What Is Americana?
What is Americana music? Yes, I know we have an entire association devoted to it. It’s now defined in the dictionary — I have the T-shirt to prove it — and we have this magazine that covers it. But what does it encompass? What is covered by its umbrella and who’s wrapped in its arms?
I randomly hoe that row when I have seemingly little else to do. That happens usually while driving, as my thoughts wander or are spurred onto tangents by whatever I am listening to — a mystery novel, a review CD, current favorites, the sound of my girlfriend’s voice. But what is prompting me to say it out loud now is that, this past Saturday, I was a judge in a high school talent show in rural West Virginia. I heard everything from Tchaikovsky played on the violin to “Pirates of the Caribbean” on the flute, to a fractured Fleetwood Mac song, an unfocused Leonard Cohen tune, a passable cover of Etta James’ “At Last,” and a hip-hop interpretive dance to a Broadway number. There was no bluegrass or even modern country, let alone traditional folk music. I also wondered why the female winners were blonde and looked like they could have been on magazine covers, and why the ones I thought most highly of were invariably last in the estimation of my fellow judges … one criminally so.
I then drove home to attend a performance by Andes Manta, a folk group from Ecuador. They played on many instruments they had made themselves, mainly bamboo pipes — one set was nearly five feet in length in order get the bass notes, another smaller than a whistle. At one point, the entire group played a variety of them, some two or three at once ala Rashaan Roland Kirk. I closed my eyes and felt I was once again in the middle of a tropical rainforest, sans the humidity. The audience was appreciative, diverse, and larger than when I have seen similar South American groups in bigger cities.
Which brings me back to the question, “What is Americana?” Who makes this music, and why? Where does it live and where does it thrive? And what makes us drawn to it? These are mostly rhetorical questions, but it’s been my experience that the style is best summed up by saying the heart wants what it wants. Especially its audience, which itself raises another question: What role do we the audience have in defining the music, its direction, its makeup?
The flip side is an old music axiom: If sales of your last record begin to slip, go back to your roots; if your last record flops big time, go back to someone else’s roots.
Sometimes, it seems, some come here willingly, knowing it is home; some wander around before settling down; and to others we are an orphanage, we’ll take you in if no one else wants you. We are, to quote Bob Dylan, shelter from the storm.
I’d love to hear what you think, in the comments. Detail the road you have taken and describe the house we live in.
In the coming months, I’ll be devoting columns to different aspects of Americana music, some of its significant artists and instrumentalists. This week is a smorgasbord of the styles that comprise Americana: Hannah Aldridge, Darlingside, John Hiatt, Pearl Charles, Red Dog Run, Jim Lauderdale, Father John Misty and Keith Secola & His Wild Band of Indians, from Sweden to the US.
Finally, I wanted to say my heart goes out to those who lost their lives and were affected by the tragedies in Beirut and Paris. I have the impulse to ask the question “Why?” But I feel that it’s the wrong question. I am often reminded of something Buffy Sainte-Marie said over 40 years ago when she was asked, by a white male of European descent, how could he and others could best help Native Americans? Her response was simple, eloquent and gracious: “Go home and make your community a better, more accepting place to live.”
Force will invariably be the response, but we have seen where 13 years of invasion and occupation have gotten us. Perhaps empathy should be our weapon of choice.