Spitzer puts America in touch with its routes

Folklorist Nick Spitzer C’72’s melodic baritone hints at the places he’s lived. There’s a touch of New Orleans twang by way of Texas, and a quickness of speech that blends the cadences of Philadelphia and his hometown of Old Lyme, Connecticut. So, it’s only fitting that each week on WHYY-FM, it’s Spitzer’s richly toned voice that leads listeners on a musical journey around the country.

On his show, “American Routes” (produced by Public Radio International), he spins a mixture of blues, jazz, country, soul, roots rock, Cajun and Tejano that spans eras and regions. He splices his thematically and sonically linked selections with interviews with music icons from Dolly Parton to Al Green, as well as lesser-known names, such as zydeco accordion player Nathan Williams and blueswoman Shemekia Copeland. And his audiences respond: Up to a million listeners tune into his weekly nationally syndicated show, which is produced in collaboration with the University of New Orleans.

Spitzer, who was on campus April 2 to moderate a conference panel on the 40th anniversary of the Folklore and Folklife Department, credits his time at Penn as incredibly formative for his present work. “I was there from ’68 to ’72. It was really rockin’ in those days,” said Spitzer recently over the phone from New Orleans. “It was a time of enormous pressure and split between the old versus the much more politically conscious world. It was a crazy time.”

Spitzer came to Penn intending to major in economics at Wharton, but realized after one semester that it wasn’t a good fit. He instead gravitated toward anthropology and, by his senior year, had discovered the folklore department. According to Spitzer, he eagerly absorbed classes on blues and jazz and the vernacular cultures from professors Kenny Goldstein and John Szwed—an experience he said gave him his “human” side.

Spitzer, who believes in using media to advocate for the cultures of oral-centered communities, said that he chose the word “routes” rather than “roots” for his radio show as a metaphor to explore and challenge perceptions of community. As people travel, he said, new creative forms that are based in the old emerge, but that hardly means that the process of combining cultures is always blissful. This combination of cultures, “is truly part of who we are as a people, as a nation,” said Spitzer. “The ‘routes’ metaphor…is about the positive aspects of movement, the times of exploration and vacation and finding oneself on the road—all the things that, if we’re lucky enough, we get to do in life.”

For Spitzer, finding himself included a stint at then-student-run radio station WXPN, where he worked as DJ and program director. “’XPN helped me develop my public voice, It helped me understand how to create segues,” Spitzer said. There, he got the beginning of an education in reggae, avant-garde jazz, blues and bluegrass, among other styles. “My days at Penn were really filled with great people, art, culture,” he said. “It was a fertile and engaging time and I don’t think I’ve ever been in a place as intellectually and artistically exciting in my life. …It definitely is a touchstone for me.”

Spitzer, who earned master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Texas in Austin, created the Louisiana Folklife Program and served as that state’s first folklorist, praised Penn’s renowned Folklore and Folklife program for its continued dedication to the preservation of the vernacular. “It’s good to be back home here,” he said to a crowd of his peers at the 40th anniversary conference and reunion. “For any of us here, folklore is a process of self-discovery.”

For archived “Routes,” visit the web site: www.americanroutes.org. “American Routes” airs on 90.9 FM on Saturdays at 9 p.m. and Sundays at 6 p.m.

Originally published on April 15, 2004