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2013 April 14
by honcho

I keep hearing the term ‘Americana’ used to describe a genre of music, and it bugs me.

It bugs me as a musician and as a native of the United States of America.

The tiresome ideologue in me hates the term just because I have a musician’s perspective, and like many musicians, I eschew the concept of genre itself. But I also consider myself pragmatic, and the pragmatist in me grudgingly accepts that it is just human nature to categorize things that are perceived as similar. For example,  to aficionados of hip hop music,  pretty much everything played by a symphonic orchestra sounds like ‘classical music’, and to aficionados  of symphonic music, one hip hop artist sounds pretty much like another. Genres tend to blur, and disappear when one is a part of the creative process but as one zooms out to the perspective of the listener they  become an unavoidable fact. For better and worse, it’s human nature.

That said,  for the rest of this essay, I’m going to stuff my inner- ideologue into an old refrigerator, hold my nose, and pretend that genres are discernible and have attributes that can be identified and  discriminated.

So, I will admit some validity to genres  like ‘Classic Rock’, ‘Romanticism’, ’New-Romantics’, ‘Baroque’, ’Cosmic-Cowboy’, ‘Black Metal’, ’Go-Go’,  ’Nu-Gaze’, ‘Bluegrass’, ‘Spacegrass’, ’Breton’ , ‘Dixieland’, ‘Goa-trance’,  ‘Bop’, ‘Country Blues’, ’R&B’, ‘Bakersfield’, ’Qawwali’, ‘4-beat’, ’Western Swing’,  ’ Nitzhonot’, “Chicago Blues’, ’Indian Classical’,  ‘Schranz’, ‘traditional Irish’ or ‘Freestyle’….

…but not ‘Americana’.

[But Doc… aren’t the rest of those genres  anything the fans say they are, too?]

Yes … but I’m choosing to make a arbitrary fuss about this one. (It’s my blog!)

What I hear classified as ‘Americana ‘ is white,  guitar, British-Isles-rooted, country-folk-esque, music.  As one of the Americans for whom it appears to be named, I’m offended by its narrowness.

I submit that 4’33” by John Cage is far more deserving of the name ‘Americana’ than anything by Pokey LaFarge or the Punch Bros.  To those who argue that a strong connection to the roots of the old-world invasion, in the white &  black American past  can transcend mere nostalgia in the hands of a good artist. My retort is that iconoclasm, and autodidactism is far more essentially American in character than adherence to any tradition,  and I further argue that it is bad for American music to define itself as something that is beholden to traditions.  I don’t want to suppress the music that currently gets classified as ‘Americana’. In fact, I write some of it myself! What I want instead is a perpetual, committed,  gloves-off, dispute about what might  comprise the term ‘Americana’,  and if a clear winner ever emerges, in my opinion, that will be the end of American music. Here are my champions of ‘Americana’ to try to keep the seeds of sedition sown.

I already mentioned John Cage, and If I hold a patron saint of American Music, it’s JC!

(the reader will probably note that I love an American who’s still causing fights after he/she’s dead)

Captain Beefhart; (aka Don Van Vliet) and every musician in his bands who put up with him and his appropriating  ego. The Captain was a quintessentially  American head-case with (to put it charitably) a -problematic -personality. I regard the Captain as more of a synthesist, the leader of a cult, a lens that focused  the essential creations of a group. I call guys like him ‘E Pluribus Unum’s.

There are many such ‘E Pluribi’ in my American  pantheon :

Frank Zappa and all of his co-consprators;  he told the cheerleaders at his pep rally to go fuck themselves, walked out of school for good, and then learned enough music at the public library (a bastion of American culture),  and Don Van Vliet’s bedroom to get invited to lunch with Pierre Boulez more than a few times.  He espoused a hire-the-handicapped policy to create works of singular eccentric genius from the rejects and dumpsters of the American entertainment industry.  Even his most sophomoric flops have a potent kick, and his masterpieces are  transcendent.

Duke Ellington; who wrote the bill of rights for band members and was loved madly by the whole world for it…but no one loved him more than his band.

Parliament, Funkadelic, (P-Funk,the Mothership etc.) and every one of the cast of thousands that emerged from the pot-haze of the those tour  buses… ( like one of those tiny cars from which dozens of clowns emerge!) In their case, the E-Pluribus was E-Pluribus FUNK.

Miles Davis; another irascible personality with preternatural insight into his ensembles, and through them, he steered jazz away from the senility of nostalgia; another ‘lens- leader’ like Captain Beefhart.

Sun Ra; Is there any country in the world  except America that could have furnished Sun Ra with a place to land.


Then there are the lone wolves:

Charles Ives;  not so much for the myriad remixes of Sousa and Foster in his material,  more because his devotion to music wouldn’t allow him to taint it with the soul-crushing scramble for a livelihood, and when Leonard Bernstein finally premiered his symphony #2 in New York,  30 years after it was written,  Charlie preferred to stay home in Connecticut. His neighbors had  to drag him away from a baseball game to listen to it on the radio.

Charlie Parker, invented bop. period

Townes Van Zandt; an irascible solitary drunk who couldn’t save himself but gave us songs with the power to save ourselves.

Every one of the real…mostly unknown delta blues players from the 20’s to the 50’s; They did music for the same reason that fish swim and geese honk… and with no plan, coordination, or (god knows) support from their nation,  they invented the atom bomb  of popular music: Rock & Roll.


Thelonius Monk; used bop to liberate jazz from entertainment

Ornette Coleman,  invented Ornette Coleman

The Californians:

Harry Partch , another drunk who knew how to tune every bottle he emptied to the notes of sprawling microtonal scales. He had to singlehandedly build orchestras of instruments to realize the music in his head. Is anything more American than that?

Henry Cowell, a low blue flame that seared a new path for American music in the 20th century

LaMont Young, talk about following your own muse, for miles… and  then LIGHT YEARS!

Pauline Oliveros , She’s actually a Texan who had to go to San Francisco to get a word in edgewise (like Janis Joplin!) Once there, she defied the amplified age, and taught us all to turn DOWN the volume and truly listen. In musical terms, P.O. invented the microscope.

Terry Riley, It seems that maestro Riley could see the Himalayas from his house in the Sierra Nevadas. It is a sacred mystery that his music still sounds quintessentially American.

Morton Subotnick, is the guy who REALLY discovered electricity… and then he wrote the book that contains the complete vocabulary of modern electronic music.

So… take your fancy $6K banjos and your smarmy ‘neo-anything’ labels and put them in the country-folk bin where they belong.  ‘ REAL  ‘Americana’ is not done searching for its boundaries  yet.

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