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A Saturday afternoon, maybe a Sunday. You might be driving; you might be in the kitchen chopping onions. The radio is on, and when you notice the hour, you flip it to a certain NPR station, just in time to hear the rolling opening bars of “Tipitina,” Allen Toussaint’s interpretation of the Professor Longhair classic.

“You’re traveling on American Routes, from Basin Street Station in New Orleans,” comes the voice-over: “songs and stories from the bayous to the beltways, from crossroads to crosstown, from coast to coast.” The voice, which belongs to Nick Spitzer C’72, is at once laid back and revved up, friendly but erudite, somewhere on the wry edge of folksy. As Jelly Roll Morton breaks into “Doctor Jazz,” or Nat King Cole slides into “Route 66,” or Louis Jordan digs into “Five Guys Named Moe,” Spitzer offers a teaser of the week’s installment. It might be the Medicine Show, with rollicking songs of lovesickness and snake-oil healing; it might be Classical Routes, with the likes of Gershwin, Gottschalk, and “Concerto for Cootie”; it might be The Spirit World of New Orleans, with odes to voodoo queens and interviews with Fats Domino and a Louisiana Creole healer. Or it might be a live performance of Arlo Guthrie’s “The City of New Orleans,” as he and Spitzer ride the train of that name, riffing down to the sea.

Whatever—for the next two hours, if it’s at all possible, you’re not budging. You’re cruising.

All right, so I’m using the second person a bit loosely here. Maybe you haven’t even heard of Routes, and if you have maybe you’re not a fanatical listener. But if you have even a passing interest in the broad, roiling, many-tributaried river of American music, Spitzer’s show is as essential as a pair of ears. This is not just the opinion of one hyperventilating fan. “In the history of American radio,” wrote jazz critic and chronicler Nat Hentoff nine years ago, “no series has come close to Nick Spitzer’s American Routes in exploring the many streams of this nation’s music.”

Over the past decade Spitzer’s toothsome musical gumbo, infused with meaty interviews and piquant observations, has lured a weekly audience of nearly a million Americans on more than 300 stations, and the numbers are still arcing up.

Spitzer himself describes the show as a “Creole document,” explaining that “it contains Creole music, like Zydeco and the roots of jazz; it contains creolized forms, like the way that Klezmer or country music and rock ’n’ roll represent minglings of culture to create new music out of old traditions; and it’s an assemblage of many different styles that makes the totality of what is a kind of aesthetically creolized, purposely creolized, mixed and mingled document.”

Since he’s a recognized authority on Creoles and creolization, he doesn’t toss those terms around lightly. But he also doesn’t let his erudition bog down his extremely user-friendly show.

“When you talk about scholarship and history in a radio show, it seems like a weight,” says veteran radio news broadcaster Bill Vitka C’71, who’s known Spitzer since their early days at Philadelphia’s WMMR. “But his show is always light as a feather. A lot of that is Nick’s delivery—he’s just so comfortable behind the frigging mic, and you feel comfortable because he is.”

American Routes has an excellent grasp on how the public understands American culture,” notes John Szwed, professor of music and jazz studies at Columbia, emeritus professor at Yale, and a former professor at Penn. “Spitzer builds on that understanding, advances it, and drops it into the listener’s lap—almost as a letter from home, even if from a home you might not have known you came from.”

What sets Routes apart isn’t just the range of styles and musical genres Spitzer explores but the way he connects them, and the knowledge and taste he brings to the table. “It’s wonderful how Nick can tie up the disparate threads to show how connected this crazy quilt of music is—that it’s not just rags,” says Michael Esterson (aka Michael Tearson) C’70, a free-lance radio performer who has known Spitzer since their WMMR days. “It’s a truly unique show.”

In addition to his considerable experience in radio—he cut his FM teeth on then-student-run WXPN, put in a couple of years at then-progressive WMMR, and had a highly regarded program on KOKE in Austin before turning to NPR—Spitzer has a Ph.D. in folklore from the University of Texas. He also served as Louisiana’s first state folklorist from 1978 to 1985, as the senior folklife specialist at the Smithsonian Institution for five years after that, and as artistic director of the Folk Masters series at Carnegie Hall and Wolf Trap for another seven. These days he is a professor of communication and American studies at Tulane University and an adjunct professor for research in anthropology and urban studies at the University of New Orleans.

“The relationship between his academic credentials and his public role with American Routes is a critical relationship, because he brings an edge intellectually to his programming and his interviews that is really unique,” says William Ferris Gr’69, former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities and now associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina. “When he talks with Willie Nelson or [record producer] Jerry Wexler, he really knows the history and context in which their lives are set.

“Nick has made enormous strides in advancing the public’s knowledge of and appreciation for vernacular culture,” he adds, “which tends not to have advocates within the academy.”

“I’m leading a sort of double life, in many people’s terms,” Spitzer admits cheerfully. “I mean, I’m both a media person and a culture person. I’m an ethnographer and a documentary-arts person; I’m a behind-the-scenes field person, but I’m also on the stage. So life for me has pulsated between those points.”

Digging Routes By Samuel Hughes
Photograph by Erika Goldring

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©2009 The Pennsylvania Gazette


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