The BBC has recently broadcast Reginald D. Hunter's Songs of the South
[first episode available on iplayer for another 15 days, the rest a little longer]. It was a chance find - I was idly browsing iplayer the other week when feeling a bit low, and nearly passed it by. But I'd found Reginald D. Hunter funny on HIGNFY, so thought I'd give it a go. I'm glad I did.
Reginald came to the UK from Georgia in 1997, and says that by the time he left, he hated the South. Still, much of what we think of as American music comes from the South, so he felt it was time to go back. So it's a bit of him re-evaluating his relationship with his home, a bit of looking at the South's past and perhaps its future, and quite a lot about the origins of American popular music.
I don't know much about American music - with a growing range of exceptions, I've never really been into pop, and while I did study it in school, that gives you a very strange way of thinking about music. To pick an example, I could once have described the chord progression in a 12-bar blues; but in the same way you wouldn't start a discussion of Bach Chorales by talking about how parallel fifths were bad, I feel that music qua subject at school taught me nothing of the context of American music.
So as Reginald travelled through Tennessee and Kentucky, Alabama and Georgia, and finally Mississippi and Louisiana, visiting key cities from which a range of music (from bluegrass to hip-hop, zydeco to soul, and many others) emerged, and talking with artists young and old, I felt that I began to get an idea of some of what these styles of music are about.
One theme that ran through all of this, of course, was race. Time and time again, racial issues were discussed - the presenter's discomfort in some of the white-dominated parts of the South, slave songs, blackface minstrels, segregation and the civil rights movement, and so on. Reginald's view was, I think, that you cannot talk about Southern music without talking about race, that you cannot understand much of that music without understanding the racial tensions of the time, but also that only by understanding the past and coming to terms with it could America move forwards.
Lest that make it sound terribly heavy, it wasn't all thus. Reginald went to a lot of good parties while making this series! He clearly enjoys meeting a lot of the artists, and there is plenty of laughter. There's also a fair bit of tourism - moonshine joints, theme parks(!), music festivals. He remarks dryly at one point that the American way is to take a great cultural movement, tear it down, turn it into a tourist industry, and sell it back to you. "Local girl done good" means, usually, that she made a lot of money.
I learned a lot watching this series, but a couple of notable surprises were genres of music I'd never encounted, including zydeco (from the Creole people of Louisiana) and some of the darker strains like the murder ballad. I've been to Knoxville a number of times for work, and I never knew it used to be known for the high murder rate! "The Knoxville Girl" is pretty creepy.
One of the things I love about music is how a particular piece can remind you so strongly of particular memories; they can be silly or profound, but sometimes a particular work can immediately bring something to mind that I'd thought long forgotten. This series threw a couple of those at me, so I found myself listening to songs from a particular era - Nightswimming and One of Us were played endlessly on a trip youth-hostelling with friends just before a Mammal Society field trip. Listening to them, I could remember the pool table where we used to hang out (and play a lot of terrible pool), and some of the nonsense we got up to...
If I was going to be critical, I'd say that 3 hours wasn't really quite enough time to cover all the material, which meant that you hardly got any footage of some interviews, and there were places where it felt like Reginald wanted to go into things in more detail but there just wasn't time. Still, I thought this was very good television. Hurrah for iplayer :)
There's a playlist of many of the songs here
, though you need an account on a streaming music site to make much use of it.