Mississippi: The River of Song and more...

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Americans Old and New1: Americans Old and New2: Midwestern Crossroads3: Southern Fusion4: Louisiana: Where Music is King


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Artists In This Region

Music is often cited as a universal language that can bring people together across linguistic, cultural, and geographical borders, but it can also be the opposite: a private, personal language that holds a group together and separates it from outsiders. Immigrants, traveling with few possessions other than the clothes on their backs, carry their songs with them to their new homes, and those songs may remain long after other reminders of past lives and surroundings have disappeared. Music is the glue that keeps communities from disintegrating and, with its ability to adapt and absorb new influences, can be many different things: a nostalgic family heirloom, a proud statement of identity, or simply what brings people together to dance and have a party.
       One of the central American metaphors is that of the melting pot, but, in the northern Midwest; winters are long and melting does not happen easily. The long months of icy weather keep families and friends huddled in their homes and, in these intimate gatherings, old traditions have stayed alive. Along the banks of the northern Mississippi, one still finds the music of wave after wave of immigrants, people who came thousands, hundreds, or just a few years ago. Each group has been affected by its surroundings and its neighbors, but has also retained a cultural cohesiveness that is much rarer as one moves south.
       The musicians in this first part of the journey down the river come from widely varied backgrounds, and arrived over several centuries. The Ojibwe are the oldest settlers, having come to the region about three hundred years ago. They largely displaced the Dakota people, who had arrived somewhat earlier, displacing still earlier groups in a pattern reaching back at least 2,000 years. Northern Europeans-Swedes, Norwegians, and Germans-were the next to settle the area, in the 1800s, setting up solid farming communities. In the cities, there was a growing African-American population, coming north to find freedom and a better life. The turn of the century brought a wave of Mexican immigrants, seeking jobs in the factories. And so it continues, with new immigrants drawn by the Midwest's reputation for friendliness and relatively high living standards. Even people from warmer climates, like the recently arrived Cambodians and Laotian Hmong, have chosen to brave the snow and wind to build a life in the Twin Cities.
       The northern Mississippi has not received the musical kudos commonly given to the lower river regions, but its contribution has been impressive. Wintry isolation has produced quirky individualists like Bob Dylan, a Jewish kid in Hibbing, Minnesota, who built a new life out of the sounds that came in over the radio. Dylan passed only briefly through the Minneapolis scene, before heading east to New York and folk stardom, but other players, like his friend "Spider" John Koerner, chose to stay in the relaxed atmosphere of the local bars, clubs, and coffeehouses. In the mid-70s, when Garrison Keillor started broadcasting "Prairie Home Companion" from St. Paul's World Theatre, the show was able to tap into a wealth of local talent, and introduced the country to an unsuspected new generation of players, singers, and songwriters.
       At roughly the same time, Prince opened the eyes of the rock world to a Minneapolis band scene that was arguably the most varied for its size in the country. The Replacements, the Jayhawks, Hüsker Dü and a few others broke nationally, but were only the tip of the iceberg. Less cliquey than New York or Los Angeles, Minneapolis musicians range from punk to heavy metal to r&b, from the abrasive underground sound of Babes in Toyland to pop successes like Soul Asylum, but all seem to know and support one another, partying together and showing up at each other's gigs. Prince also appeared as the tip of an iceberg of black culture. He had grown up on the Minneapolis jazz scene, named for his father's Prince Roger Trio. When he opened his own studio, Paisley Park, he proved that one did not have to go to the coasts to make hot records, and soon stars like Janet Jackson were flying into town to record at Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis's Flyte Tyme studio. Longtime local figures, Jam and Lewis used their prestige to record old friends like Sounds of Blackness, among the most innovative ensembles in modern gospel.
       Outside the cities, kids grow up listening to the same pop radio that covers the rest of the country, but also holding on to older sounds that assert and preserve their cultural roots. Some of the current crop of rural ethnic musicians, like the members of the Skċl Club Spelmanslag, are self-consciously preservationist, seeking out old-country traditions in an attempt to find and explore their familial past. Others, like Karl Hartwich, play local styles that developed among immigrant communities in Minnesota or Wisconsin, and are quite different from the music played by their European forebears.
       Moving down the river, we arrive in the factory and farming area centered in the Quad Cities: Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa, on the Mississippi's west bank, and Moline and Rock Island, Illinois, on the east. There, a strong Mexican-American community has flourished for many years, interacting with other immigrant groups while keeping up with developments south of the Rio Grande. La Otra Mitad plays everything from corridos of the Mexican Revolution to Columbian cumbias and inner-city Hispanic rap, while trumpeter Manny Lopez has emerged from a mariachi background to become heir to the jazz tradition of the area's most famous musical product, the cornetist Bix Beiderbecke.
       These performers emerge from an amazing range of disparate styles and traditions, but all share a deep affection for the region, and an appreciation of the variety and richness of the music available here. More than any other group down the river, they seemed interested in what was happening in other communities, often speaking with pleasure of the cultural interaction. All were proud both of where they came from and where they are going, of their roots and their ability to create a new, American, identity. Their music reflects all of that, with deep roots and broad, flowering branches.

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