An Exploration of Roots Music

The history teacher in me really gets into the “roots” aspect of music – tracing where our current music came from and who really made it possible for so many different types of bands to be so successful in 2014.  Folk and Americana musicians are famously self-aware that they’re always standing on the shoulders of giants, but I think it’s important to remember that this is true whether it’s metal, EDM, indie sugar pop, or rap, too. I have to confess that I don’t always like listening to “old” music. Some of it feels kind of schmaltzy and jingoistic, and certainly a good portion of it doesn’t make an impression on me. But a recent fifth (or sixth?) viewing of It Might Get Loud highlighted again for me some of the really revolutionary early pioneers like Son House, Link Wray, Muddy Waters, and Leadbelly. I do think there are many, many artists that provided the roots for other genres to grow as well (Beatles, Clash, Elvis Costello, Madonna, NWA) even though they might have their own their roots in a previous generation. There’s some interesting meshing and historical layering that comes with this kind of exercise.

But if we’re going to be serious critics and fans of music, we should be looking for the threads that unite the past to the present, and the threads that make good music “good.” Yes, it’s always in the eye of the beholder, but what I find interesting is that no matter what a person’s favorite genre is, they listen to that music to feel connected, nostalgic, excited, motivated, sad, happy…. just to FEEL SOMETHING!! And to get that same feeling each time they listen to the song. If the feeling fades, they’ll find something new. So it’s interesting to think about what are the common human links that give us hope and meaning. I think roots music has a lot to say about that.

Below I’ve are some songs that I think are especially timeless and “rootsy” no matter what the genre is. I also think this has been my main subconscious goal as a music lover since day one – to discover, enjoy, organize and share music that I really connect with and that I think has a real staying power. That, in fact, may be the entire reason for this blog’s existence, come to think of it. ,

So here are some examples to try to make this less academic and more rock n roll! It starts music that fits under a more conventional “roots” definition then branches out a bit.

Big Daddy O – Louisiana Moon

Couldn’t find a video of it, but it’s a big time lyrical example of capturing what unites people, and I think this song could be enjoyed basically by anyone who’s ever gazed at the moon with wonder and awe. “No matter where you are, we all see the same moon / Down in Louisiana it’s a little deeper blue.”

Leadbelly – Where Did You Sleep Last Night

I pretty much love every version of this song I’ve ever heard. I play it over and over. It’s so spooky and relatable. This one is just about the most haunting of all of them.


Little Willie John (Rudy Toombs) – I’m Shakin’

The riff on this one is so iconic and rooted that roots purist Jack White put his own spin on it for the Blunderbuss album. I’ll leave it up to you whether Willie John, Phil Alvin from the Blasters or Mr White does the vocals a better service.


Chubby Checker (Dave Appel) – Let’s Twist Again

Another one with an awesome riff that could get anyone moving, and I’ve always thought that the lyrics and vocals are just a little bit wistful.


Hank Williams – Mind Your Own Business

It’s a party tune, even if it doesn’t sound like it to our modern ears. Everybody gets the “let me do what I want” blues from time to time and Hank probably had them more often than most of us.


Hank Williams – Jambalaya (On the Bayou)

A song about food, love, and just generally gettin’ down. We can all agree with those things, right?


MC5 – Kick Out the Jams

Yes, I followed up Hank Williams with MC5. Before any of the more commercialized punk pioneers (the Clash, Ramones, Buzzcocks) there was this 1960s hard rock/punk band from Detroit. Pretty amazing what was going on in the 60s was not just Joan Baez and the Kingston Trio.  Case in point for their enduring roots status: genre-pioneers Rage Against the Machine covered them in the year 2000 on their Renegades of Funk album.


X – Breathless

No Doubt, Hole, Garbage, The Breeders and other smash hit female-led punk/ska/grunge bands from the 90s (even Avril Lavigne?) almost certainly can thank X for making their jobs a little easier. X wasn’t the first punk band in LA but they really popularized the sound. By the by, those same megahit radio artists can also thank Sleater-Kinney for fearlessly taking the helm of the feminist vanguard in the early 90s.


Desmond Dekker – You Can Get It If You Really Want It

He was Bob Marley’s predecessor. He’s the only Jamaican musician that even comes close to being as famous as Bob. Anyone who needs to feel good can listen to these chill vibes.


Grandmaster Flash – The Message

Despite my then-obsession with punk music, when I first heard this song in high school I became much more interested in hip hop and rap, especially the political kind. That led to 2 Pac and Outkast and Public Enemy showing up regularly in my discman. Each of those artists has probably thanked the Grandmaster profusely for paving the way for their success.




3 thoughts on “An Exploration of Roots Music

  1. 45spin says:

    Gotta go with the Blasters version. Still one of my favorite Dave Alvin songs.

  2. Robin says:

    Yeah, It’s my favorite as well, the first version I heard. Dance with the one that brung ya’

  3. KHM says:

    Another vote for the Blasters out of these, though I do like what JW added.

    But my favorite is Jewel Brown and Milton Hopkin’s version. Having a smoky female voice changes it all, and the uptick in tempo in the 2nd half + solo is fantastic.

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