America has often been described as a melting pot, but veteran folklorist Alan Lomax has long seen it as a living patchwork quilt, each multi-cultural/multi-regional piece vibrant and distinct in its own right but something more when sewn together. To Lomax the fabric of America is "a patchwork culture of the dreams and the songs of all its people," and he's put together a five-part weekly public television series that explores those dreams and songs. It's not just a should-see; it's a must-see.

"Jazz Parades: Feet Don't Fail Me Now," airing tonight at 11 on WETA, kicks off "American Patchwork" with a rambunctious energy and raucous joy of motion that spills right off the screen. It explores and connects a number of New Orleans traditions by looking at the real democracy of street culture that has bred them over the years. They include the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, which has kept pure the root sound of New Orleans jazz; the Pretty White Eagles, one of the "Black Indian" groups that make Mardi Gras great; the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, youngsters taking that venerable tradition forward; and the Majestic Brass Band, a classic "second line" funeral band.

There's also plenty of insight from the common people for whom such music is made, captured at neighborhood dances, social clubs and in the middle of parades. In the black music traditions that enrich New Orleans, there is no real separation of performer and audience because, one musician notes, "the people got the soul."

You could turn the sound off on your television set and this show would still make you bounce: It explodes with the color of garish Mardi Gras costumes and pulsates with exuberant dancing, though dance seems too genteel a word for what young and old alike do in the city's streets and funky nightclubs and, occasionally, on its rooftops. Even the funeral parade for a man named Popeye turns into joyous release as it moves from church hymn to "second line" ecstasy. "It would be an insult if we didn't play," says one musician. "This will be his last party on earth."

In the course of the hour-long show, Lomax touches on jazz, blues and the French-Creole connection (at times using audio tapes of the genius Jelly Roll Morton, whom he recorded for the Library of Congress in the late '30s). He traces styles back to their African and European roots (showing how they enriched each other) and makes connections between vibrant cultural life in New Orleans and West Africa as reflected in terms of costumes, parades and dances. Like the other parts of "American Patchwork," this first installment is a celebration of the skills and wisdom of America's great folk artists (the subjects of the last part, "Dreams and Songs of the Noble Old," are all in their eighties). Other programs will explore Louisiana's Cajun culture, Mississippi Delta Blues and Appalachian traditions from the Smoky Mountains.

Lomax, the show's host, writer and producer, has been a champion of folk traditions and multi-culturalism for 50 years, and he weaves the anecdotal and the historical with casual finesse, only occasionally sounding as if he's lecturing. For the most part, Lomax brings new light to his subjects, as he has in the past through his records, radio shows and books (Pete Seeger once hailed him for "giving folk music back to the folks").

Additionally, "American Patchwork" comes at a particularly auspicious time: A recent report by the City University of New York's Committee for Cultural Studies found that public television devotes nearly twice as much prime-time programming to "the business and social elite as to all other social strata combined." At the end of the day, it's the people who inhabit this five-part series who represent this country's wealth, and it's crucial that they be exposed in times prime and otherwise.