Searching for Truth and Redemption in Roots Music

Robert Russell By Robert Russell, 27th Oct 2011 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Guides>Music>Genres

One of the appeals of roots music is the promise of redemption. A common feeling among many among many is that the contemporary musical climate has become completely inundated and dominated by commercial interests and manipulation at the loss of musical integrity. Roots music, in its various forms, appeals to many of the disenchanted because of its potential to offer a glimpse into an alternative non-commercial musical world.

The Idea of Roots Music

Roots music has gained a considerable level of popularity over the last decade or so. Obviously, there are a number of reasons for this. Personally, I would like to think that a major contributing factor is a disenchantment with the current state of the music industry which churns out music as if it were only a commodity. The intrinsic value of a music, or what Karl Marx referred to as an object's use value, has been overwhelmed by commercial character of the music industry. The German philosophers/social theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno wrote a critical analysis of contemporary American culture in the 1940s. One aspect of their critique concerned the collapse of the traditional boundaries separating art and entertainment. Adorno and Horkheimer used the phrase the Culture Industry, to encapsulate the basic elements of their critique.

The idea of roots music is intimately connected to the concept of authenticity In terms of aesthetic theory the idea of the authentic is used to refer to the real thing as opposed to an imitation or a fake. The idea of the real as opposed to the illusory becomes all the more vital in a mass consumer culture. This distinction is typically referred to in terms of an artist selling out. In other words, musical integrity and vision are given second place to profit. According to Adorno and Horkheimer, one of the essential features of the Culture Industry is an emphasis on predictability and formula rather than artistic creativity and experimentation. In this sense art is no longer produced by artists but by those in charge of the marketplace.

Perhaps roots music signifies a desire for a form of art that is more genuine or more authentic. Implicit in this idea is an appeal to the real or even what we may refer to as truth. Fans of roots music usually will argue that a root artist is the more authentic, real or even truthful. This raises the question true to what? Often what is meant is the idea of being true to oneself in the sense that art is a true form on inner expression.

A second sense of the authentic in music implies the relationship between the musical object and the social context in which it is produced. The idea of authenticity therefore holds forth a promise of being truthful in a double sense. On the one hand, there is something to said, there is an experience to be communicated. What is expressed by the art work or a piece of music is not simply an inner desire on the part of the artist but, rather, a total form of life or a world.

A Glimpse of the Promised Land

Taking all of the above as a point of reference we can refer to a myth of the authentic. I don't mean this in a negative sense at all. Roots music holds forth the promise of a musical culture that is not dominated by the politics of consumerism. But the appeal extends beyond the music. It is also a fascination with the people and the actual geography of the land itself.

Every October many blues lovers head to Helena Arkansas for the annual King Biscuit Blues Festival. There are blues festivals all over the United States as well as in many countries overseas but Helena, and its neighbor city Clarksdale Mississippi, are sacred ground for hardcore blues enthusiasts. Blues fans from around the world visit Clarksdale and Helena in search of an authentic blues experience. They hope to catch a fleeting glimpse into the world that produced the music they are so in love with.

Clarksdale and Helena are about twenty six miles apart. In the golden age of the Mississippi blues, they were the largest and most economically thriving communities in the Mississippi delta. Clarksdale flourished on the cotton trade and Helena was an important Mississippi river city. Consequently, they offered the best venues for bluesmen to pursue their trade. Both cities have been in severe economic decline for decades now and it is difficult to imagine the hustle and bustle of a Friday and Saturday night when both cities would be alive with people and music.

On my one of my trips a couple of years ago I met George Messenger. George runs a club in Clarksdale, Messenger's, that his grandfather started in the 1890s. It was then taken over by his father and mother. George began working in his father's club in 1947 and took it over after his mother passed away. It is the oldest business in Clarksdale. George talked about the Clarksdale that he knew as a young man when.Friday and Saturday night was just like New York City. "There were so many people on the street that it was difficult to walk through them." You can also find a good description of Clarksdale Land Where The Blues Began by Alan Lomax. Lomax visited Clarksdale in the 1940s in search of Robert Johnson. Johnson had already passed away but he ended up meeting and recording Son House, Muddy Waters, and Honeyboy Edwards. Honeyboy was one of the last links to the original Mississippi bluesmen. He recently passed away in the summer of 2011.

During its day Helena was ground zero for many blues artists. One of the buildings that Robert Johnson used to entertain in is still there next door to an old liquor store. Despite the fact that neither Clarksdale nor Helena look like they did when Johnson and other bluesmen traveled about, blues enthusiasts still visit hoping to catch a glimpse and insight into world of the original Mississippi bluesmen. In one sense this is something mythical but, on the other hand, it is something very real and meaningful as well.


Music And Authenticity, Origins Of The Blues, Roots Music

Meet the author

author avatar Robert Russell
I play guitar professionally in a Cajun/zydeco band named Creole Stomp. We are a nationally touring band that have been together ten years. I also have a PhD in philosophy.

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author avatar Mark Gordon Brown
28th Oct 2011 (#)

Good way to explain roots music, added to Facebook

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author avatar Robert Russell
28th Oct 2011 (#)

Thanks, I appreciate the nice comment and Facebook reference. Thanks for moderating the article as well.

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