by Paul Hormick
Welcome to the 31st Annual Adams Avenue Roots Festival, the annual celebration of our American musical heritage. Sometime during the mid-1980s the term "roots music" began to replace "folk music" because the connotation of "folk" had narrowed to a picture of hillbillies on the back porch or of Bob Dylan wannabees - not quite exiting enough to build an entire festival around. Roots music encompasses more. It can mean any form of music that contributed to our modern forms of pop, rock, and jazz. It comprises the masala of song styles that make up this country's musical heritage, from Southwest conjunto and mariachi, to the hammered dulcimer ensembles of the Appalachians. Even some of the more modern music, like rhythm and blues and the songs of Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie, are included on roots programs because of their influence on modern popular music.
The deepest roots of American music go back to Europe. When Europeans began colonizing the New World during the 1500s, they brought their jigs, chanties, reels, and other songs to their new home. They also brought their instruments and, except for the banjo, which comes from Africa, all the instruments used to play American roots music are European. As some ethnic groups settled more heavily in certain areas, they retained more of their roots in the music of their new land. For example, the Appalachians were settled by waves of Scottish and Irish immigrants; the resulting mountain music retained a great deal of Celtic character. Other waves of immigrants, including Germans, Poles, Slavs, and others, brought folk tunes from the Old World and added them to the American mix. You can hear such roots at this year's festival by a diverse group of musicians performing the music of Greece, Poland, Russia, France, and other countries of the continent.
The biggest crux around which most American roots music augers is the blend of European and Africa music. Rock, hip-hop, blues, country, jazz, gospel, and almost all the musical styles of this country can trace their origins to this interaction. The two scale systems --the do re mi-- of the two continents differed. Africa has more "natural" pentatonic scales, whereas in Europe, as a result of the development of keyboard instruments and the influence of composers like Bach, the natural scales were tampered with.
Notes were sharpened or flattened, and new ones were added altogether. When the black slaves tried to sing the songs of their southern white owners, they bent the unusual European notes to the African ones. Of all the music descended from this interaction, the blues retains this quality the most. You'll be able to hear in the guitar work of Robin Henkel and Tomcat Courtney the bending and sliding of notes that go back to the ante-bellum South.
This festival also features music of northern Mexico and the American Southwest, which are also based on the music of Europe. Los Californios perform characteristically sweet and restrained waltzes and polkas that were heard in this part of the world before the Mexican-American War. The Mexican Roots Trio gives us a musical development of this same area but a hundred years later. More immigration brought additional influences, and the repertoire expanded to include schot-tisches and mazurkas, resulting in a more high spirited music.
Cajun comes from the French-speaking Acadians who settled in Louisiana after their expulsion from Canada. This style of music developed around dance hall fiddle tunes. This dance music was usually performed by a fiddle duo . one instrument droned double stops as the other played the melody. The songs were sung in a strong high-pitched manner to be heard above the sound of all the dancers shoes on the floor.
What we think of as the essential Cajun instrument . the button accordion . is a relatively late addition to this music. It was incorporated by German immigrants in the 1880s who brought their instruments with them when they settled in Louisiana. Although a late comer, the accordion was an important musical influence. The breath of the instrument, the time it takes to push or pull the hand bellows, gives Cajun music its characteristic feel.
Zydeco is often mistaken or confused with Cajun music. The button accordion figures prominently in both styles, and they come from from the same area of the country, but Zydeco is of Creole origin. It developed after WWII as the Creoles mixed rhythm and blues with more traditional song styles. Zydeco and Cajun have intermixed and influenced each other, but are separate music traditions, related more by marriage than blood. As mentioned above, certain individuals, because of their virtuosity or strength of their personality, have had a profound effect on a musical genre or created an entire genre of their own. Django Reinhardt probably didn't know that he was creating an entirely new
type of jazz when he started listening to the records of Louis Armstrong and other American performers that hit shores of France in the 1930s. Reinhardt was a gypsy who had grown up playing the Romany music of his ancestors. Once again, the scales upon which this music is based are different from the ones used by the American jazz players. When Reinhardt tried to play jazz, he couldn't help but infuse the tunes with a Gypsy flair.
It's been said that Mozart's music can be described as both happy and sad at the same time. Reinhardt's music is the same. His take on jazz accentuates all the sadness and sweetness, joy and sorrow in the music. There are now thousands of musicians who carry on his style and dozens of international festivals that celebrate his musical contribution. You'll hear Reinhardt's legacy as the Hot Club of San Diego brings the gypsy jazz to this year's festival.
If the U.S. were a movie, part of the soundtrack would have to include the music of the troubadours and minstrels who traveled from town to town singing their songs. These tunes were passed down through the train yards, cheap hotels, and jails where the minstrels gathered. As this music was not written down, verses were added or altered, and sometimes the songs would change completely. It's thought that the bizarre lyrics to the country standard, "Wild Wood Flower," developed this way.
Woody Guthrie took the tradition of the troubadour and added his signature to the songs by making them topical. He sang about the masses of Okies seeking the promised land in California; his songs criticized McCarthy and the Red Scare; and his repertoire told stories about hard work and the hardscrabble life of the poor. His influence is immense. All the folk singers who graced the Greenwich Village coffee shops - Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and Tom Rush - owe it all to him. As a matter of fact, songs that address social issues or are topical in any way, no matter what the style, can trace some of their inspiration back to Guthrie. Ross Altman, known as a singer/ songfighter, embodies this tradition. And the quirky observations of Lou and Peter Berryman owe more than a nod of the hat to Guthrie, as do the American Folk Singers, Gregory Page and Tom Brosseau.
These are only a few highlights of this year's Roots Festival. There is much more . country music, bluegrass, Appalachian fiddle tunes . it's all there. Workshops will also be conducted by performers who will offer tips on their styles and instruments. And don't forget the vendors and the beer garden. By supporting the vendors you support the music. No matter what your favorite music is . rock and roll, hip-hop, or jazz . have a good time at the festival and get in touch with your roots.
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