So what is “Americana” anyway?

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by Jan Seides
Saturday 11th October, 2014, 5:14pm

Screen shot 2014-10-11 at 2.56.37 PM From Wikipedia: “Americana is an amalgam of roots music formed by the confluence of the shared and varied traditions that make up the American musical ethos; specifically those sounds that are merged from folk, country, blues, rhythm and blues, rock and roll and other external influences.”

Says it all, right? Well … no, actually.

How about this from the Americana Music Association?

Americana is 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.”

Not much better.

The word “Americana” already existed in the lexicon, before its introduction into popular music styles. According to The Atlantic,

“Before it became a term for a musical genre, “Americana” was slang for the comforting, middle-class ephemera at your average antique store — things like needle-pointed pillows, Civil War daguerreotypes, and engraved silverware sets. In the 1990s, radio programmers coined a new, related usage: “Americana” became a nickname for the weather-beaten, rural-sounding music that bands like Whiskeytown and Uncle Tupelo were making. It was warm, twangy stuff, full of finger-plucked guitars and gnarled voices like tires on a dirt road. If you can imagine an Americana song as a bottle of beer (easy enough), you’ll probably taste a hint of salt from the lead singer’s tears mixed in.Screen shot 2014-10-11 at 2.57.12 PM

But the genre defines itself by its progenitors more than its present. Any Americana artist working today ought to know his Woody Guthrie, his Carter Family, his Willie Nelson, his Blind Willie McTell.”

While this is all true, the assumption here is that there is a limit to what may be termed Americana. Despite the fact that there are many genres that were generated first in America, besides blues, country, rocknroll, and Indie-everything. I’ll grant that European-style art music is not Americana. Likewise, what is now termed World Music is not Americana (though some has been adapted into the Americana music of late.) But let’s consider jazz, a unique American form, or even the Great American Songbook.

A lot of the songs in the Great American Songbook were born at the same time as those needle-point pillows and engraved silverware sets. If you google the term, you find out “The Great American Songbook is a term used to denote the canon of the most important and most influential American popular songs of the 20th century – principally from Broadway theatre, musical theatre, and Hollywood musical film.” It includes songs like Stardust, Over the Rainbow and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.

Frankly, I think the major difference between “Americana” and other popular American music styles is mentioned in the article above. It is based on rural-sounding music.

That lets out anything done by Tin Pan Alley. I remember noticing the rural connection when I was living in Greenwich Village in the late 60s, so I was always delighted to find anyone amongst those musicians that loved “city music” the way I did. Unfortunately, it also lets out anything that doesn’t fit the White Male Southeastern (born in or admiring of) idea of the way things should be. And The Great American Songbook is but one example of what is left out of a supposedly all-encompassing American music, as implied by the name.

The other operative idea behind Americana is that it is Male (capital M not an accident).

I know that there are some female performers who designate themselves as Americana. Lucinda Williams, Terri Hendrix, Susan Gibson and, very likely, Emmylou are on that list. However, they are few and far between. This is not their fault, but I’m beginning to think maybe women should just group themselves in a style that is all their own. Just for awhile. Until the guys catch up.

There is a new form stirring in country music, as exemplified by Miranda Lambert, Gretchen Wilson, Kacey Musgrave and Ashley Munroe. More properly, this is Alt. Country, as it has a distinct rock flavor, but it could also be termed country-rock music by uppity women (color doesn’t seem to be an issue, although so far, all the stars of this genre are white. Uppity women come in all shapes, sizes and colors. A generation ago, Tracy Chapman and Joan Armatrading would have been good candidates for this genre).

According to the New York Times’ Jon Caramanica:

[The music] “couched tough-talk rural feminism in music that paid deep respect to country music tradition. [They] understood that making changes is easier when you slip in the door unnoticed.”

And the country stage has been far more accepting of these women than the Americana stage. And if you check the showcase listings for the 2014 Americana Conference just passed, the overwhelming majority of performers are Male, with a sprinkling of female acts here and there. None of them were any of the women listed above.

This same rural, male segment of the musical scene has been separated out many before in our cultural history. I’m thinking that the problem I’m having here is the name. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around “Americana” that does not include so much of American music. Do you think it’s too late for them to call it something else?

Screen shot 2014-10-11 at 2.55.43 PM

UPDATE:

From (of all places) the Wall Street Journal:

“And it can hurt the Americana movement: If it permits itself to be defined primarily by retro-minded country and twangy folk, Americana runs the risk of appearing as a subset of country. Given that contemporary country album sales are flagging, one can imagine executives on Music Row swooping in and signing some Americana artists in an attempt to rebrand modern country as music of integrity.”

and

“Here, at this year’s awards event, there was ample evidence that members of the Americana community are aware that minimizing the natural diversity within American roots music is a sorry way to go. The show opened with a version of Willie Dixon’s “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover,” popularized by Bo Diddley; later in the program, during a tribute to the music of Mississippi, Ms. Wilson sang Dixon’s “I Want to Be Loved.” Flaco Jiménez, the Mexican-American accordionist, was presented a Lifetime Achievement award by occasional collaborator Ry Cooder, who performed with the house band. Taj Mahal, who embodies all that Americana can be, revived “Statesboro Blues,” a Blind Willie McTell tune he released in 1968. “Now that’s Americana!” shouted Mr. Lauderdale, the affable master of ceremonies, as Taj Mahal was greeted with a standing ovation.”

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Category: Music, Music Biz, Uncategorized

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