The Washington cultural institution's New Harmonies program will feature this musical history with a traveling exhibit in five states - Minnesota, Mississippi, New Jersey, Ohio and South Carolina. Communities in those states will host performances and other events in conjunction with the exhibit.
The program, which is part of the Smithsonian's Museum on Main Street project, showcases some of America's "richest stories," says Carol Harsh, director of Main Street.
"There's a lot of fine music in this country; you kind of take it for granted," says South Carolina's John Fowler, an Appalachian storyteller, musician and radio host. "New Harmonies is a great snapshot."
Venues in the five states include libraries, historical societies and performance spaces in towns, rural areas and small cities, with the first programs scheduled for Asbury Park, N.J. The sites host the New Harmonies traveling exhibit while developing unique, local spinoffs and promoting already-well-established programs. "Connecting the national story with their own personal experience is pretty profound," says Harsh.
Immerse yourself in "America's soundtrack," an intricate cross-pollination of genres.
The core New Harmonies exhibit explores sacred music - "Elvis Presley sang earliest in the church," notes Harsh - as well as the secular: Cajun and Creole influenced Zydeco; Mexican American Tejano; Jewish Klezmer; and folk music (Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez) that sustained civil rights movements.
This year's New Harmonies traveling exhibit debuts March 12 at the Asbury Park Public Library (500 First Ave.), home of a Bruce Springsteen collection. But programs are already starting.
"It's going to be like Woodstock all year," songwriter and former Styx band member Glen Burtnik proclaimed at a recent Musical Heritage Year fundraiser. In keeping with a Smithsonian focus on the future, the bluegrass and rock show at the legendary Stone Pony music club (913 Ocean Ave.) included a 16-year-old, classically trained violinist, Taylor Hope.
Think Minnesota's mostly about polka music? Think again.
The state's New Harmonies tour will accentuate "absent narratives" - musical, written and oral stories that haven't always gotten mainstream attention: Mexican, Somali, Dakota, Ojibwe, Laotian.
"Increasingly, there are more voices in play in the culture, the meaning of this place," says state humanities official Matthew Brandt. "They are part of the Minnesota story."
Lots of people have heard of Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater; this spotlight shines on "energized" smaller communities.
Bluegrass - and beyond - are on tap at Ohio's eight host communities, starting March 14 at the Quaker Heritage Center (College and Douglas streets, Wilmington).
Ohio's heritage also hails from Vietnam, India, Croatia and Serbia, according to humanities official Jack Shortlidge.
Performers will discuss their music, its origins and their own life experiences. After World War II, people brought along bluegrass when they moved from the Appalachian regions of Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee to find work in Cincinnati, Columbus and Dayton.
Mississippi is hosting a New Harmonies encore; its first got rave reviews, says Morgan.
The blues, with African American roots, influenced jazz, rock and rockabilly; old-timers ran a glass bottle or pocket knife over the strings to play slide guitar. Local music also has French, Spanish, Creole and Jewish flavors.
The Mississippi tour opens April 16 at a renovated, Italian Renaissance-style train depot (downtown Hattiesburg). Its stay there dovetails with Roots Reunion, an annual program of gospel, bluegrass, blues and country.
South Carolina organizers are lining up performances, instrument-making workshops, songwriting and singing contests. That two-year New Harmonies tour starts April 9 at the Gaffney Visitors Center (210 West Frederick St.)
"You can't sit down in a laboratory and invent this music," says Fowler, who plays banjo, guitar, harmonica, spoons, washboard and more. "It took generations and generations of hard times and hard luck, wars and so many other influences to give us fine music like Piedmont Blues or gospel or Gullah music."
Gullah is "embedded with the experience of slavery, freedom, of generations of history," says Fowler. "It's part spiritual, part African, and even has native American influences." The state's roots also include "low country gospel" and "smooth, danceable R&B" beach music.