Bob Dylan in concert at the Festival des Vieilles Charrues in France in 2012. (AP / David Vincent)
On Friday, Bob Dylan will wrap up the Americanarama Festival of Music, his six-week U.S. tour alongside a star cast including Wilco, My Morning Jacket and Ryan Bingham. All of these acts have their home in the genre called Americana – a nostalgic musical playground where musicians act as ambassadors of the country’s past and its indelible ideals: community, effort, democracy, border.
But there is something wrong with this image. If Americana represents a broad definition of American identity, then how does it manage to exclude the influence of so much music made here over the past 40 years? And where, you must be wondering, are the artists of color? Can a genre that offers itself as a sort of fantastic soundtrack for this country afford to be so homogeneous and so decidedly archaic?
Perhaps, at the very least, it’s time to change the name.
Before it became a term for a musical genre, “Americana” was slang for the heartwarming middle-class ephemera in your average antique store – things like pointy pillows, Civil War daguerreotypes, and sets. ‘engraved silverware. In the 1990s, radio programmers invented a related new usage: “Americana” became a nickname for weather-beaten, rural-sounding music by bands like Whiskeytown and Uncle Tupelo. It was hot and twangy, full of finger-plucked guitars and gnarled voices like tires on a dirt road. If you can imagine an Americana song like a bottle of beer (easy enough) you’ll probably taste a hint of salt from the lead singer’s tears mixed in.
But the genre is defined more by its ancestors than by its present. Any American artist working today should know their Woody Guthrie, their Carter family, their Willie Nelson, their blind Willie McTell.
Case in point: the nonprofit Americana Music Association was formed in 1999 and held its first festival and conference the following year in Nashville. The big bang came in 2009, when the Grammy Foundation created an independent category for Best American Album. In the four years that followed, no musician under the age of 60 won the award.
And despite the genre’s roots in gospel and blues, the 20 Americana nominees to date have included just one black artist: singer Mavis Staples, who won the award in 2011 for You’re not alone. (The album was produced by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco.)
America’s supporters position themselves as anti-establishment horseflies to the left of trading nations. Many see themselves as the preservation of a bygone and purer strand of Americanity, and argue – in distinctly rockist terms – that this genre is just the modern manifestation of a timeless truth. (CBC radio personality Madonna Hamel gave a digestible summary on a recent radio special on Americana: The Americana Music Association, she said, is a brotherhood of “guys. ex-industrialists [who] quit their lucrative day jobs to market the artists they love. Their goal was simple: to find a home for singers who can sing, writers who can write, players who can play. “)
But you’ll notice that Americana didn’t take long to gain industry acceptance, which can be explained in the same way as the existence of the other less flattering nickname in the genre: “rock daddy”. . The music industry was happy to create a niche for the country’s most trusted demographic – white and male baby boomers. Along the way, a handful of rebellion-based artistic traditions (blues, Appalachian folk, outlaw country) have been transformed into a relatively conservative format.
Americana is a music that defends its drinking buddy, remembers the first time the flag was hoisted over the corner store, raises dust as it leaves town. After work, he watches TCM. But at the end of the day, if any art form is to bear this country’s name, it should probably stop weatherproofing against America’s current developments. And it hardly seems enough to say that you carry on the legacy of black gospel and blues if the performers and listeners who revere them are almost all white.
In his book it’s still moving, a loving description of Americana’s roots, Amanda Petrusich is right: “It sometimes seems that Delta’s heritage is most present in modern hip-hop” – rather than in Americana – “where its fundamentals still remain. perpetuated, even though the form has radically changed.
When Bob Dylan performs, he channels a whole universe of emotions, ideas and legacies altered by time. He refits to function like their ship, but in the process, he makes them his own. In his memoirs, Chronicles, Dylan describes songwriting as a form of inheritance: “There may be opportunities for you to convert something – something that exists into something that hasn’t yet done.” That, he said, is the composition. And he’s right ; the vast repertoire of American songs and the styles that connect it have always developed as a negotiation between self-sustaining tradition and adventurous experimentation. This is often lost on Dylan’s last-day disciples in Americana.
Older societies around the world – African, European, Native American and many others – have developed folk music customs that have spanned many generations. The United States, however, did not have that option. It is a relatively new country based on adaptation and expansion – to new territories, new markets and new models of society.
To know: At the beginning of the 20th century, white southerners like Hobart Smith and Dock Boggs transferred English folk songs to the banjo, an instrument invented by blacks as an adaptation of certain West African instruments. People like Smith and Boggs incorporated African-American syncope into the predominantly British roots of Appalachian folk, creating the framework for bluegrass and other styles. Wandering white composers wrote murderous ballads (a form of oral history with origins in Scandinavia and Britain) that projected a dark and smoky enigma into the lore of the American West. Then black singers merged the murderous ballad format with the blues, giving birth to timeless, screaming songs like “Stagger Lee”.
Despite de jure and de facto segregation across the country, mixing across ethnic and racial lines was inevitable: wage labor in the railroads and coal mines, minstrel shows and ultimately radio broadcasts brought people together.
Folk music lost much of the nation’s attention during the Depression and WWII, but a generation of young urban liberals revived it in the late 1940s and 1950s with open mics. in the basements of Greenwich Village in New York and chants in Washington Square Park. In January 1961, barely arriving from the Midwest, Dylan slipped onto the stage like a Provocative factor, living on people’s sofas and obsessing over folk clubs. The 20-year-old could sing old ballads and blues with the sagacity of old tanned leather; he was signed to Columbia within one year. As is so often the case, it took a bit of iconoclasm to make him the leader of the movement: he wrote his own songs, often from scratch – a rare practice on the renewal scene. And in his ballads, he woven hazy threads of poetry that were unlike anything the Dust Bowl generation had known.
Five years later, Dylan had left the folk behind him. He was already called “the voice of his generation”, but to earn the title he couldn’t just keep writing about the revolt – he had to make sizzling, mercurial music that made it rang like a mutiny. His subsequent albums became invitations to an intimate American Wonderland where Woody Guthrie, Son House and Jimmie Rogers performed with Louis Jordan, T-Bone Walker and Elvis Presley, then wandered into the unknown together. Dylan is of monumental importance today precisely because he broke with a movement that stuck so firmly to its own ideals, and his protean career hasn’t stopped since.
Dylan can be considered Americana’s father, but his lessons often don’t seem to fit. Did they reach Jason Isbell, the dark guitar picker who currently tops the Americana Association’s radio charts? Isbell leans on many familiar images (“Money, alcohol and lust had taken my heart and my confidence / I could see ashes and dust coming towards me”), but he actually rarely anything new. What about Dawes, a band that opened for Dylan on his previous tour? The quartet has a certain range but sticks to a fairly closed circuit of influences: mainly folk-rock and country artists from the 1970s like Willie Nelson, Crazy Horse, Kris Kristofferson and the Charlie Daniels Band.
By suggesting that groups like Dawes embrace an omni-American ideal, the Americana genre doesn’t just reify the idea that a white male perspective defines the American experience. It risks confusing age and authenticity. The music seems to evoke an America before big box stores, when commerce was still a community ritual, when a fight and a beer were enough to pay off a debt. It’s kind of a myth, which is good: it’s part of the purpose of music. But as Oscar Wilde expressed it, art is useful because it invites life to imitate it; what separates the two also holds them together. Music draws its power from a vivid, contemporary perspective, not from resurrecting someone else’s memories. America, like its many musical forms, is becoming more and more diverse, so it seems easy to let this one strain of Yellow Pages nostalgia represent it.
As Wilco proved in their performances on the Americanarama tour, some so-called Americana bands make their own rules and write songs that are entirely their own. But to get there, they have to break down the glass walls of the genre. In the brooding abstraction of Wilco’s lyrics and his fractured sound pastiches, thank goodness for the influence of John Cale, Can and Portishead.
And what about this all-encompassing American identity? Is there a? Kendrick Lamar says things about city life that could never make it an Americana song. And for a hard, cold read on the current state of Central America, you might want to look a little closer to the market than America is willing to walk. Listen to “Weed Place of Roses,” by country singer Ashley Monroe, and try to imagine that the original country outlaws wouldn’t one day choose her over Dawes.