You've gotta hand it to those PBS folks: Embattled on the one hand by a fickle public apparently more transfixed by The Nanny and infomercials for food dehydrators than it is by Masterpiece Theatre or Jim Lehrer, and on the other by moronic congressmen who, when they're not trying to overthrow the government or cowering under their beds in fear of Larry Flynt, would prefer to defund the whole thing because, in their small minds, Sesame Street is some kind of communist plot -- they somehow manage to come up with some great stuff.
Case in point: The Mississippi: River of Song, midway through its run on KETC (Channel 9) (part 3, "Southern Fusion," airs on Sunday, Jan. 24; part 4, "Louisiana, Where Music Is King," airs Jan. 31; and part 2, "Midwestern Crossroads," which concerns St. Louis-area musicians, repeats at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 27), is an exemplary series that takes an in-depth look at an incredible array of musical styles as they're practiced along the banks of the mighty Mississippi. If you haven't been able to catch the series as it runs or haven't quite figured out to program that VCR you got for Christmas, not to worry. In an effort to defray the costs of the program -- and who knows, maybe even turn a few bucks -- the writers and producers of the show have released a number of products that together present the full range of the River of Song experience.
Merchandising PBS shows is nothing new, of course. "Official companion" books that tell the parts of the story that can't be squeezed into even multipart series date back to the days of efforts such as Cosmos, Viet Nam, The Story of English and beyond. The selling of Ken Burns' Baseball series was pretty over-the-top: There were videotape sets, books, books on tape, music CDs -- heck, for the right price, Burns might have even come 'round to your place to have a catch.
But so be it, if that's what keeps shows like The Mississippi: River of Song in production. Truth be told, each of the products connected to the series is first-rate. The shows themselves are available on four videotapes, sold separately or together. There's also a two-CD set containing 36 full-length performances of songs, most of which are only excerpted in the series. The companion book, written by series producer John Junkerman and music consultant Elijah Wald, contains a wealth of information over and above what's on the tapes and CDs. There's truly a small enough amount of overlap that, if the series has captured your imagination at all, it's worth springing for the entire works.
For parochial sorts, the show concerning St. Louis deserves close inspection. It's the best of the lot, not merely because it draws national attention to some of the great artists here in our backyard but because it seems the closest to bringing to fruition the premise of the series. Though the other shows present a similarly diverse group of musical acts, both professional and amateur, the relationship of some of them to the Mississippi seems incidental at best. Take Minneapolis alt-rockers Babes in Toyland and Soul Asylum, for example. Both are fine acts, inexorably linked to the Twin Cities scene of the 1980s. Their connection to the Mississippi seems a mere accident of geography, though, and it's hard to imagine that it would have made much difference if these bands had come together in Cincinnati or Lawrence, Kan.
John Hartford, on the other hand, who grew up in St. Louis and still spends lots of time piloting riverboats up and down the Mississippi, has clearly thought about the river and its effect on music and on America in general. "The real, true music of the river is probably just about every kind of music you can think of, because there was so many different kinds of people on the river," he says at one point. "Every class of people has their music, and of course they take it with them wherever they go."
Festus' finest, the Bottle Rockets, are one of the few other acts to comment directly on the effect of the river. Sitting in that town's Hi Pointe Bar, where the band played its first gigs, guitarist/vocalist Brian Henneman admits that the river was mostly a place for mischief -- to drink beer or shoot off fireworks. But for some reason, he muses, the river draws you to it, and many of the important decisions of his life were made while contemplating its flowing waters.
Apparently the river made a big enough impact on Henneman -- if nothing else, at least by occasionally making him seek higher ground -- to compose "Get Down River," one of the finest and most matter-of-fact flood songs ever written. Appropriately, the song bookends the episode, with the full version of the tune available on the two-CD set.
Another terrific aspect of the "Midwestern Crossroads" show is that it offers an extended and long-overdue valentine to Oliver Sain, who has done so much to keep rhythm and blues alive in St. Louis. To be sure, he's received notice locally for his efforts, but it's about time the nation got hip to this fine and versatile musician, too. The segment on Fontella Bass and her mother, Martha Bass, is terrific as well.
The best thing about the series as a whole is that it calls attention to the diversity of American music and to how the various traditions are being carried forth, not necessarily by professional musicians but by people who play just for the love of it, too -- people like the Skalclub Spelmanslag, a Wisconsin group that contributes the endearing "Red-Headed Swede," and the Ste. Genevieve Guignolee Singers, who celebrate the new year by dressing in 18th-century costumes, going from tavern to tavern to sing a somewhat randy French tune and getting fabulously wasted in the process. As the artist formerly known as Johnny Cougar would say, "Ain't that America