- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 17, 2006

LAFAYETTE, La. — Contrary to what most of its devoted listeners probably believe,public radio’s popular folk-music program is “American Routes,” not “Roots,” but the double entendre is deliberate.

Five months after he was uprooted and rerouted to Lafayette by Hurricane Katrina, Nick Spitzer, the program’s founder and host, is returning it to its New Orleans base.

“Whether we’ll stay there forever, I don’t know, but right now we’re going to fly the flag and help to take care of the place and bring it back,” said Mr. Spitzer, who went on the air with “American Routes” in 1998 after decades of dreaming about a program that celebrates the diversity of American music instead of focusing on one format.

Now, the two-hour weekly program produced by Public Radio International is aired on nearly 300 National Public Radio affiliates, including WAMU-FM in Washington, where it airs from 10 p.m. to midnight on Saturdays. The show offers its estimated half-million listeners a smorgasbord of American musical genres: blues, jazz, gospel, bluegrass, country, Western swing, soul, zydeco, Cajun, Tejano even American Indian tribal music.

Mr. Spitzer, a former folklife specialist for the Smithsonian Institution, explained he and his wife evacuated New Orleans like hundreds of thousands of others in August when Katrina approached the city.

“First, we were just going to a high-rise hotel,” said Mr. Spitzer, 55, who also was teaching folklore at the University of New Orleans.

He relocated to Lafayette, where he had lived in the 1970s while researching his doctoral dissertation in anthropology for the University of Texas at Austin on zydeco music and Mardi Gras. He also knew Dave Spizale, general manager of KRVS, the NPR affiliate on the University of Louisiana at Lafayette campus.

The university provided “Routes” with an office in its library, while KRVS made its facilities available to Mr. Spitzer and put him in contact with an independent music producer in Lafayette with a backyard recording studio.

“We came to a sympathetic community,” said Mr. Spitzer. “It was a good match. Lafayette is kind of a low-key French Austin.”

A Connecticut native, Mr. Spitzer explained he first envisioned the idea of a roots-music program as an anthropology major at the University of Pennsylvania, but his appreciation of music dates to his childhood.

“My dad was a classical musician, and my mother loved American songs,” he said. “In the 1950s, when I was a little kid, I had an intimate relationship with my radio like so many kids did. I’d always been a loquacious kid, talking.

“When I got to college, I kind of wanted to do radio. I was in anthropology, but I realized that in that radio music library was a world of cultures, every bit as rich as I could learn in anthropology, maybe even richer, because it was art and expression, it was sound and sentiment. I began to feel that I could be a person that cared about and could interpret other cultures.”

He earned his master’s and doctorate in anthropology from UT-Austin, then spent seven years as a folklorist for the state of Louisiana before coming to the Smithsonian in 1985. For seven years, he produced a live radio series, “Folk Masters,” that aired Wolf Trap concerts among others.

After a three-year hiatus in Santa Fe, N.M., Mr. Spitzer said he decided, “I’m ready to do that ‘American Routes’ show” and it debuted on April 1, 1998.

He had to make two decisions first: the spelling of the title, and where to base the program.

He explained he decided on “Routes” as a homonym of “Roots” to represent “the creative tension between the metaphor for transformation and the metaphor for continuity” in American music.

The word “roots,” he argued, “isolates people. It has a tendency to romanticize them, that they are somehow not part of modern life, clinging stubbornly, even stupidly, to something, and I don’t see it that way.

“R-o-u-t-e-s speaks to the individual action in a diverse, pluralistic, democratic social order, with individuals making transformations that we remember. That doesn’t mean that we don’t keep in touch with r-o-o-t-s. Ray Charles draws on blues, draws on gospel, draws on popular sounds like jazz and rhythm ‘n’ blues and creates soul. So, we want to account for continuity from the past, of those traditions, the diversities of the past, and then, creations of the present. So, r-o-u-t-e-s embraces the organic metaphor of roots, like taproot, but it also is inclusive of human actions, of a crossroads. It is about the American story of migration, motion, transformation.”

He explained that he considered Austin, Savannah, Ga., and Santa Fe, N.M., but decided that “New Orleans is truly the Creole soul of America. It links ‘r-o-o-t-s’ and ‘r-o-u-t-e-s’ more profoundly than any other one city.”

He said several days of work go into each two-hour program, 26 of them each year, with the amount of work varying with the subject. After Katrina, he and his three full-time staffers produced a seven-part series from Lafayette, “After the Storm,” which he said was more time-consuming because it could not draw on material from earlier programs.

” ‘American Routes’ is now this total genre that can absorb all these cultural differences,” he said. “It’s not a one-format show. ‘Routes’ is kind of a sonic store with many things on the shelves. I’m trying to give it a good ambiance with a cracker barrel and a fire and a friendly guy at the counter. A lot of what we do is play to the familiarity and the interest of a listener.

“I’m always moving the edge on the cultural-appreciation factor. Each program is a kind of crafted painting that has some continuity, but also has some special earmarks to it.”

“Routes” moved into its new office on Basin Street, in the French Quarter, on Jan. 6. Asked if he believed New Orleans would ever be the same as before, Mr. Spitzer replied, “Nothing is ever the same. The continuity has been disrupted profoundly. Nonetheless, it’s an important, powerful, creative place in American life, although governing is weak. It’s hard to know what it will become. It’s always had the best and the worst of society intertwined in a most frustrating and sometimes amusing as well as heartbreaking way. Our best hope is that it will be creatively different and better.”

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