by Maggi Landau, Artistic Director, American Roots Music
A term that encompasses tradition, innovation, and countless subgenres, American Roots Music can be hard to pin down. Maggi Landau breaks it down from its origins, its present, and what makes this genre so meaningful and collaborative.
So just what is American Roots Music? What’s the background, history and evolution of American Roots Music?
It’s kind of a trick question in the sense that there is no one genre called American Roots Music. Instead, the moniker covers a lot of territory including folk (Pete Seeger), country, rockabilly (Elvis Presley), honky-tonk (Hank Williams), string band, bluegrass (Del McCoury Band), gospel, blues, Appalachian, Old Time, cajun, and zydeco styles. And each of these genres has their own rich background, history, and evolution.
For some folks, American Roots Music is forward-thinking, denoting music that serves as the basis of later forms that developed in the United States, for example the blues as the root of rock and roll. But to me, it’s a broader notion — the essence of American Roots Music is that these genres are rooted in American culture and the American experience. They reflect American voices making music for a certain time and place — each a unique blend of cultural, economic, and geographic influences. And, as such, while they are distinctly their own forms they are also influenced by the immigrant pasts of the African, English, Irish, Scottish, French, and other settlers who came here, strains of which infiltrated and shaped some of the early songs, melodies, and instrumentation.
Another hallmark of American Roots Music is that for many of these genres, songs have been passed down from generation to generation in the oral tradition — person to person — at song circles, in living rooms and on front porches, in churches, at social or political gatherings. This tradition continues today with technology making it even easier for people to share and pass along their musical thoughts and styles.
For traditionalists, original melodies and words are treated reverentially and preserved in the sharing. For others, songs are not necessarily beholden to the past, and their lyrics and melodies and even instrumentation are interpreted and re-imagined. Regardless of your preference, American Roots Music exists as a vibrant art form, with contemporary artists embracing, as well as transforming, elements of the traditional roots thus keeping these many genres relevant and alive.
At its core, American Roots Music can be enjoyed by everyone from the young to the young at heart (regardless of background or training), performed by professional road warriors and those who simply like to sing and play (regardless of level), and speaks to the human condition in all its diverse and challenging glory.
We hope that you will join us this summer as we explore many facets of American Roots Music. Bring a friend, bring the family, and be prepared to clap your hands and rise up singing!
Top Photo: Man About a Horse performs in the Sunken Garden stage during the 2016 American Roots Music Festival. Photo by Gabe Palacio.