The Roots Run Deep

Musicians play music in Washington Square Park, New York City, in the mid-1960s. Photos courtesy of The Smithsonian

Musicians play music in Washington Square Park, New York City, in the mid-1960s. Photos courtesy of The Smithsonian

It’s not everyday that a nationally-recognized cultural exhibit comes to a small town, so when Lee Morgan, the librarian at the Landrum branch of the Spartanburg County Public Libraries, found out about just such an opportunity combining photography, archival musical recordings and live performances, she jumped at the chance. This month, New Harmonies: Celebrating American Roots Music, an interactive traveling exhibit produced by the Smithsonian Institution, begins a six-week visit to Landrum, the first nationally based exhibit to be shown at the library.

“The show is part of the Museum on Main Street initiative,” Lee explains, referring to the arts and culture partnership between the Smithsonian and state and local humanities councils, with funding provided by Congress. Landrum, one of 12 exhibit sites in South Carolina, is the only venue selected for Spartanburg County. “Normally the MOMS exhibits tour only six sites in a state in a year,” Lee says. “But South Carolina had so many good applicants that the exhibit’s been traveling around the state since April of last year.” New Harmonies will conclude its South Carolina itinerary in December.

The interactive exhibit explores the origins of traditional American music forms, from gospel to bluegrass to jazz to zydeco, and their development from older cultures blended into the melting pot over the centuries — a theme that seems particularly relevant amid election year discussions of immigration policy. Visitors to the exhibit will learn about and hear such roots music through photographs, displays of instruments, lyric sheets and artist profiles incorporating Native American, West African, Hispanic and Anglo-European sources, among others.

Mahalia Jackson

Mahalia Jackson

The exhibit’s rich tapestry of American musical tradition takes in sacred chants from Native American sources, including an Oglala Sioux hymn to the Great Spirit, and Christian hymns from the Bay Psalm Book of 1640, the first book published in the English colonies of the New World. There are songs from early 19th century camp meetings and African American spirituals, including a rare early recorded performance of the Fisk Jubilee Singers from Tennessee’s Fisk College, whose touring of the United States and Europe during the beginning years of the last century first exposed white audiences to African American spirituals. It was a thread of American roots music that became indelibly woven into the national consciousness when Mahalia Jackson became the first gospel singer to perform at Carnegie Hall in 1950. She’s represented in New Harmonies with a rendition of “Move On Up A Little Higher,” one of her most popular recordings.

The Appalachians, of course, have long been a repository of traditional songs adapted from the repertoire of settlers from the British Isles, which eventually became lumped together under the broad category of country music, popularized by its first star, Jimmie Rodgers. Appropriate to New Harmonies’ theme of the diversity of roots music, Rodgers learned to play guitar from a black neighbor in his native Mississippi, infusing his playing and singing with a touch of blues. Memorabilia from Rodgers’ career is included in the New Harmonies exhibit, along with recordings by America’s First Family of country music, the Carter Family and from the Grand Ole Opry’s legendary Uncle Dave Macon.

Roy Acuff performs at the Grand Ole Opry.

Roy Acuff performs at the Grand Ole Opry.

The exhibit also takes in blues, rockabilly, western swing, Cajun and zydeco, klezmer, tejano, even polka as it traces the words and music born from one of the world’s most culturally diverse nations, all given new life in the folk music revival of the 1960s. These musical threads continue to weave their way into the work of contemporary artists like Alison Krauss, Los Lobos, the Cajun band Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys and a group of Basque musicians from Nevada, all represented in the exhibit.

Along with the exhibit itself is a six-week schedule of live performances by regional artists at venues throughout the Landrum area as well as at the library. Audiences can hear everything from folk/rock to jazz during the six weeks, along with a New Harmonies Street Dance in downtown Landrum during the evening of the 25th. Lectures and demonstrations are also planned, including a presentation on the history of gospel music by the University of South Carolina’s Dr. Warren Carson and a small choir.

“We’re very excited about offering visitors to the exhibit a chance to have experiences of cultural activities that would not normally be accessible to rural communities,” Lee Morgan says of the show. It’s a chance, too, for small town America to remind itself, through music, of the ethnic history that continues to shape national life and that is our common heritage, no matter our origins. “I guess all songs is folk songs,” the blues singer Big Bill Broonzy once said. “I never heard no horse sing ’em.”

To learn more about the Smithsonian’s Museum On Main Street initiative, visit museumonmainstreet.org/newharmonies.

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