The Celluloid Heroes of Roots Music
Hardly a day goes by when I’m not visiting YouTube multiple times, and it’s usually to search for music-related clips or the occasional instructional video on things like how to clean my Magic Bullet smoothie maker, fix a busted radiator hose, or the best way to store bananas. If I’m ever stuck on a tech problem, it seems like there are thousands of 14-year-old kids who have filmed and uploaded detailed solutions. Education, art, fashion, politics, news, old radio shows and television commercials, speeches, health, fitness, 5K parachute jumps off the roof of Dubai skyscrapers, cute cats, funny dogs, and kitchen sinks: If you can think of something you want to know more about, I guarantee you’ll find it. And when it comes to music, of all the time-sucks on the internet, YouTube remains my favorite.
I thought I’d share some search tips and links to some of the long-form and historical musical content I’ve come across through the years. But it’s accompanied by a warning and advice: video content often comes and goes like a case of beer and a bag of chips on Super Bowl Sunday. It’s often a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t proposition, as content owners have the absolute right to demand that it gets pulled off the site, or if they prefer, they can choose to let it stay up and share in the advertising revenue. So keep that in mind. If I share a link that’s dead by the time you read this, just search the title and it’ll likely pop up from another user’s account.
Lost Highway: The Story of American Country
This four-part series was produced back in 2003 and it first aired on BBC and then again on CMT in the United States in 2010. For the latter version, Lyle Lovett was hired to replace the original English narrator. The series traces the history of country music from the Appalachian Mountains and up to the present-day multibillion dollar industry it has become. It is not quite definitive, and there are a number of small but annoying inaccuracies. Nevertheless, it’s a pretty interesting series and you can try this link to start you out. I’ve only found the BBC version so far, but I’ll keep looking for Lyle.
Mother Maybelle’s Carter Scratch
I’m clueless what the origin is of this one, and I wonder if it was perhaps released under a different name. It’s not a documentary per se, but offers a number of clips with an oral history provided by Johnny Cash, Maybelle’s daughters, and a few others. Guitarists will enjoy the focus on her playing style, but it’s not technical in the least. I think much of it comes from The Nashville Network archives, Johnny’s television show, and the Grand Ole Opry. It’s an interesting way to spend an hour. Here’s a sample for you.
Alan Lomax: Archives and Documentaries
Not only did Lomax travel around the world making audio recordings, he also shot a huge amount of film stock. The official Alan Lomax Archive has its own channel on YouTube, and “is a resource for students, researchers, filmmakers, and fans of America’s traditional music and folkways. Shot throughout the American South and Southwest over the course of seven years (1978-1985) in preparation for a PBS series, American Patchwork, which aired in 1991, these videos consist of performances, interviews, and folkloric scenes culled from 400 hours of raw footage, many of which have never been seen publicly.”
American Patchwork consisted of five one-hour documentary films that focused on African American, Appalachian, and Cajun music and dance. While you can search for the individual titles on YouTube, the complete series is best found here. These are the titles of all five: The Land Where the Blues Began, Jazz Parades: Feet Don’t Fail Me Now, Cajun Country, Appalachian Journey, and Dreams and Songs of the Noble Old.
Connecting documentary filmmakers with niche audiences, Folkstreams is a nonprofit website streaming major films on American vernacular culture. The films on are often produced by independent filmmakers and focus on the culture, struggles, and arts of unnoticed Americans from many different regions and communities. The site is divided into various categories, and if you choose music we’ll probably lose you for a few weeks. There are well over a hundred 30-90 minute documentaries posted covering every area of roots music, including some you never knew existed.
The Johnny Cash Show
This 58-episode series ran from June 7, 1969, to March 31, 1971, on ABC and was taped at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Many of the episodes are scattered throughout YouTube in their entirety or broken into hundreds of individual clips. This was far from the schlock production you might think would have been produced back then, with the first show’s guests featuring Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Doug Kershaw. Other guests represented all areas of music from blues, folk, country, pop, jazz … you name it. If you haven’t seen it, go forth. Here’s two scoops.
Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest
From 1965 to 1966, Pete Seeger hosted 39 episodes of Rainbow Quest. It was taped in black-and-white and featured musicians playing in traditional American music genres such as folk, old-time, bluegrass, and blues. The shows were unrehearsed, there was no studio audience, and songs were often traded between Seeger and his guests.
Odds and Ends
Here’s a few more I’ve found this bottomless well, and I’m sure to have only skimmed the surface. Historic Films Stock Footage Archive seems to have thousands of clips, with a large proportion devoted to music. A&E’s Biography episodes are up on YouTube, and while most aren’t music-related, there are a few gems, including The Everly Brothersand Hank Williams. And in no particular order: Rebel Beat: The History of LA Rockabilly, Rock N’ Roll Country Blues Archive Videos, Grand Old Opry Classics, Town Hall Party, and Smithsonian Folkways channels all deserve two thumbs up.
Many of my past columns, articles, and essays can be accessed at my own site, therealeasyed.com. I also aggregate news and videos on both Flipboardand Facebook as The Real Easy Ed: Americana and Roots Music Daily. My Twitter handle is @therealeasyed and my email address is email@example.com.