Ankle-Deep in Big Muddy

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

From the gut-wrenching moan of the Delta blues to the brassy fire of New Orleans jazz, the Mississippi River has given birth to some of this country's finest homegrown sounds. But for self-appointed hipsters in the coastal megalopolises of New York and L.A., where voguish chart-toppers train their mikes only toward bottom lines and dollar signs, river-spun songs are often seen as quaint relics of Americana best left to backwoods historians.

Even the waterway itself, the nearly 2,500-mile channel that once powered the torrential prose of Mark Twain and served as an essential trade and travel route before the advent of the auto and Internet superhighways, tends to mean little more to contemporary non-Midwesterners than a barely remembered multiple-choice question on a junior-high geography test. In a recent issue of The Baffler, satirist Ben Metcalf echoed mainstream disdain by cracking on the "wrongheaded desire to peddle as the font of all that is virtuous and productive and eternal about our nation that shallow and putrid trough we call the Mississippi River."

The concept of a meaningful river culture does seem of another era, if not another world. So when filmmaker John Junkerman set out five years ago to document music that had grown up near the banks of the Mississippi, from the town of Inger in northern Minnesota to Delacroix Island at the southernmost tip of Louisiana, he understandably expected to find our indigenous songmaking traditions barely treading water. But he was mistaken. The Mississippi: River of Song, which airs on PBS, presents a vibrant and wide-ranging spectrum of U.S.-bred music that's marching onward -- careless of platinum-selling trends -- in the streets, backyards, parks, living rooms, churches, local clubs, and concert halls of the heartland.

As a document of diversity, Junkerman's travelogue covers a lot of ground. After opening the program with a politically correct nod to the Chippewa Nation's annual powwow in Minnesota, the film offers performance excerpts and brief interviews with musicians who capture the breadth of America's distinctive folk forms: blues, jazz, gospel, soul, R&B, country, rockabilly, bluegrass, cajun, and zydeco. One-time big-name Minneapolis rockers Soul Asylum and Babes in Toyland are the only incongruous figures in an otherwise rootsy, folksy lot. But Junkerman more than makes up for this gratuitous pop-rock deviation by sticking to the grass roots and letting unlikely local stars such as Missouri's snazzy St. Charles High School Band, which is allegedly "bigger than the football team," strut their stuff for the cameras.

By including both professionals and amateurs, old-timers and kids, nationally renowned artists (folk guitarist Greg Brown, veteran blues singer Little Milton) and relative unknowns (brass-band hip hoppers Soul Rebels), Junkerman gives the film a wholesome, family-oriented feel, where every player represents the archetypal common man, telling the stories that need to be told in order to keep the community together and to promote a sense of hometown dignity. Besides the river-centered geography, the only binding thread throughout is that all of the musicians perform for the sheer love and joy of playing. Not exactly an original theme, but the idea does manage to drive the film -- it reminds us how great music can be when the intentions of its practitioners are pure.

Still, River of Song falls flat as a fully developed documentary, which is somewhat surprising given producer/director Junkerman's resume as an Academy Award nominee for Hellfire: A Journey From Hiroshima. In an effort to present an outsized stylistic range, his footage races from one artist or region to the next, with limited or zero transitions between cuts, often sacrificing story and substance for sound. Even the headings for the individual episodes -- "Americans Old and New," "Midwestern Crossroads," "Southern Fusion," "Louisiana, Where Music Is King" -- seem absurdly arbitrary and nearly interchangeable with one another, with the obvious exception of "Louisiana." And these titles in no way encapsulate a unified context.

Junkerman recently told SonicNet that "the idea really was to capture something of the current state of contemporary American music and do it in a way that allowed us to cross over the barriers that usually divide different kinds of music." He said he wanted the film "to look at music from a different standpoint, not dictated by Top 40 charts." Along with his partner Elijah Wald (also a music critic for the Boston Globe), Junkerman succeeds in transcending the segregative boundaries of the commercial marketplace. And this is arguably the work's greatest coup. It renews faith in the kind of American music that typically flies below the Billboard radar.

Still, a film on music should do more than merely proffer live performances interspliced with snippets of player commentary. It should dig into history and extrapolate on the social, economic, and cultural developments that led to the various forms of musicmaking. Though Junkerman and Wald's story line does provide folk goddess/narrator Ani DiFranco with snatches of relevant information about the river and the growth of its neighboring communities, their text is woefully shallow.

At the start of "Midwestern Crossroads," which devotes nearly half its time to St. Louis, DiFranco states, "The music played in the mid-country reflects the history of migration along these routes: country and bluegrass in the farmlands, blues and gospel in the cities, roots rock and old French roots in the backwaters of the Mississippi." These themes are then ably illustrated over the next sixty minutes via John Hartford's down-home fingerpicking on a riverboat; the Bob Lewis Family's wild quick-stepping at a bluegrass hoedown; Martha and Fontella Bass' mother-daughter gospel duets; the scorching R&B saxophone of Oliver Sain; the roots grooves of the beer-swilling Bottle Rockets; and the strangely costumed, medieval New Year's revelry of the Ste. Genevieve Guignolee Singers. But there's very little depth in DiFranco's narration or in the accompanying interview material. In other words, we don't hear much about how or why these particular musics developed, only that they did.

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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