Americana Music in Black and White
It’s hardly a new story, but for whatever reason this year’s annual AmericanaFest down in Nashville came away a bit battered and bruised from articles published in both Billboard magazine and the Rolling Stone Country website questioning the lack of diversity in a commercialized genre that defines itself as being inclusive of multiple formats. Both articles made a point to mention that of the 300 performers that were showcased during the six-day conference and awards show, only 10 percent featured acts that weren’t comprised of exclusively white members.
Billboard broke it down even further:
That percentage held for the annual Americana Awards & Honors show as well, where only two of the 21 separate nominees stretched across six voter-influenced categories weren’t white. Rhiannon Giddens and Hurray for the Riff Raff, both nominated for Album of the Year, were the sole representations for people of color among nominees. Notably, not only has Album of the Year never gone to a person of color during the 18 years that the award has been given out, but only twice in the history of the Awards & Honors event has an act led by an artist of color won a voter-decided award: Alabama Shakes in 2012 for Emerging Artist of the Year and The Mavericks in 2015 for Best Duo/Group of the Year.
As a reminder, the Americana Music Association defines the genre as “contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B, and blues, resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw. While acoustic instruments are often present and vital, Americana also often uses a full electric band.”
Reverend Paul Foster and The Soul Stirrers’ above version of “I Am A Pilgrim” can be traced back to the 1930s, when it was first recorded by the Heavenly Gospel Singers. In the ’40s it was recorded and commercialized separately by both Merle Travis (who received the songwriting credit from BMI) and Bill Monroe, and it’s been covered multiple times by musicians black and white. As far as I can tell, it’s a perfect example of an American roots music song, albeit stolen by a recording industry ethos that has traditionally leaned white.
When interviewed by Rolling Stone Country, Rosanne Cash described her feelings when the term “Americana” actually became a genre:
It was like finding this really cool island that you tell all your friends about because the hotel is great and the weather is always sunny.
Yet it takes only a few minutes of conversation for Cash to bring up what she sees as the community’s greatest shortcoming.
The Americana community needs to embrace more black musicians. That’s the one area where I feel it should really strive to be even more inclusive. I, for one, wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if there wasn’t some black musician who had suffered in the South. That needs to be honored and if amends need to be made, they need to be made.
If the Milk Carton Kids and Van Morrison and William Bell can co-exist under the same umbrella, then I think that some deeper blues artists could come under that umbrella as well.
The AMA’s voting members are broken down by two categories: Artist/Musician/Songwriter and Industry. Jed Hilly is the organization’s executive director and the man credited with successfully lobbying on behalf of the genre. While he acknowledges that past award showcases leaned heavily on musicians based in the Nashville area, he believes it’s an honor simply to be asked to participate. Speaking with Billboard, he says:
Membership is membership, and there’s not much I can do – or choose to do – to change how people vote. That would be an impropriety. All of the nominees are winners, to be frank. How membership votes, I think that’s a question that afflicts every [music industry awards ceremony]; I mean, good golly, take a look at the CMA Awards. I think it’s funny that people are asking me these questions, when I think we’re one of the most diverse industry awards shows in the business.
I can say from an organizational point of view, we have demonstrated our philosophy in the bigger picture through the honorees for Lifetime Achievement. I’m very proud of the gender, racial, and geographical diversity that we continue to highlight. I was very proud to honor the Hi Rhythm Section this year.
On the flip side of this question of inclusion, Rolling Stone Country reached out to a number of people for their take on it. Charles L. Hughes, author of Country Soul, says “The most insidious part of American racial politics, music industry or otherwise, is the part that says race doesn’t matter. Americana is very directly tapping into that mythology.”
Alynda Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff makes her point on the festival: “No matter what, there should always be more people of color, and more women, and especially now more radically minded people onstage. That’s something that needs to change with all festivals, and I can help anybody if they want that.”
Kaia Kater, the African-Canadian roots musician who has performed at the last two AmericanaFests, graciously took the time to reach out to me and share her thoughs. ““I believe the AMA has a lot of work to do. First in recognizing that Americana as a genre would not exist without Black forms of music. And secondly, in searching out and inviting more artists and voices into the fold without putting any particular agenda on them. Letting these artists own both the stage and the discussion on their own terms. Only in this deliberate way can we move forward.”
Tamara Saviano is a past president of the AMA and is writing a book on the history of Americana. She wonders if the genre is starting to take on the characteristics of the country music establishment it set out to defy 20 years ago. From Rolling Stone Country again:
It all goes back to who’s connected. Let’s just say you’re a young artist, and consider yourself an Americana artist, and you’re out touring and doing your own thing, and you’re not on the Americana radio chart. Well, that might be because you can’t afford to hire a radio promoter who works the Americana chart. In some ways, it’s like we created the very beast that was the reason we started Americana.
Blues musician Keb’ Mo’ sits on the AMA’s board of directors and has expressed that he’d like the organization to expand it’s definition of American roots music to include jazz and hip-hop. “My hope is that it becomes a place where you can go to the Americana Awards show and it’s just purely about music and no categories.”
As Americana gains in popularity and crosses over into mainstream country markets, one hopes that it doesn’t devolve into a parody of itself. UK singer Yola Carter sums it up best by warning “it could turn into one single genre in which I wear plaid and play guitar music, which is basically indie rock with pedal steel, and sing about dusty roads and trains. Chill out about trains!”
Since much of this column relied on the interviews and work of others, I’d like to acknowledge Isaac Weeks at Billboard and Jonathan Bernstein for Rolling Stone Country.
Lead Belly began singing “Goodnight, Irene” in 1908 and said he learned it from his uncles. It’s possible it was written by Gussie L. Davis in 1892; the sheet music is available at the Library of Congress. Lead Belly was recorded by John and Alan Lomax in the early ’30s while he was serving a sentence at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. In 1936 he recorded it again for the Library of Congress, and it later received a Grammy Hall of Fame award.
The Weavers recorded their version of the song in 1950, a year after Lead Belly had passed. In June it entered the Billboard Best Sellers chart, where it peaked at number one for 13 weeks and was named the top song of the year. Their version cleaned up the lyrics a bit – Time magazine called it “dehydrated and prettied up.”
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