The Music of America

Chronicle of folk music ties songs to all seasons

Originally published in Current, Nov. 5, 2007
By Theodore Fischer

Call it what you will—folk, traditional, people’s or vernacular music—but the producers of The Music of America want to do for it what Ken Burns did for jazz and Martin Scorsese did for blues.

By using music to illuminate 400 years of American history, in fact, the series has even higher aspirations. “The educational component will allow us to get the vernacular music back into the public schools through history and social-studies courses,” says Deborah Robins, executive producer for San Francisco-based Nut Hill Productions and instigator of the project.

With a six-hour project rolling toward broadcast in 2011, the producers wouldn’t mind re-igniting what Martin Mull once called “the Great Folk Music Scare of the ’60s.” The $6 million project incorporates everything from Scots-Irish and African melodies to Jewish klezmer and Tex-Mex conjunto, using archival material, on-screen interviews and performance footage to link American music to America’s capital-letter epochs.

The first of the three two-hour programs will cover the arrival of the first European colonists through the Civil War; program two, Reconstruction to the Great Depression; program three, World War II to the Iraq War.

Work on the project began four-and-a-half years ago when Robins, who created American Movie Classics’ American Pop! network, noticed that no existing programming systematically connected folk music with American history. Her team started by informally polling shoppers at a California mall.

“We would ask, ‘Have you ever heard the name Burl Ives?’ ‘No.’ ‘Woody Guthrie?’ ‘No.’ ‘Pete Seeger?’ ‘No,’” Robins recalls. “It troubled us because these were things we once took for granted, because we all had general music in public school.”

In the intervening years, she and co-producers Peter Ashlock and Make Leviton have maxed out credit cards and borrowed equipment to amass 150 hours of interviews with performers, academics and writers. Among them: Theodore Bikel, Oscar Brand, Dr. Demento, Odetta, Keb’ Mo’, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Maria Muldaur, Pete Seeger and his siblings, Peggy and Mike.

In June, veteran pubTV producer Leo Eaton joined the team.

“I was brought in basically because Nut Hill realized it needed to build this to more than just archiving,” says Eaton, a British-born indie whose 30 years of credits include packaging of the America at a Crossroads megaseries and the performance specials Natalie MacMasters and Home to Cape Breton. “PBS actually recommended that they talk to me.”

To shape each of the two-hour programs, Eaton recruited producers with eclectic videographies of their own: Leslie Farrell (African American Lives);  Hector Galán (Chicano! History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement, as well as docs for Frontline and American Experience); and Peter Frunkin (a Woody Guthrie profile for American Masters).

Eaton also arranged for WETA to become presenting station and co-producer with Nut Hill Productions and Eaton Creative Inc. for what he calls a “major tent-pole project.”

Outreach will be more than an afterthought, says Karen Kenton, executive producer for WETA. “We are already lining up institutional partners to get this story off the screen and into the local communities and schools,” she says. “One of the projects we’re considering is an intergenerational song collection project, similar to [WETA’s] Power of Story project that has been so successful for The War.”

To complete The Music of America, the producers have asked the National Endowment for the Humanities for funding to film folk performances in the U.S. as well as the music’s original wellsprings in Africa, Scotland and beyond. The producers have also established both an academic advisory committee of musicologists and a steering committee composed of people directly involved in the music — among them, singer Tom Paxton, archivist/ performer Joe Hickerson and actress/performer Mare Winningham.

The series will feature members from as many as 10 American families deeply connected with particular genres. Already on board are Marc Savoy of the Savoy Family Band (Cajun) and balladeer Sheila Kay Adams (English-Scots-Irish).

Ultimately, myriad folk music-makers will contribute to what will be “no less than the soundtrack to American history,” according to Dalton Delan, the series executive producer for WETA.

“We’re telling the story of the diverse — ethnically diverse, diverse by geography, diverse by origin, diverse through history — people and events and the way in which the language of music tells their stories.”

Web page posted Dec. 6, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee

Singer Harry Belafonte with producer Robins (right)

The producers behind Music of America have rolled more than 150 hours of tape for interviews on music and its path through American history. Above: Harry Belafonte talks with Deborah Robbins, e.p. (Photo: Nut Hill Productions.)


See Pipeline for more new series and specials in preparation for public TV in future season.


Nut Hill Productions describes the series and lists its staff and advisors.


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