River of Song
The Mississippi River draws its strength from the many tributaries that pump into the waterways from the top to the bottom of the middle of America. You could take that metaphor a long way when listening to The Mississippi: River of Song, a two-disc compilation that serves as a companion to the PBS and NPR documentaries that ran in January. For the strength of America’s so-called indigenous forms of music — “roots music,” if you will — comes from the many cultures that grew along the river.
And if one of the documentary’s flaws is its inconsistent support of its notion of the river as an influence on American culture — including its music — this compilation is undeniable evidence of how the literal Middle America has helped provide the soundtrack to our national identity.
Put another way, there’s more music that you can shake a camera at here: 36 tracks, and most of them relevant and intriguing. Oh sure, there’s the no-brainer inclusions of such legends as Fontella Bass, Little Milton, and New Orleans’ own Irma Thomas and Henry Butler. But to fully realize the depths of American music, you have to listen to John Koerner sitting around with his Minneapolis bandmates jamming to “Sail Away, Ladies.” To fully realize how several cultures form one, you have to listen to Wang Chong Lor, who is from a Laotian tribe called Hmong, perform “The Singing Leaf.”
Just about every form of American (and not-so-American) music is represented: bluegrass, folk, rhythm and blues, gospel, blues, jazz, brass-band, Cajun, zydeco, American Indian drumming, rock ‘n’ roll, spoken-word poetry, Mexican folk. So, yes, the strength of this disc lies in its eclecticism. One moment, country rockers the Bottle Rockets from Festus, Mo., are taking “Get Down, River” for a honky-tonk spin. The next, the Ste. Genevieve Guignolee Singers, also from Missouri, provide “La Guignolee,” sort of a French version of wassailing.
The music flows here, indeed, just like the might river from which it springs.