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The Music of America: The Story

The Story

THE MUSIC OF AMERICA is a 6-hour HD public television series - accompanied by an extensive community and educational outreach campaign - that explores 400 years of American history through the perspective of its traditional music. Music and song is always tied to history, whether it is spirituals like Wade in the Water, a comfort and guide for escaping slaves before the Civil War, Yankee Doodle, sung by British soldiers to make fun of backwoods colonials fighting in the French-Indian Wars, or Los Golondrinas (The Swallows), a Mexican lament for people and places that have passed away. Every event in American history from colonial settlement and slavery through to 9/11 and the Iraq War has generated music that captures the reality and mood of its time. Music remains, as always, the most natural means of expression for the many different cultures and peoples that call America their home.

Divided into three two-hour programs, THE MUSIC OF AMERICA starts by looking at Native American music prior to European settlement before traveling to Britain and Africa to explore music popular before the great migrations of immigrants and slaves in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Ballads like Lord Randal tell of betrayal and murder on the borderlands between Scotland and England while songs like Stay Not Among the Wicked illustrate the zeal with which English Puritans approach the creation of a "new Zion" in America. Traditional West African "call & response" and ring shouts, when brought to America, establish a foundation for everything from spirituals and evangelical hymns to rock'n'roll and rap. It is historical forces - the slave trade, religious persecution, famine and injustice - that drive these musical strands across the ocean to America.

Once established in America, the immigrant cultures continue to change and evolve along with their music. Music mirrors the new nation's history, whether it's the opening up the West, the pain of the Great Depression or the struggle for Civil Rights in the 1960s. How traditional music survives and evolves offers a fresh way of viewing historical forces and events that have driven American history across four centuries, a different and entertaining perspective on our nation, its culture and its people.

Each two-hour program unfolds chronologically. Program One examines American history from the arrival of the first European colonists and African slaves down to the fratricidal blood-letting of the Civil War. Program Two begins with Reconstruction and continues through the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Program Three begins in WWII and brings the story up to date with the coming of the Digital Age, 9/11 and the Iraq War.

To provide a human framework for THE MUSIC OF AMERICA, the producers plan to identify up to ten representative American families whose connections with particular regions and music can be traced back throughout history (each family will have a respected musician in the present generation). One might be Scots Irish, settling the Appalachian Mountains in the 18th Century with stories going back to 17th Century origins in Ulster. Members of such a family may also have migrated West on wagon trains and fought for both North and South during the Civil War. Another family might be Cajun, with oral memories and narratives dating back to the Diaspora when the Acadians were expelled from Nova Scotia in 1755.

Our selected families will have experienced "first-hand" the great sweeps of American history, their memories (and remaining documents) offering unique personal glimpses into events that have shaped - and continue to shape - culture and music. These families, comprising Hispanic, African American, Scots Irish, Cajun, Native American, Jewish and others, become the anchors around which the tides of American history ebb and flow.

Helping anchor the series will be interviews with respected historians and ethnomusicologists who provide the scholarship and intellectual insight to place such personal family narratives into broad historical context. Major "headline" musicians will offer further musical perspectives on the stories being told. While there is no on-camera host, a "star" narrator will draw all the different story elements together.

Visually THE MUSIC OF AMERICA combines archive materials (including film, photo and graphic artwork) with present-day scenes, events and music performances at locations closely identified with particular genres of music. Whether in Louisiana plantations or Kentucky coal mines, on the streets of Memphis or the streets of Laredo, these location scenes will capture "in the present" the events, atmosphere and music across four centuries of history.

THE MUSIC OF AMERICA is a cultural history of America that uses music to bring the past to life. No matter whether it's White House Blues, an early blues song telling of President McKinley's assassination, Gonna Die With My Hammer In My Hand (often called John Henry), a story of "man versus machine" at a time when railroads are spreading across America, or a thousand other songs and tunes that define our history, such traditional music (including blues, gospel, Tex-Mex conjunto and many other genres) is the sound-track of American life. Over three programs and six hours, THE MUSIC OF AMERICA tells the story of how this music arrived, grew and evolved to create the rich mosaic that is American music today. It is American history at grass-roots level, for while history shapes people, it is ordinary people who shape the music.

THE MUSIC OF AMERICA is a co-production of WETA, one of America's leading public broadcasting stations in Washington DC, Nut Hill Productions, a 501(c)3 company in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Eaton Creative, Inc., an award-winning independent production company based in Maryland.