Ankle-Deep in Big Muddy

The Mississippi: River of Song offers a compelling, if thin, glimpse into a musical river culture

When we first get a glimpse of St. Louis, DiFranco explains in a single sentence how the city was founded by French traders and settled by Germans, then flooded by ex-slaves heading north after the Civil War. This basic, ultrasuccinct reportage sounds like it was lifted out of a children's encyclopedia, which would be fine if the musicians subsequently fleshed out the story. The problem is they do so only about half the time. The filmmakers' excuse? The project was such a huge undertaking, they couldn't possibly deal with everything in four hours and present enough good music, which was the primary goal anyway. So for more info, they encourage you to consult the accompanying double-CD set on Smithsonian Folkways, the companion book (penned by Elijah Wald) from St. Martin's Press, and, of course, the Web site (www.pbs.org/riverofsong).

By their own admission, Junkerman and Wald's cinematic sojourn doesn't quite cut it as a full-fledged film. But as a large-scale music video -- a plain and simple folkumentary, if you will -- their portrait of the mighty Mississippi's heartfelt minstrelsy overflows with ample anecdotes, like the elderly singer from the 150-member Mississippi Mass Choir who is so infused with the spirit of the Lord during a post-performance interview that she nearly leaps out of her satin robe. Or the charismatic conviction of bluesman Rufus Thomas, aka "Godfather of the Memphis Sound," who clearly knows his place in the American-music continuum when he calmly states, "I'm yesterday, I'm today, and I'm tomorrow."

With such emphasis on the music, the river is relegated to a handful of passing snapshots. As Wald explains in the CD liner notes, "[Junkerman's] idea was that the river was to act less as a focus of the film than as a narrative device, a way of tying together dozens of otherwise disparate styles and approaches to musicmaking." But "there wouldn't be any blues without the Mississippi River," suggests country guitarist Kenny Bill Stinson, repeating an oft-heard expression among backwoods players. "It's definitely a feeling here, the river and the water, maybe something in the whiskey, too."

Brian Henneman, leader of country-rock group the Bottle Rockets, gives the Mississippi its most respectful props of the film with a telling story that best sums up the source that powers the music: "For us, the river's a place to go drink beer when you're underage or it's a place to go shoot fireworks on the Fourth of July. But, you know, I guess it maybe did mean something [more] 'cause all the important decisions in our lives were always made at the river. ... I don't know, it just kinda draws you there somehow. I can't explain it."

The Mississippi: River of Song airs on KQED-TV Channel 9 across four nights, Feb. 1-4, at 11 p.m.

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