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Program Summaries
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Smithsonian Institution
The Mississippi: River of Song

River of Song: A Musical Journey Down the Mississippi


       It seems to me that in any country, in any culture, there are two basic kinds of popular music. First, there is commercially generated music, which flows forth on radio waves and is transmitted into people's lives through screens, magazines, and other two-dimensional things. It is the most easily recognizable face of music in a society, a face that winks at us all with the eyes of pop divas, and sneers at us with the lips of rock stars.
       However, beneath the surface of mainstream popular culture, there is the ever-present undercurrent of organically generated music. This other branch finds it's sources much further back than its mass marketed contemporaries, and is comprised (in America anyway) of a seemingly endless system of interconnected musical tributaries and little regional inlets.
       While these two basic forms are not mutually exclusive, and often overlap, the latter is generally born of a particular and specific community or individual expression, and manifests itself not as a commodity, but as a social activity.
       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. It ain't always glamorous, but hell, it's a lot more dynamic and interesting than most of what ends up in stadiums, on top-forty charts and pay-per-view.
       What first attracted me to this river of song business was the project's focus: showing music as it's happening, where it's happening, along a great murky trajectory through America. And doing so without paying particular attention to who and what has previously been canonized by the culture of commercially oriented critics and the self-appointed arbiters of cultural history.
       I like the idea of tapping someone on his or her shoulder, and pointing a finger and saying, "Hey man, check out this crazy scene!" I am enamored by the idea of uniting musicians (and the noise they make) by a river, instead of dividing them by genre like bins in a record store. I cherish the idea of witnessing music as an event, and recognizing it as an integral part of life.
       'Cuz music is not just something you buy, it's something you do.

       ľani difranco, August 1998

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