American Roots Music: Episodes and Time Line

Episode One

When First Unto This Country traces the emergence of roots music in America from its European and African origins through its maturation into American music genres including spirituals, blues, country and gospel. For the first time, American "folk music" is defined as scholars and music industry entrepreneurs travel the nation to record authentic cultural expression through field recordings, photographs, early newsreels and ethnographic footage. "Hillbilly" and "race" records become profitable recording industry genres that popularize regional music. The emergence of radio broadens audiences and helps the cross-fertilization of various music forms. Episode One explores such important turning points as the popularization of African-American spirituals by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the birth of country music with Ralph Peer's recordings of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, the development of the Grand Ole Opry, and the creation of gospel music by Thomas A. Dorsey. Commentary is provided by Pete Seeger, Bonnie Raitt, Arlo Guthrie, Keith Richards, Ricky Skaggs, Rufus Thomas and Keb' Mo' among many others.

Fisk Jubilee Singers
Recorded Music
The Bristol Sessions
Delta Blues
The Grand Old Opera
Gospel is Born

Episode Two

This Land Was Made For You and Me explores a period in which different strands of roots music becomes visible and commercialized through movies, television, radio and records. Concurrently, "folk music" is redefined to include newly-written music for songs that often deal with social causes. Roots music is influenced by the labor movement, WWII, urban migration, progressive politics and the McCarthy era. During this episode, we see an evolution of roots genres, particularly country. From film and radio's popularization of cowboy and western music to the development of western swing by charismatic band leader Bob Wills, the creation of bluegrass by Bill Monroe and Early Scruggs, and the innovations of honky-tonk artists including Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams, country music roots give rise to a number of offshoot branches. Episode Two also highlights the early folk revival with the emergence of Woody Guthrie and the recording of Lead Belly by John and Alan Lomax. Finally, we trace the origins of the blues scene in Memphis from a small Helena, Arkansas radio station where the blues were first broadcast to Elvis Presley's breakthrough hit version of Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's "That's All Right Mama." Commentary in this episode is provided by Earl Scruggs, Merle Haggard, Marty Stuart, Arlo Guthrie, Sam Phillips, Kitty Wells and B.B. King among many others.

Cowboy Music and Western Swing
Lead Belly and Lomax
Woody Guthrie
Honky Tonk
The Blues and Radio

Episode Three

The Times They are A-Changin' traces the continuing emergence of American roots music through a national awareness catalyzed by the folk and blues revivals. Gospel music's golden years are explored in this episode, from the Golden Gate Quartet to Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson, and the crossover success of the Staple Singers. Urban migration from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago fosters the electrification of the blues, producing such giants as Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. During this period, folk music and the blues become intertwined with youth culture and social and political causes like the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. The Newport Folk Festival presents a mixture of traditional blues, gospel and country artists with popular "folk" and protest singers of the time. Blues bands integrate and begin playing for integrated audiences, and Bob Dylan, the most prolific singer/songwriter of the generation, goes electric, causing quite a stir in the "folk" community. Commentary in this episode is provided by Mavis Staples, Bonnie Raitt, Peter Yarrow, Pete Seeger, John Sebastian, Keith Richards, James Cotton and B.B. King among many others.

Chicago Blues
B. B. King
Golden Age of Gospel
The Weavers
The Folk Revival
Newport Folk Festival

Episode Four

All My Children of the Sun focuses on the reassessment of diverse ethnic musics previously excluded from American "folk" music, and their inclusion in a redefined "American roots music." This episode describes the flourishing of Cajun culture in southwest Louisiana, the popularization of tejano music in south Texas, and the evolution of Native American music forms. Episode Four also rounds up the series by exploring the state of American roots music today—where the blues, country and gospel genres are now and where they are headed in the 21st century. Commentary in this episode is provided by Mark and Ann Savoy, Steve Riley, Flaco Jimenez, Edwin Hawkins, Robbie Robertson, Floyd Westerman, and Robert Mirabal among many others.

Native American
Nakai and Mirabal
Evolution of Roots

Time Line

1871 The Fisk Jubilee Singers begin touring America performing their spirituals for white audiences.

1890 Jessie Walter Fewkes records the Passamaquoddy Indians off the coast of Maine. This is the first field use of the newly-invented recording machine.

1902 The era of the flat disc recording begins when the Columbia and Victor companies arrive at 7-inch and 10-inch formats for the newly-designed records.

1904 The St. Louis World's Fair, the largest of its kind to date, features "human dioramas" introducing the music of Africa, the Phillippines and Native American cultures to a mass audience.

1910 Song archivist John Lomax publishes his first book, Cowboy Songs and Frontier Ballads, consisting of songs he gathered traveling through Texas, including "Home on the Range."

1920 Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds record "Crazy Blues" for Okeh, the first blues recording by a black singer, triggering an enormous popular demand for blues recordings and "race" records.

1925 Nashville fiddler Uncle Jimmy Thompson performs a collection of his favorite songs on Nashville radio station WSM. Two years later George D. Hay renames the show "The Grand Old Opry."

1925 Blind Lemon Jefferson—one of country blues' big three, along with Charley Patton and Son House—begins his recording career with Paramount Records.

1927 Victor Records' Ralph Peer goes to Bristol, Tennessee and records 19 proto-country music artists in two weeks, discovering Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family.

1928 The first Cajun recordings are made by accordionists Joe Falcon (in the Acadian style) and Armede Ardoin (in the black French Creole style); the latter is eventually known as zydeco.

1930 Georgia Tom Dorsey, a popular bluesman of the 1920s, scores his first non-secular hit with "If You See My Savior, Tell Him You Saw Me" and is henceforth known as Thomas A. Dorsey, the Father of Gospel.

1933 John Lomax and his son Alan travel 16,000 miles in four months, recording country, blues and work songs, mainly in southern penitentiaries. They meet Lead Belly shortly before his release from prison.

1934 Lydia Mendoza, part of the popular Familia Mendoza group, records as a solo artist and "Mal Hombre" becomes a major Hispanic-American hit, establishing her as the first star of tejano music.

1934 The Golden Gate Quartet revolutionize gospel music with their elaborate, percussive jubilee-style vocals.

1934-36 Woody Guthrie hobos from Oklahoma to California and back across the country, singing the plight of Great Depression farmers and becoming known as The Dust Bowl Balladeer.

1935 Gene Autry, America's favorite Singing Cowboy, stars in the Republic Pictures film Tumbling Tumbleweeds, creating the musical western genre and establishing the cowboy song as a popular music style.

1935 Bob Wills first records with the Texas Playboys, combining country music with jazz-inspired arrangements to usher in the western swing era. The band uses fiddles, electric guitar, drums and horns.

1936 Delta blues giant Robert Johnson's first recording sessions take place in San Antonio for Vocalion, yielding such seminal tracks as "Cross Road Blues," "Terraplane Blues" and "Kind Hearted Woman Blues."

1938 John Hammond puts together a history of American roots music entitled "From Spirituals to Swing," the first time an all-black show is presented at Carnegie Hall.

1941 Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Lockwood Jr. help launch the "King Biscuit Time" show on KFFA in Arkansas.

1943 Muddy Waters joins the black migration from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago, amplifying his country blues roots to help create Chicago blues.

1946 The banjo hits it big when Bill Monroe adds banjo player Earl Scruggs and guitarist Lester Flatt to his band, creating the bluegrass sound.

1947 Mahalia Jackson brings gospel music to its commercial highpoint, recording "Move On Up a Little Higher" for the independent Apollo label. A million seller, it establishes gospel music in the mainstream music marketplace.

1948 The vinyl record, or LP, is introduced, allowing artists to record lengthier compositions.

1949 Honky-tonk country artist Hank Williams debuts at the Grand Ole Opry, performing "Lovesick Blues."

1949 Local blues sensation Riley King hosts and plays the "Pepticon Boy" show on WDIA radio in Memphis; he goes on to DJ as the "Beale Street Blues Boy," later shortened to his nickname "B.B." King.

1950 The Weavers score a Number One hit with a version of Lead Belly's "Goodnight Irene," creating a new sound that anticipates the folk revival.

1952 Kitty Wells records "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" in Nashville, opening the door to women in modern country music.

1952 Folkways Records releases the 6-volume Anthology of American Folk Music, compiled by Harry Smith, which becomes a bible for folk music revivalists.

1954 The first recordings by accordionist Clifton Chenier establish zydeco as a popular hybrid genre.

1954 Sam Phillips signs and records Elvis Presley. Their first single, "That's All Right Mama," a blues song written by Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup; the b-side is Bill Monroe's bluegrass track, "Blue Moon of Kentucky".

1959 The Newport Folk Festival is organized by George Wein, Alan Lomax, Pete Seeger and others. The festival becomes a major vehicle for introducing American folk musicians to broader audiences.

1961 Columbia Records releases the Robert Johnson King of the Delta Blues Singers retrospective.

1963 Spiritual music, in particular the anthem "We Shall Overcome," becomes a driving musical force of the Civil Rights, and later, the anti-war movements.

1965 Backed by members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, folk hero Bob Dylan plugs in and plays electric music at the Newport Folk Festival.

1968 Gospel superstar Mahalia Jackson sings "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" at Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral.

1969 The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival becomes one of the most important roots music showcases in the world.

1974 The Council of the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) sponsors the first Festivals Acadiens at Blackham Coliseum in Lafayette, promoting Cajun music.

1981 Ricky Skaggs releases Waitin' for the Sun to Shine, catalyzing the 1980s neo-traditional country movement.

1983 The compact disc is released as a new medium for digital audio, creating an unprecedented boom in extensive reissue packages.

1989 Legendary accordionist Flaco Jiminez forms the Texas Tornados with Freddy Fender and former Sir Douglas Quintet members Doug Sahm and Augie Meyers.

1990 The Complete Robert Johnson, a Columbia/Legacy 2-disc set collecting all of the Delta bluesman's known recordings, becomes a surprise hit and creates a boom for roots reissues.

1998 The No Depression movement reaches its apotheosis in Mermaid Avenue, an alt-country collaboration between Billy Bragg and Wilco matching new music to Woody Guthrie lyrics.

2001 Gathering of Nations Pow Wow, a compilation of songs by various Native American drum groups, wins the first Grammy Award for Best Native American Album.