Sounding the Waters

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This isn't MTV. This isn't top-40 radio or the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. These are two street performers named David and Roselyn, playing songs for spare change in the French Quarter of New Orleans. This is Sylvester ("Sunshine") Lee teaching a class in African drumming in East St. Louis, Ill. This is polka accordionist Karl Hartwich and Cajun bandleader D.L. Menard and bluesmen Big Jack Johnson and Little Milton.

They are the stars of River of Song: A Musical Journey down the Mississippi, an ambitious four-hour, four-part documentary series that begins airing on PBS stations this month (check local listings). The series, written by Elijah Wald, a music critic for the Boston Globe, and directed by Boston-based filmmaker John Junkerman, is a multimedia event: there's a corresponding seven-hour, seven-part series airing on Public Radio International; a 36-song, two-CD sound track (Smithsonian Folkways); and a 352-page companion book (St. Martin's). But the purpose of each is singularly focused: to document the contemporary musical traditions that thrive on the banks of the Mississippi, from Lake Itasca, the river's source, to where the waters empty into the Gulf of Mexico.

River of Song isn't documentary broccoli. The viewer isn't assailed with dates and events, fussy terminology and black-and-white daguerreotypes with accompanying narration by overly earnest Hollywood actors. The story is told through a series of punchy personal portraits of the musicians who live in the cities and towns along the Mississippi, places like Davenport, Iowa, and Festus, Mo. We get to know these musicians not as representatives of trends and genres but as regular folks trying to make a living and a little music as well. We see them sweating through performances, straightening their hair with hot combs in their kitchens, jamming with their friends in their living rooms.

The series is nimbly narrated by folk-punk guitarist Ani DiFranco, who brings curiosity and energy to the project. "Beneath the surface of mainstream popular culture, there is the ever-present undercurrent of organically generated music," DiFranco writes in the River of Song companion book. "I'm talking about the indigenous, unhomogenized, uncalculated sound of a culture becoming itself in the streets, bars, gyms, churches and back porches of the real world."

The musicians here are generally not superstars, although such nationally known acts as Soul Asylum and the Mississippi Mass Choir do make appearances. And a few of the performers featured deserve a shot on Leno or Conan O'Brien, chief among them the spirited New Orleans hip-hop brass band Soul Rebels. Most of the acts on River of Song, however, seem content with local renown. They display a commitment that's deeper than celebrity: for them, music isn't simply a means to acquire wealth or fame; it's a method of preserving traditions and a way of life. "We, the young generation, are the glue that keeps the culture going," says Geno Delafose, a Creole Zydeco musician who appears in the series. "If we don't continue playing the music, then it's gonna be lost."

The series' final scene is its saddest and wisest. On Delacroix Island, at the mouth of the Mississippi, we meet Irvan and Allen Perez, two cousins who belong to the Islenos, a Spanish-speaking people who first settled in Louisiana 200 years ago. The Perezes are fishermen. As they work, they sing slow, bittersweet a cappella songs called decimas--10-stanza numbers, mostly in Spanish, that tell the stories of their lives and communities. They sing of shrimp boats and muskrat trappers, bad weather and home mortgages. Their voices are piercing and pure. Allen sings:

"Encontre el trampero esta, el mosque y el agua alta." (Against this trapper are mosquitoes and high water.)

"Y para acabar completa, la banca le manda carta..." (And to finish him completely, the bank sent him a letter...)

It's a mournful song but stubbornly hopeful. His performance reminds the listener that American music is broad and big, like a river, and it keeps flowing. Pop music suddenly seems like just a glass of tap water. Allen's song is one you'll probably never hear on the radio, never see performed on TV--except on River of Song. How much other water is unexplored? Tune in to this series and drink deep.