American Music

Cultural roots

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 September, 2010, 12:00am

It seems a cliche to describe the United States as a melting pot of cultures, especially in these homogenous times. But folkstreams (, a site dedicated to documentaries about American roots, proves that's exactly what it is.

This tidy website features around 80 hours of footage documenting the variety of cultures that exist in the US - from shrimp fishing in Florida to old-time travelling medicine shows, from the blues in the Mississippi Delta to Cajun music in New Orleans. The site was founded by documentarian Tom Davenport, and features some of his movies. The films are available for free online viewing, and sometimes come with notes, transcripts, and teaching guides.

In a note on the site, Davenport says his aim is to build a national archive of hard-to-find documentaries - which, he says, were produced since the 1960s by independent filmmakers in the advent of portable cameras and synch sound - and to give them renewed life on the internet.

The site is a browser's paradise. Those interested in arcana will enjoy 1983's Free Show Tonight, a documentary about travelling medicine shows, in which home-made remedies were sold in full-fledged musical and comedy performances. The film recreates a medicine show in a small town in North Carolina, and is narrated by country music legend Roy Acuff, who began his career playing banjo in a medicine show.

Quilting is an important American folk art, and it's analysed in the thoughtful 1981 documentary Quilting in Women's Lives (left). The film comes with a long study guide which sets a framework for discussing the topic in classrooms.

American folk culture is steeped in music, and that's reflected in the films; 1981's Mouth Music, for example, is a fascinating examination of the vocal arts of the south. These include hollering, jump-rope rhymes, and nonsense talk. Texas Style features three generations of fiddlers playing at a barbecue cook-off. Give My Poor Heart Ease looks at the origins of the blues in the Mississippi Delta.

'Heretofore, much good independent film work was like the tree falling in the wilderness with no one to hear,' Davenport says. 'With the internet and video streaming, we will be able to make a 'national park' from this wilderness where everyone can come and freely hear and see what we and others have laboured on for so long.'