America’s Roots Music

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 17, 2009

The whining bluesy sound was not distinguishable.

But it attracted the children to it like metal to a magnet.

Caelan Mendoza watched as Anelia Culpepper demonstrated the art of playing the diddley bow.

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The Troy-Pike Cultural Arts Center docent explained that some early bluesmen got started in music by playing the diddley bow.

“This homemade instrument was a piece of wire –usually from a bale of cotton – stretched between two nails,” Culpepper said. “A player plucks the string while sliding a bottle opener or knife along the wire. That makes this whining bluesy sound.”

Playing the diddley bow is not easy and Culpepper continued to remind player wannabes to “Keep the wire taunt, it won’t work otherwise.”

Mendoza and his sister, Angelina, were among the young visitors to the New Harmonies: Celebrating American Roots Music exhibition at the Cultural Arts Studio last week. They spent a lot of time with the interactive roots music exhibits. Angelina was more prone to read and listen while Caelan preferred to try his hand at making music the old way – with the diddley bow and the spoons.

“I didn’t know that the children would enjoy the exhibit this much,” Regina Stone said as she watched her grandchildren move from exhibit to exhibit. “They’ve had a really good time and learned a lot.”

New Harmonies: Celebrating American Roots Music is the Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibit, which opened at the Cultural Arts Studio on East Walnut Street in Troy on Oct. 1 and will run through Nov. 11.

The exhibition is made possible through the combined efforts of the Smithsonian Institution, the Alabama Humanities Foundation and the Troy-Pike Cultural Arts Center.

“The Troy-Pike Cultural Arts Complex and the Troy and Pike County communities were chosen by the Alabama Humanities Foundation to host New Harmonies as part of the Museum on Main Street project,” said Richard Metzger, arts complex executive director. “The Museum on Main Street project is a national, state and local partnership to bring exhibitions and programs to rural cultural organizations.”

Through a selection of photographs, recordings, instruments, lyrics and artists profiles, New Harmonies: Celebrating American Roots Music explores the distinct cultural identities of American roots music forms.

The exhibition examines the progression of American music as rich and eclectic as America itself. Other musical genres profiled include zydeco, tejano, bluegrass and klezmer.

“The New Harmonies: Celebrating American Roots Music exhibition is a journey through the music that we all know and love,” said Wiley White, Troy-Pike Cultural Arts Center development director. “Roots music is sacred and secular, rural and urban, acoustic and electric, simple and complex, old and new. It’s performed by one musician or by an entire band, in concert halls and on back porches. Roots music is the sound of America.”

Roots music is a relatively new term. It first appeared in print and conversation in the early 1980s. Originally, it meant “roots of popular music or rock ’n roll” but today the term has come to mean all music that has grown out of older folk traditions.

The foundations of American music lie in the religions of Native Americans, European settlers and Africans brought to the colonies in bondage.

“We learn from the exhibit that music can express a distinct cultural identity while connecting across cultural lines,” White said.

“Among the three major cultures that populated North America in colonial times, people traded music as they traded guns, pelts, corn and tobacco. The music that came out of this process is an expression of America’s diversity.”

Fliaco Jimenez, Tejano musician, said American roots music is the sharing and blending of different kinds of music “like a brotherhood thing.”

“When you stop and listen, you quickly realize that music is all around us – at a local festival, at a dance hall or on your radio or your mp3 player,” Metzger said.

“Whether you’re hearing blues, country western, folk or gospel, American roots music reveals the American story – people reshaping themselves in a new and changing world.”

Metzger said that musicians from a variety of heritages found new ways to play unique sounds learned from neighbors on traditional instruments.

“The inevitable intermingling of musical influences created exciting new sounds. The sounds of American music.”

The New Harmonies exhibition is the story of American roots music.

Whether it was made on a porch in West Virginia, at a house party in Minneapolis, in a Mississippi juke joint, at a bluegrass cutting contest in eastern Kentucky, beyond the bayou in Cajun backcountry or in a black Baptist church in Chicago or Los Angeles, this music has warmed us, enlightened us, informed us, touched us, defined us.

But we respect it and cherish it, much like we do tales told by a family elder or a poem with great meaning.

And when we listen to it, we take great pride in its diversity and history and we allow it to enter our souls and become an indispensable part of us.