Americana, and How it Got That Way

Folk, country, and blues started out as music played by the dirt poor, and by slaves. There are folk ballads collected that have their origins not on American plantations and porches, but in European parlors, but for the most part, “roots” music is peasant music. The earliest banjos were home-made, approximating traditional African instruments. The proliferation of the guitar, itself a modernization of the lute, came later.

The Americana surge represented by acts like The Avett Brothers, Mumford and Sons, The Low Anthem, et al, is not very different from the folk revival of the late fifties and early sixties. Perhaps the purer one came first: the current trend is a revival of a revival, but maybe without the scholarship? Another point to consider is that Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs were emulating artists who came less then a generation before them, and used as a principle source Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, released just a few years (1952) before the folk revival got wind behind it. The equivalent of a movement today based somewhat on a record released in 2000 or so. But besides the luminaries who emerged from the folk revival, such as Dylan, the heroes remain the same for this revival as they were for the prior revival: Hank Williams is a principal influence on John McCauley of Deer Tick; the new Low Anthem record opens with a George Carter song, and a highlight of their live performances is a cover of a Skip James tune; The Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons (nearly interchangeable) are updated string bands.

The music referred to above is arguably the most valid music of our times. (Although one could make a case that the sheer dominance of synthesizers in the pop music of FM radio and billboard charts is more valid: it is an utterly plastic, manufactured sound produced not by musical instruments but by instruments designed to simulate musical instruments. As our world becomes more synthetic, more simulated, less real, so does the most popular music. The sound of popular music has in common with our times what the poetry of Paul Celan had in common with the world after World War II. Perhaps while Mumford and Sons were reading Bound for Glory and listening to the Mississippi Sheiks, Pharrell Williams and Dr. Luke were reading Baudrillard.) Whether it is or is not, it will remain the music on the margins that will influence the next generation of bands and performers; further, the popular music will always be too easy for certain minds: we don’t start out with Tolstoy in our nurseries. There are levels: board books, through to Dr. Seuss, Weekly Reader and Encyclopedia Brown, to Harry Potter and on to adult books and then, for many of us, more challenging texts, ever graduating. The same levels exist in all media. The Passion of Joan of Arc is lost on pre-teens. Our tastes sophisticate. Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, and the Jonas Brothers make music for listeners at a certain level. Paradoxically, the most mainstream music is ultimately the most marginalized.

Should the most valid music of our times be more progressive, should it trace its roots to music that represented the times when the artists making today’s music were young, unformed, malleable? I was listening to Bob Dylan in 1994, as I turned eighteen. And that influence remained with me. Should I have paid closer attention to Nirvana? Obviously a tour of the charts from that year, the Billboard Top 40, mainstream FM radio, would yield music that, for the most part, was and is just as invalid. But records that Bob Dylan made in the sixties were only by their rare merit slightly valid in 1994: they weren’t a testament to the times, they weren’t a mirror, they weren’t for me. But the post-industrial fray at the edges of our culture in the nineties, the latent anxiety, the changing roles of men and women: these things are all there in the music of Nirvana. That music was as exclusive in the way it represented its time as Bob Dylan’s was in its time.

Something I missed, and I missed understanding those times and so, these.

I’m not exactly a peasant, but I can make a claim to roots music. Or a claim with more substance than that which can be offered by many of today’s Americana artists with their Ivy League pedigree, their parents in the suburbs. What is really the difference between white singers like Elvis appropriating “black” music and The Avett Brothers appropriating peasant music? Of course, when Elvis did it, it was a revolution. That’s one difference. As The Avett Brothers and others play country, blues, and folk music, they’re doing it in a shadow that Elvis didn’t have to bear. Without compromising any modesty, I can say that I came to music organically: My great-grandfather came to the U.S. alone from Italy at sixteen-years-old. He landed at Ellis Island, presumably wandered, and found work on the Providence-Worcestor Railroad. From a family with a long music tradition, he could play nearly any instrument handed to him, preferring string instruments and accordion. His peers on the railroad were mostly Irish and passed their work days singing ballads, a cappella. My great-grandfather befriended them by providing accompaniment on whichever instrument was available. Some of them invited him to settle near them, and he became the first Italian-American resident of Blackstone, Massachusetts.

We don’t play acoustic guitars because we can’t afford electric guitars. We play them because with one in our hands, we are self-contained, a unit. No band is necessary to make a statement, to sound our private barbaric yawps, to sit up all night crafting our great utterances. The acoustic guitar sounds like wood, and wire. It lends itself to folk, blues, and country. There’s something terrestrial about it. Acoustic music is sold secretly, or at least in a way you don’t see, because status is not sold with it. The possession of the most popular music is not different from the possession of the newest, most expensive car, the largest house in the most exclusive neighborhood, the most recent and advanced mobile device: it marks one as in possession of success and knowledge and status. In real time, money and power are popular and the inverse is true: popularity and the accumulation of the insignia of the popular represent achievement, reach, vitality. In this pursuit the acoustic guitar, the mandolin, the double bass and, especially, the banjo cannot help.

Of the marks described above, the “hipster” wears only that of knowledge, and not of real-time knowledge. The purpose of the hipster is to demonstrate priori knowledge: that what was dismissed as uncool by the masses it is possible to feign as cool to manufacture an unshared trend: an artificial artifice, a simulacrum; and to predict what will be dismissed as unpopular by the masses next. The mathematics of the hipster depend not on merit or pleasure, only on a dogged commitment to the margins of popular culture. In this, the Americana musician (although there are many hipsters among them) differs from the hipster: The Americana musician is a collector of sounds that have not or cannot be appropriated, whether they are or have been popular or not; the Americana musician collects hand-made sounds, and that is the guiding principal. In this, there is the hipster’s pretense, but not the hipster’s contrivance. In this, there is not status symbol to be had save for a superior grasp of the Roots Music Secret Handshake. And while others have become used to the mad plastic world, the death of the real, and look to the mainstream for sounds that match it, the roots musician is the rebel rebelling against the rebellion by reaching for the antidote, the inversion, the ultimately real sounds of wood and wire and reeds and pipes and strings and plantations and juke-joints and the sunset porches of sharecroppers.

But they are not overt about this reach, this collection. The Carolina Chocolate Drops should be the model for the contemporary roots act. The Drops are a de facto string band, like the Mississippi Sheiks. They play some Mississippi Sheiks material, as well. In performance, they speak openly about the origins of the music they make. They have no interest in the mainstream, and they have no interest in the credibility that comes with making art on the margins. They use contemporary methods, like beat-boxing, to both draw out the rhythms of the music they’re making and to link this music, principally street music, to the long tradition of folk music. While the Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons make music that should perhaps be in a museum and find it sold as an alternative to modern pop music, the Carolina Chocolate Drops are unapologetic docents leading a tour of American music and how it got that way.

At the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance’s (NERFA) one-day conference in Franklin, MA, last week, there was no folk music. There was a lot of acoustic music. Name a song that is sung by people when they gather socially, a song whose originator you can’t name and the words to which many of us know. It’s called Happy Birthday, and it’s the only folk song in the western world. Even in dark pockets of Appalachia, songs sung communally have well-known authors. If they don’t, it’s very likely that a number of key arrangements of the songs have been copyrighted on behalf of a recording artist somewhere. There is no more “folk music.” At NERFA, the unifying principals were independence and acoustic guitars. The romantic ideal of the singer-songwriter prevailed. This ideal is a tight box, and the purpose of NERFA is to show you how to fit into it: how to market your act, how to perform, how to record, how to network to be exactly like the model acoustic acts centralized by the conference’s organizers and participants. Which is not a bad thing, as these principals are the relative principals of success and are holistic and can be generalized. But the sounds pursued by the greatest of today’s Americana musicians, those deft collectors, would not have fit in at NERFA.

And that’s the idea. Those sounds have their origin among the poor. Roots music is peasant music. To hear it back then, you had to know something: who in your area played it, who was coming through that was playing it, and where they would be playing it. Sometimes, it was playing all the time right where you lived: your plantation, your block, your barn. And in enough of today’s best Americana music, that hasn’t changed: it’s music that you have to know something to enjoy. It’s not for hipsters, who reject it for being accepted, and it’s not for the mainstream audiences who chaff at its inherent challenge and prefer the artificial sounds they can’t be blamed for relating to.

Which leaves today’s roots music in perhaps the purest place of all: it is music being selected for it’s physical authenticity by collectors and then shared, primarily, with other collectors. There’s nothing traditional about it, except that this process of searching, preserving, and sharing, doesn’t depend upon broad distribution, record labels, popularity, or FM radio: just one collector, and another.