Galena, Illinois to Ste. Genevieve, Missouri
On the river near Galena, Illinois, we find John Hartford piloting the riverboat Twilight. As he steers a course down the center of the river, he talks about the old steamboat days and music along the river. Down in the dining salon, he plays banjo and fiddle for the voyagers, singing a lilting version of his "Gentle on My Mind," and songs he has written about growing up on the banks of the river and about the rough and rowdy pilots he has known in his 30 years of working on the boats.
In Hillsboro, Illinois, a prototypical example of small town midwestern America, we look in on a bluegrass festival. Gathered by a campfire, a group of older men play the pre-bluegrass country style of the area, with guitars, fiddles and harmonica, then join in a campground watermelon feast. The Bob Lewis Family is our featured band, and we see them onstage, the two youngest children clog-dancing while the rest of the family plays highballing breakdowns. The younger members of the family jam with friends around a picnic table, singing high, lonesome harmony and picking lightning instrumentals featuring Joy Lewis Calhoun, a prize-winning mandolin player.
Perhaps the most common music played throughout the midwest, though it is rarely credited, is that of the thousands of high school marching bands. Many a great musician got his or her start in the school band, and many other people had their one musical experience there. In a suburb of St. Louis, we find the St. Charles High School band rehearsing in their practice room, then follow them to the St. Charles Pirates football game. The team loses, but the half-time show has all the marching band trademarks: tight formations, bouncy cheers, and blaring brass. Moving downriver to St. Louis, we visit a suburban church and find soul-gospel singer Fontella Bass, playing piano and singing a passionate response to her majestic mother, the gospel legend Martha Bass. Later, in her home, Fontella talks about the days when St. Louis was a blues and soul center, and her youth touring the south with her mother and grandmother before she ran away to become a blues star. Seated at the piano, she plays a bit of her soul hit, "Rescue Me," pointing up the differences and similarities between the soul and gospel styles.
If one man exemplifies the St. Louis music scene, it is Oliver Sain. Sain came north from Mississippi with Little Milton, and established himself as a central figure in the r&b scene. He "discovered" Fontella Bass and Ann Peebles, writing their first hits and producing their music, and worked closely with such other local stars as Ike and Tina Turner. Today, he runs a recording studio and continues to gig regularly. He performs at his weekly club, playing saxophone and keyboards with his jazz-r&b quintet; then moves downtown for the St. Louis Tribute to Oliver Sain, a benefit featuring twenty of the most accomplished musical acts of the city's history, including the fiery James Family and Ike Turner.
Across the river in East St. Louis, we see Eugene Redmond, a poet who has been a central voice of black St. Louis for decades. Working with Katherine Dunham's dance group, Redmond has led a revival of interest in the African tradition, and we watch as he gives a dynamic performance of poetry with backing by an African drumming group, the Sunshine drum group, led by Sylvester "Sunshine" Lee. Later, the poet and the drummer speak about the economic stress of life in East St. Louis, the beacon of hope presented by the musical legacy of Miles Davis, and the continuing vitality of the local black cultural scene.
Down in a waterfront rock club, The Bottle Rockets play their brand of rootsy country punk. Mixing small-town, honky-tonk roots with a contemporary attitude, their songs have an edgy humor and gritty power. We follow them downriver to their apartment in Festus, Missouri, where they live upstairs from a neighborhood bar, and look in on a rehearsal session that digs back into their country roots. Down in the bar, leader Brian Henneman talks about growing up in an industrial town on the river banks, feeling like misplaced weirdos, then discovering a national audience of fans. We also see the band down on the river banks.
On New Year's eve, the streets of historic Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, fill with oddly-costumed revelers: The Ste. Genevieve Guignolée singers preserve a medieval French custom, wandering through inns and bars and singing an old wassailing song. With three fiddlers and over a dozen singers dressed in a composite of colonial and medieval costumes, they keep alive the heritage of the area's earliest European settlers, but mostly they come together to celebrate the New Year.
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