Digging Deep into American Roots Music

Bill Fisher
Huddled over a laminated map of the United States, Upper School Music Teacher Jennifer Boyum's seventh grade students uncap their dry-erase markers. They use the bright colors to sketch new layers onto the states: a rough overlap at the border of Texas and Mexico, a circle for New Orleans, a zig-zag up and down the Mississippi River, a loopy rectangle around Kentucky and Tennessee, and a meandering line running through plains and deserts to southern California. Working together, the students are marking out the cities, regions, and byways that figure in their study of American roots music, the hugely diverse and wildly influential range of genres and sub-genres that arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

"Lots of people treat 'folk' and 'roots' as synonymous in music," says Boyum; in her classroom, making the distinction is critical. She explains, "At the beginning of the 20th century, the term 'folk music' described music made by whites of European ancestry, often in the relatively isolated rural South. As the century progressed, that definition expanded to include the song styles—particularly the blues—of Southern blacks, and later of Native Americans, Mexican-Americans, and Cajuns. But at the same time, popular musicians began to draw on folk music as an artistic source like never before, and it became a specific form of popular music itself, made famous by singer/songwriters such as Bob Dylan."

This gradual evolution of "folk," recounts Boyum, left music writers, scholars, and fans looking for new ways to describe the diverse array of musical styles that didn't fit the popular mold increasingly heard on radio. The term "roots music" came to refer to this broader range of musical genres, which includes blues, gospel, traditional country, zydeco, Tejano, and Native American pow-wow.

In Boyum's course, unassumingly called, simply, "Grade Seven Music," small groups of students choose an individual roots sub-genre to investigate, such as Appalachian ballads, bluegrass, Tejano, or salsa. "To be honest, some of these we can trace all the way to when immigration really got going in the 17th century. But what's most interesting for us as a class," says Boyum, "is when we can see how a musical style, like Tejano, reflects both cultural forces and a particular place and time"—in this case, a combination of Texan and Mexican border styles layered with the accordion-tinged accompaniments of Eastern Europeans. Germans, Poles, and Czechs had immigrated to Texas and parts of Mexico in the 19th century, and fled to southern Texas during the Mexican Revolution in the early 20th century.
"The kids' research touches on so many topics: not only in music, but also in geography and American and world history," Boyum says. "West Coast blues is another great example. A musical style with its origins in the South, it's the end result of both historical and cultural movements, including westward migration during the Dust Bowl, and the advent of Hollywood, which drew countless musicians across the country in search of employment."
Genres such as Tejano, and the influences that formed them, are new to many of Boyum's seventh graders; often, they're relatively new to the teacher herself, who came to Shore by way of a traditional, conservatory-style graduate program. "I know a lot about dead, European composers like Brahms and Bach and Beethoven," she jokes. "What I love about this course is discovering, alongside my students, the echoes of the earliest popular American musical forms, the unknown artists who have fallen into obscurity over time."
That’s why Boyum's seventh graders largely steer clear of big names and big cities, such as Nashville and country music. "As the kids dig into more obscure corners of the material on their chosen sub-genre," she says, "they come across factoids and less-than-famous places that have much to teach us." One student, for example, discovered a tiny but influential music festival and museum in Opelousas, Louisiana, the birthplace of zydeco. An accordion-heavy genre originated in southwest Louisiana by French Creole speakers, it blends blues, rhythm and blues, and music indigenous to the region. Another student found that tiny museums in two small towns in Mississippi—Clarksdale and Tunica, both located along historic Highway 61—are home to some of the most important materials found anywhere—artifacts, recordings, and the like—related to the birth of Delta Blues.

Armed with finds such as these, the students deliver multimedia presentations in front of the class, incorporating everything from biographies of key musicians in any given genre to maps to YouTube examples of signature songs or typical dance steps. "It's surprising how much of this history and music can resonate with my students," admits Boyum. "Take salsa: lots of kids are really drawn to this style's upbeat, fun sound," she says, "but they've also seen it on 'Dancing with the Stars,' so it's actually part of their own cultural vocabulary." Another example, surprisingly enough, is the Appalachian ballad. One particularly well known piece in this genre is "Swallowtail Jig," an infectious and instantly recognizable Celtic country song that came to Appalachia along with Irish immigrants. Boyum's seventh grade class includes a number of talented musicians, one of whom, a violinist, brought his instrument and played a version of the jig for the class. "It turns out that the song happens to be one of the first that nearly every young violin student learns by heart," says Boyum. "Moments like this—or when piano players studying the history of Scott Joplin's ragtime staple, 'The Entertainer,' realize it's the song they learned years ago—are what this course is about. When my students find a personal connection between music and history, that's when the light bulb goes on for them."

This teacher may have an ulterior motive for sending her students scurrying down obscure cultural trails for musical treasure: the facts and faces they discover in their research will help form the basis for a project of Boyum's own. She is the recipient of Shore's 2017 Parents of Graduates Award, a professional development grant awarded annually to support a faculty member's proposal for travel that will significantly benefit teaching at the school. Her project proposal: to build and follow a musical and cultural itinerary—based partly on the work of the seventh grade students in her class—to trace important moments and milestones in roots music's history in the United States.

"Listening to music live, in the place where it was born, is a unique experience," says Boyum. "I plan to travel all along the Mississippi, down to New Orleans, and then further west. I want to learn more about 'cowboy' music and Native American music, genres not many are very familiar with. Whatever I find and bring back will directly figure into the next iteration of this course—from recorded musical examples to photos, actual artifacts, conversations with musicians, and even techniques in instrument building." 

Boyum will also spend time during her trip at the Library of Congress's American Folklife Center, one of the largest archives of ethnographic materials from the United States and around the world. Its collections, encompassing millions of items of ethnographic and historical documentation recorded from the 19th century to the present, include extensive audiovisual documentation of traditional arts, cultural expressions, and oral histories, and offer researchers access to the songs, stories, and other creative expressions of people from diverse communities.

"The Folklife Center," explains Boyum, "is the place to go when you want to see the first-ever sheet music for a song like 'Home on the Range,'" which entered into popular culture in the early 20th century after being discovered by one of Folklife's most prominent musicologists, John Lomax. "Lomax and his pioneering colleagues realized," says Boyum, "that by the 1920s and 1930s, the great American 'melting pot' was quickly obscuring traditional songs and styles that were iconic, yet rarely known beyond their specific region."

If all this weren't enough, students wrap up their trimester of music with research into rock-and-roll originators, such as Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, alongside practice on the guitar. They play along with the sheet music for well-known chord progressions of the rock-and-roll era, and by this point in the course, they are immediatley able to link the classic three-chord structure with that of rock's precursor, the blues.

Asked why her seventh grade music class—which also includes music theory—devotes so much time to plumbing, and playing, distant corners of American musical and cultural history, Boyum has a surprisingly simple answer. "While I have no illusions that all of my students will go on to become great musicians or famous musicologists, I firmly believe that each and every one of them is on the way to becoming a lifelong consumer and critical listener of music of all kinds. Whether it's hearing movie soundtracks, buying music online, or listening to YouTube videos, they're exposed to music continually. So understanding the context and maybe even the history of what they're hearing, being able to speak about music with insight, listening with a discerning ear, and being able to pick up common threads that connect the past to their own present musical moment—these are actually critical skills that will serve them their whole lives."
    • Jenn Boyum

    • The students' musical map of the United States

    • Making a point

    • Tuning up

    • Practicing chord progressions