Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Rolling on the River

By Susan Ellis

SEPTEMBER 21, 1998:  To tell you the truth, this was a very fun job.”

John Junkerman is referring to his part in the extensive Smithsonian Institution-sponsored project, The Mississippi: River of Song, which explores American music by following the Mississippi from northern Minnesota through St. Louis and Memphis to southern Louisiana. River of Song will include a four-part film series to be broadcast on PBS in January, a seven-part public-radio series, a two-CD set, and a Web site (www.pbs.org/riverofsong). To kick off River of Song, the filmmakers are making a 10-stop trip on board the excusion barge River Explorer, docking in Memphis on Thursday.

Junkerman is a filmmaker who spent six years researching and three months filming musicians as diverse as the Scandinavian fiddle group Skålclub Spelmanslag to the R&B-brass band conglomerate Soul Rebels. Junkerman has been a documentary filmmaker for 15 years and has spent much of that time working in Japan. It was, he says, one of those Japanese films, Dream Window: Reflections on the Japanese Garden, that led to River of Soul. Dream Window is a Smithsonian-sponsored film that deals with one of the treasures of Japanese culture. According to Junkerman, the idea for the River of Song series was the same. (The series will eventually be translated into Japanese and shown on their public-television channel.)

“We were looking for a project that would address some of the cultural traditions of America, and music is one of the things that we as Americans are most proud of,” he says.

The filmmakers decided to center River of Song around the Mississippi to give the series organization and to have a major geographical feature that cuts across different economic and cultural situations. The Mississippi River also gave them a unique starting point, says Junkerman. He says that while other films and TV series have focused on one particular genre of music such as Cajun or the blues, none have taken such a wider look in order to capture the bigger picture.

Junkerman and his team, advised by music writers, historians, and folklorists, considered between 30 and 40 acts at each stop and then whittled it down from there. “Mainly we were looking for the best musicians we could find. Then we were also looking for musicians representing the music that is historically important and continues to be important in those areas,” says Junkerman.

The first in the series is “Americans Old and New,” which covers northern Minnesota to Douds, Iowa, and features a variety of music from the polka of the Country Dutchman to the rock of Soul Asylum. Part two is “Midwestern Crossroads,” and it cuts through Galena, Illinois, to Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, and includes the St. Charles High School Band and the African drumming and poetry of the Eugene Redmond & the Sunshine drum group. The third is “Southern Fusion.” It encompasses La Center, Kentucky, to Jackson, Mississippi, and it’s in this section that Memphis music comes in, with artists such as Rufus Thomas and Ann Peebles. The last in the series is “Louisiana,” which takes on country music from Natchez, Mississippi, through the ballads of Irvan Perez from the Canary Islands.

In making River of Song, Junkerman says he became partial to the vitality of punk music and began to appreciate polka music. Most of all, though, he says that he learned a few lessons he hopes the series will pass on.

Says Junkerman, “Little Milton told me a story that Sonny Boy Williamson told him when he was coming up: ‘You’ve got to share your music with other people, and if you don’t share it, nobody’s going to have anything to share with you. And if the person you try to share it with won’t reciprocate, share it with somebody else.’

“That to me summed up the spirit of what music in the community is.”

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