Various Artists

American Roots Music [Video/DVD]

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The successes of the breakthrough soundtrack from the film O Brother Where Art Thou and the in-depth PBS television series Ken Burns' Jazz seem to have combined in the 2001 production of Palm Pictures' four-part TV series, American Roots Music. This four-VHS/two-DVD set touches on the development of the distinctly American styles of traditional folk, country, blues, gospel, Western swing, bluegrass, cajun, zydeco, Tejano, and Native American music. Each of the four episodes deals with a different group of styles, and features fascinating archival footage of legendary artists like Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters, Bill Monroe, Clifton Chenier, Leadbelly, and many others. Unfortunately, none of the performances were presented in their entirety on TV. These edits are remedied to some extent by the inclusion of six bonus performances (three on each DVD), including a vintage performance by Western swing bandleader Bob Wills. The footage of a startlingly young Peter, Paul & Mary is electrifying, showing the youthful passion in their early live performances, while scenes of Howlin' Wolf (artily shot in an abandoned cafe after hours) will definitely earn the underrated bluesman some new fans. The historical importance of this footage is obvious, but the way the pieces were edited leaves a little to be desired. The producers' sources (the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum) had hundreds of hours of performance footage and interviews at their disposal, but chose instead to show too many contemporary shots of tall grass waving in the wind and rusting railroad tracks. The additions to the DVD clearly show that there was plenty of great film available that went unused. This nitpicking is almost unnecessary, since the performances that are included are well-worth the price of the set. [Also available from Palm is a boxed set including four CDs of music from the series as well as a 19-song CD sampler entitled American Roots Music: Highlights.]