By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
The Mississippi: River of Song, airing in a four-episode marathon on KCET this weekend, is a post-holiday gift box of a documentary, dispatched from the Smithsonian Institute by way of (of all places) South Carolina Educational Television. (It comes as well in a seven-hour Public Radio International version, as a double CD from Smithsonian Folkways, as a book and as a home video, already wrapped and ready to go -- no PBS blockbuster being complete nowadays without its vertically integrated merch.) Narrated with crisp aplomb by alt-folk queen Ani DiFranco, it is neither a historical study nor a musicological overview, and is not even remotely comprehensive -- you could make six dozen documentaries out of what this one doesn't cover. It proposes no unified theory of Mississippi River music, but simply follows the river from snowy head to sultry mouth, stopping along the way to hear what might be heard in the nightclubs, churches, studios, living rooms, back yards and streets of this in-all-senses fertile slice of America, and to discover what folk roots still bear fruit at the turn of the century that annihilated regionalism. That the route runs through Minneapolis, St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans suggests in advance that one will hear quite a bit. And one does.
Given that next to watching TV all the time I believe playing music to be the most spiritually profitable, broadly communicative, self-instructive, self-absorbing and self-transcending activity available, I vibrated like a big tuning fork through much of these four hours, when I wasn't melted down to jelly. The home-office stats state that the series features more than 40 acts, including more than 500 players, filmed or videotaped in 30 towns and cities over 10 states. Rank amateurs, old pros, students and street musicians, marching bands and drill teams and choirs and fishermen play polkas, rockabilly, blues, R&B, zydeco, Cajun, folk, punk, alt-country, jazz, ranchero, New Orleans brass-band hip-hop, Scandinavian fiddle and Hmong funeral music, and talk about what they do and why. The Ojibwe group Chippewa Nation sings a song about coming over for cookies and tea. John Hartford sings his "Gentle on My Mind" to superannuated tourists on the riverboat he also pilots. Fontella Bass explicates the rhythmic and intonational shifts that turn gospel into soul. Louisiana Hayride star and former governor Jimmie Davis performs "You Are My Sunshine," the song he made famous, accompanied by Merle Haggard at Davis' 98th birthday party. Henry Butler's here, and the Bottle Rockets, and Eddie Bo, and Babes in Toyland, and Ann Peebles. And D.L. Menard. And Rufus Thomas. And Irma Thomas. (Time is still on her side, yes it is.) Though the series is only 65 percent or so more visually sophisticated than a Huell Howser featurette, the camera is almost always pointed in the right place. And, more important, the microphone always is.
Sundays, 9 p.m.
(repeats Tuesdays, 11 p.m.)
MYSTERY!: Heat of the Sun
Premieres Thursday, January 28, 9 p.m.
THE MISSISSIPPI: River of Song
Sunday, January 24, 12:30 p.m.
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