River of Song
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River of Song
Created by Raincastle Communications, Inc., and the Smithsonian Institution, 1998.
Reviewed June 2002.

The River of Song Web site explores the wide variety of music currently being made along the Mississippi River. Traveling from the river’s Minnesota headwaters to New Orleans, a Smithsonian Institution production team captured musical performances from artists who identify with the river and its surrounding communities. The result is a loving portrait of American cultural diversity, the spiritual power of music, and the continuing vibrancy of American vernacular traditions.

The River of Song homepage enables users to listen to musicians
from different cities along the Mississippi River

The 1998 site is part of a larger River of Song multimedia project that includes a 1999 four-part PBS television series, a ten-episode radio documentary, an illustrated book, and a companion CD set.

The Web site shares much with the other components of the project. It is organized around the four television episodes: “Americans Old and New,” "Midwestern Crossroads,“ "Southern Fusion,” and “Louisiana, Where Music Is King.” The pages are thematic, yet they also roughly correspond to a segment of the river journey. On each page, a brief essay describes the climate, history, and communities of the region and offers links to featured artists.

The breadth of the music on the site is one of its major strengths. The site profiles forty-one artists or groups. Chippewa Nation from northern Minnesota has revived powwow drumming for a new generation of Native Americans. Alt-rockers Soul Asylum has boosted the Twin Cities' reputation as a midwestern musical capital. Hmong qeej players, a German polka band, a black gospel choir, and a few white folk singers get their due, and that is just in the first episode. Later profiles highlight the immense influence of African American artists on the nationís music. Brief musical examples and interview excerpts can be viewed with RealMedia or QuickTime. Together, the profiles tell a powerful story of the roots and branches of American vernacular music. They show people on the move, touring, meeting each other, and discovering new songs and styles while remaining rooted within their local communities.

A teacherís guide offers a number of useful activities and work sheets. Primarily geared toward elementary and middle school students, the activities are designed to expose students to a wide variety of music, raise questions about commercial marketing categories, teach the uses and value of music within a community setting, and improve listening skills. Almost all of the activities require either the video or the CD collection.

The River of Song Web site is best understood as a summary of the far more rich and expansive video and audio documentaries. It offers a taste of the larger project instead of an opportunity to delve deeper. Outside of the teacher’s guide and a collection of related links, new content is at a minimum. The truncated artist portraits and musical examples leave one wanting more. The site would be improved by the inclusion of interviews and artists not covered in the video, which would give the Web site a life of its own and allow users to continue the river journey.

Designed as a summation, the site cannot escape the limitations of the larger project. The river metaphor proves useful for its dual evocation of place and movement, community cohesion and cultural exchange. It is less equipped to handle cultural conflict and exclusion. One gets little sense of the class and racial divisions that characterize Mississippi River towns as much as they do the rest of the nation. Segregation and racism, rarely discussed in River of Song, remain unexplored contexts for the cultural diversity and community cohesion the site celebrates.

Karl Hagstrom Miller
University of Texas
Austin, Texas