is Roots?

This week, SundayArts looked at Lincoln Center’s Out-of-Doors, which on Sunday 24 celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Roots of American Music series with a bill that’s nothing short of killer. “Roots music,” just like “world music,” has become a catch-all term that often means more in the marketing realm than in musical or aesthetic ones, so the bill in question is particularly exciting because it makes us reconsider what exactly we mean by “roots”: The bill is shared by Charlie Haden Family and Friends, starring the famous jazz bassist, Patti Smith, the Knitters, featuring John Doe, Exene Cervenka and DJ Bonebrake, and the Music Makers Blues Revue. All of them draw inspiration from the past, but then they put it through their personal musical food processors, and come up with music that’s everything but frozen in amber.Okay, almost all to the food processor thing: The Revue (Alabama Slim, Adolphus Bell, Dr. G.B. Burt, Capt. Luke, Boo Hanks, Macavine Hayes and Big Ron Hunter) plays Southern blues as by the book as something belonging to an oral tradition can be. Which, of course, leaves a rather large latitude.

All trajectories aren’t as direct. Charlie Haden Family and Friends marks a return to the music that got him started for the patriarch—he was singing on his parents’ country and folk radio show while still in diapers. He didn’t stick to that style for long, however, and moved from his native Iowa to Los Angeles in the 1950s, falling in with a fast crowd of jazz cats. Over the next decades, he also found the time to marry singer Ruth Cameron and sire a musically inclined brood that includes son Josh (who’s found the group Spain) and daughters Rachel (the Rentals), Tanya and Petra (That Dog). The only surprise is why it took the Haden clan so long to finally record together, and the upcoming Rambling Boy album sees the Haden and their guests amble down the country memory lane.

L.A.’s Knitters are one of my very favorite country bands because they rock so ferociously. After the success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, it felt as if anybody with a fiddle could make a nickel playing dark (but somehow soothingly craggly!) old-timey tunes. After a while, it felt so well behaved…But the Knitters—which are made up of three-quarters of the classic punk band X—blow the roof off the old barn. It’s not surprising that they even give the cowpunk treatment to some X songs , like “In This House That I Call Home.” Or just check out Dave Alvin’s guitar work on “Poor Little Critter on the Road”: clean, classic. The band honors country’s past, but its feet are firmly anchored in the here and now.

As for Patti Smith’s presence on a roots-music series, I’d venture to say that it means two things. One is that New York classic punk has become a kind of American roots music, creating a template to be both honored and defiled, and that Smith has become rootsy by mere virtue of her longevity. The other is that Smith was never a typical punk anyway: She was older than her peers in the class of 1977, and she drew her inspiration not from the Stooges or the New York Dolls, but from Arthur Rimbaud and William Blake. Does it mean that by extension they too can be counted as belonging to roots music? And why not?

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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