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This is a movie (more of a documentary in fact) that was produced and directed by Jim Brown who was assisted by Jeff Rosen and Sam Pollard. It is narrated by Kris Kristofferson and runs for an hour. It is a U.S. production that was released in 2001.

‘When First Unto This Country’ tries to examine the humble beginnings of one of the most popular music genres not only in the United States but also in the whole world: American roots music. It traces the development of this music well into the early 20th century. When the Europeans, and Africans as well, settled and established the then new world around the 17th century, it is believed that each and every ethnic and cultural group brought along its own music heritage to this now centralized place. Considering that there were many ethnic groups (and thus many music styles) and the fact that human beings always associate, there was bound to be an exchange, modification and combination of these music styles after some time. This is exactly what happened in that new world. A combination of the different music heritages led to the creation of what was distinctly American music that was to be referred to as American roots music.

Although this genre of music had been around for quite some time, it was only at the start of the 20th century that musicians, scholars and music enthusiasts began to appreciate its unique appeal and its musical legacy. After this recognition, travelling musicians focused more on spreading folk songs, hillbilly music and blues. The most celebrated pioneering figures who were in the fore front of spreading the American roots music are the Fisk Jubilee Singers. These singers travelled a lot in the late 19th century and are highly regarded for popularizing American spirituals. The timely advancement of technology (such as the radio and phonograph) during this period played a major role in spreading the roots music. This simply meant that the music could be listened beyond the borders of America. By the 1920s, WSM had started to air a night barn dance (Grand Ole Opry) every Saturday and the Carter family as well as Jimmy Rogers were recording with Ralph Peer. American roots music had truly established its place in the hearts of music lovers.

Just like any documentary, ‘When First Unto This Country’ tries to narrate only the facts and the established truth. To achieve this, the producers used ancient footages and pictures that they could find. In addition, they conducted many interviews (with Gillian Welch, Marty Stuart, Bernice Johnson- Reagon, Robert Mirabal etc) as well as using rare footage of Rodgers and Son House (legends of country music and blues respectively). In the end, the movie is a great learning resource for those interested in knowing the history of American roots music. However, if you want something Hollywood-like (that is, very entertaining but mostly fictional) then this is not for you.

This Land Was Made For You and Me

‘This Land Was Made For You and Me’ is also a documentary by Jim Brown and it can be thought of as a continuation to ‘When First Unto This Country’. While the latter examined the origin and development of American roots music until the 1920s, the former examines how the music was further developed from the 1930s until the 1950s.

During the course of the 1930s, there were some folklorists who found it fit to assemble traditional music and use them to come up with field recordings. For instance, folksinger Leadbelly (real name Huddie Ledbetter), an African American, was- musically speaking- discovered by John and compatriot Alan Lomax at Angola Penitentiary and his music was given a major boost by the efforts of these two. That was in 1933. Leadbelly had a large collection of original yet entertaining music and he became so popular that many people went on to believe that American traditions were very different from the European traditions. Perhaps inspired by Leadbelly, many other singers started the habit of writing music drawn from personal experiences and social problems. One of them was Woody Guthrie. Having witnessed the labor unrest, the Dust Bowl and having interacted with migrant workers, Guthrie put all these into song and dance.

American roots music expanded rapidly after the Second World War. This was the time that honky tonk grew in popularity with its main ambassador being Ernest Tubb. Hank Williams’ rise was so meteoric that he was perhaps not prepared to deal with it adequately enough. He seemed blown away with this popularity and his life was cut short as a result.  This period also witnessed the birth of mountain music after Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe combined speedy banjo picking and high lonesome vocals and came up with the bluegrass. This is just one of the many evolutions that made American roots music even more popular.

As a continuation to ‘When First Unto This Country’, ‘This Land Was Made For You and Me’ shares almost all of its properties; old footages and pictures, interviews with experts and clips of some key musicians. This simply means that all American roots music enthusiasts can learn a lot about this music during that crucial period. Since the intended purpose of this movie is to inform and educate the viewers, it is- for lack of a better word- ‘anti-Hollywood’. However, its intended purpose is passed across very well. 

Code: Sample20

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