Roots of American Music Festival

[18 September 2008]

By Thomas Hauner

In 1959, upon returning from work abroad, the folklorist and musicologist Alan Lomax presented a concert of unprecedented billing at Carnegie Hall. What followed was the first documented live performance of folk, gospel, blues, bluegrass, and rock ‘n’ roll in the same venue, in the same evening, for the same audience. Though the crowd resisted many of the genres, that evening—as Izzy Young, former owner of the Folklore Center in Greenwich Village, describes—was a turning point in American music: “At that concert, the point he was trying to make was that Negro and white music were mixing, and rock and roll was that thing.”

Late last month, as part of Lincoln Center’s Out of Doors series, the 25th Annual Roots of American Music Festival was again reiterating that point, albeit for less hostile ears and not as conspicuously. Rather, the festival aimed to direct listeners towards not only the resounding representatives of indigenous genres, but also to highlight those artists who lie at their fulcrums; hence headliner Patti Smith and her band.

As the “Godmother of punk” she stood for punk, the synthesis of folk, rock, and beat poetry. Here, her timeless sound worked well in the park’s quarter-egg of a bandshell, illuminated by the stage’s ambient light, though several fans were noticeably irked by the seating-only policy in front of the stage. She reliably sang without almost any consonants but looked youthful leaning on her knee against the floor monitors. The surprise came when Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush, who had performed earlier in the afternoon with Charlie Haden, joined Smith onstage for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. They added instrumental flair to a song that generally squeezes its emotion from the vocals, as Smith did here.

But Smith, representing perhaps the most transcendent genre, was more or less the complacent one by the lineups’ standard. What transpired all afternoon (not to mention Pete Seeger during the festival’s previous day) was really the authentically raw music—which normally is cited as one of punk’s attributes.

First in a technically smooth and punctual lineup was the Music Maker Blues Revue, an amalgamation of musicians from the roster of the Music Maker Relief Foundation, a Durham, North Carolina, non-profit whose mission is to help “the true pioneers and forgotten heroes of Southern music gain recognition and meet their day to day needs.” When their MC Dom Flemons, himself an agile spoons player and member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, suggested that the southern revivalist organization’s leader Tim Duffy had “one-upped Alan Lomax” he was making a significant claim considering the festival’s precedent. Really he was noting Duffy’s honorable commitment to assisting, not just documenting and studying, the artists he recorded.

Baritone singer Captain Luke was remarkably sonorous and the only octogenarian in the revue. His rendition of “Old Black Buck” was soothing and bouncy like Andy Griffith’s “The Fishin’ Hole”. In only his second professional gig, the 71 year-old Dr. G.B. Burt quickly became a crowd favorite with his ringing strumming idiosyncrasies (only thumb) and throaty but clear vocals. His charming hat and feather didn’t hurt either. He also epitomized the undiscovered trove of musicians musicologists still prize. Most entertaining was Adolphus Bell, self-proclaimed “King of the one-man band.” Playing Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang”, Bell’s voice was fluid, except for the grunts of the gang, and he was jovial as guitarist and drummer. Stepping out from behind his drum kit, Bell performed a youthful interlude chronicling unique dance moves (like the “Georgia Mash Potato”) picked up all over the southeast. Regardless of Duffy/Lomax comparisons, the Music Maker artists would have been natural additions to Lomax’s original Carnegie Hall concert.

For the country/bluegrass portion of the Sunday lineup, Charlie Haden: Family and Friends, compromised of a who’s who of instrumentalists and led by the legendary bassist himself, played mostly through tracks on the group’s September Decca release, Rambling Boy. Though Haden sang on a few numbers, his daughters Tanya, Petra, and Rachel predominantly sang front and center, sounding natural yet trained on “Wildwood Flower”. Son Josh also contributed, singing his own song “Spiritual”, as did Haden’s wife Ruth Cameron. The all-star ensemble—which aside from Douglas and Bush included fiddler Stuart Duncan, guitarists Dan Tyminkski, Bryan Sutton, Mark Fain, and banjoist Jim Mills—was mostly demure, letting their impeccably balanced sound transcend while Douglas and Duncan handled the majority of the solos.

Filling in the sonic link from bluegrass to Patti Smith were The Knitters, an initial side project for members of renowned punk band X. As they flew through rowdy country numbers, their irreverence converged towards rockabilly, or at least bassist Jonny Ray Bartel and his red bass strings did. Singer John Doe was cool and collected as he and Exene Cervenka harmonized about divorces, drinking, and road kill. Ferocious and with a numbingly deep and distorted baritone sound, electric guitarist Dave Alvin took an extended solo on their closing cover of “Born to be Wild”, a fitting mantra for the group’s unbridled energy.

With the Roots of American Music Festival and its celebration of rock ‘n’ roll’s origins comes the lingering question: Is folk music becoming extinct, if not already extinct? Though the Dr. G.B. Burt performance was apt evidence to the contrary, Don Flemons of Music Makers said it best: “As long as there are folks who can play and sing, there’ll be folk music.”

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