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The other night on New Zealand's National Radio, I heard an artist new to me who I liked the sound of. (see left) I am not going to go on about her specifically, I will just say I am impressed, and recommend her.
Her profile at ALLMUSIC categorises her thusly:
I have consciously and deliberately used the term "American" here to mean "North American". That is, I use American loosely to include Canada and maybe Mexico if you like, and not to mean solely the USA.
Consider this list at Wikipedia, which contains 129 acts. Of these, many are known to me, and I have recordings by 20, but only two are from within the last five years. I do have recordings not on the list that I would include:
A bunch of purely Bluegrass stuff. 1925 onwards
Cowboy Junkies - The Trinity Session 1988
Iris DeMent - Infamous Angel 1992
Iris DeMent - My Life 1994
Jolie Holland - Catalpa 2003
Jolie Holland - Springtime Can Kill You 2006
Crooked Still - Hop High 2004
Dawn McCarthy & Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy -
What the Brothers Sang 2013
Eb & Sparrow - Eb & Sparrow 2014
Various Artists - Americana (12 tracks) 2014
Some of my recent encounters consist of "Adding to Playlists" on YouTube, rather than purchase of recordings. (Runs off to shift previous Country etc. playlist items to a newly created "Americana" playlist for your delectation)
Note: Queen Esther also discovered and added doing this.
Note: After them will be any other new things found since linking to the playlist.
Over the last year or so I have considered what it is about the style that attracts me. This naturally feeds into considerations of what defines the term.
As I pondered why I was attracted to this music, it came to me that it was primarily coming from white Americans, and the music could almost be defined as old-timey American music that isn't derived from African-American culture, and isn't derived from Classical music either.
In asking myself why this recipe for music should appeal to me, I realised with satisfaction, this means I get to find new music that doesn't involve:
Tired and unoriginal descendants of Rock & Punk;
Rap, which I dislike;
Commercial so-called "R & B", which has no appeal to me;
All that obscure jazz & funky stuff I have never followed.
It occurred to me that some might call this a racist definition.
I felt quite happy that it is not. I have a great liking for huge amounts of music that derives from the North American black African traditions, both historical, and current. (The most recent live show I have seen was Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings. Am I allowed to point out Prince as an under-noticed guitar player?)
It is not racist not to like it all. I am quite sure, to reverse the situation, a North American black person could like some white bands, while not complaining of a lack of white artists in the Rap charts, nor feel racist for not being interested in Patsy Kline or Mozart.
Another way of looking at it I came up with was that since such a large proportion of popular music current in my lifetime (last 5 decades) has been derived from or influenced by Afro-American culture, where else is a European-descended American going to look for their own roots?
I would also point out that I am not the only non-American to find this music appealing. The very same National Radio where I heard Sarah Jarosz, on a different night also broadcasts a New York produced show which features exclusively Americana acts who are specifically NOT from America. And just to get a little incestuous, the show has even included acts from New Zealand.
The International Americana Music Show
All the above being said, when I picked up on Sarah Jarosz, and came across that term "Americana" again, these two related subjects, definition and racism, came back to me and I decided to see if anyone else had considered them.
As a New Zealander I have grown up with virtually no local roots as far as music is concerned. European colonial history is barely one and a half centuries, and music has simply been imported if not directly, then as cultural influence, first from the United Kingdom, and almost as soon, from North America. (Ref. Blue Smoke, which I have already blogged.) My generation have mostly been influenced directly by American Pop & Rock, or British music influenced by the same, and they all have deep black American roots and influences.
This seems to pretty much make my description above seem reasonably accurate, although I didn't include Blues & R&B, so I seem to have had a too-white impression of the the range they consider it includes. I also learned how old the term was, having been coined way back in 1995.
Billy Bragg's take.
He's lucky the American's haven't found this! I can see where he is coming from, as I became aware myself about 15 years ago how close old Blues and Folk traditions in America came to dying out in the Fifties and Sixties. I did learn around 1968 how the old Blues guys The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, John Mayall etc were covering, had had to be dug up from obscurity after their music was brought to notice by these young English bands.
* Urban Dictionary
A nice piece of cynicism which echoes my proviso above.
A passage from "Old Roots, New Routes: The Cultural Politics of Alt.country Music" discussing the commercial ethos of the category.
(This use of Google Books is a first for me, read it in one sitting as I have found it automatically blocks too many revisits.)
Well, it is no surprise that I am not the first to consider the racism question. The most obvious debate I couId find is below. I was at first surprised there was not more debate, but maybe on reflection, after reading the below, there is not a lot of debate because the racist implication has so little foundation that it has not proceeded beyond implication to confirmation. I note both rebuttals are from the same site, the later one which I found first, even links back to the other, but that doesn't diminish them in my eyes.
Aug 1, 2013
Why Is a Music Genre Called 'Americana' So Overwhelmingly White and Male?
What I think of it: Straw man argument, right observation, but read wrong. Cites only the most mainstream of examples. Obviously doesn't know how diverse it is. I have already observed what is quoted in the side-box ""It sometimes seems like the Delta's legacy is most present in modern hip-hop, where its basic tenets are still being perpetuated, even if the form has altered dramatically." True but so what? Nobody is claiming for Americana that it is the one-and only heir of any line, let alone Delta Blues.
Aug 25, 2013
Americana For All
An answer at the time. Tackles both the racist and sexist implications.
May 12, 2014
Americana Music Awards Nominees Are Mostly Folky, And White
What I think of it: Just plain dumb remark. My straw man: - "Delta Blues Hall of Fame nominees mostly old and black." No kidding!
May 13, 2014
The Bigotry Toward Americana
Similar points made here.
November 11, 2014
Afro-Americana: Putting the Twang Back into Black Music
A recent consideration of Afro-American involvement. He makes it sound a lot blacker than I thought things were, not that I'm going to complain, if it means more new and interesting music.
First: I have found my knowledge of Americana was not incorrect, but limited, and that it includes more African-American sources than I had thus-far encountered.
Second: I have found others in agreement with me that following European roots doesn't necessarily imply an exclusion or devaluing of African-American ones.