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Desert Dancer A critique: 'The South Stole Americana' (17) A critique: 'The South Stole Americana' 19 Mar 18

This is a fascinating piece that the author labels on his own website as an " essay, a meditation, or a gripe, about American music".

The American Folklife Center gets a swipe in it as being excessively focused on the folk music of the southern Appalachians, but I think that that's not entirely fair, more a legacy of its early collections than a truth about its practices in the latter half century (at least).

Overall, I think he's got many valid points.

More about the author: Josh Garrett-Davis

The South Stole Americana, by By Josh Garrett-Davis, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, January 2016.


I don’t dislike Americana music. I used to play a little bluegrass and DJ what came to be called “alt-country.” Okay, I feel an adolescent annoyance when Bob Dylan is hailed as a modern Shakespeare by old white guys like my dad. But I get why Robert Johnson is great, why the Carter Family is great, and so on. The problem is that a lot of other great American folk musicians, particularly those singing in languages other than English, had their records thrown away by the same collectors who polished and reissued country and blues gems. Southern folk music’s overwhelming dominance — for all its championing by non-Southern liberals — also subtly reinforces the “heritage not hate” defenses of the Confederate flag and other antebellum and pre–civil rights nostalgia. Celebrating Southern music and ignoring everything else suggests that what is best and most authentic in American culture is primarily Dixie, which can stand as an imaginary antidote to a world gone wrong. And perhaps more important is that the South-only soundtrack leaves us with a conception of “America” at its root as an Anglo-only, black-and-white-only nation. That was never the case, although the mid-20th century when folk was mostly invented may have come closest superficially to matching the illusion. It is certainly not the case now, when the percentage of foreign-born Americans is nearing the high point it reached in the early 20th century. We need a better conception of Americana, one that is polyglot and profoundly more varied than the dueling banjos of country and blues.
Let me be clear: folklorists like [Alan] Lomax, [Harry] Smith, and [Stephen] Wade, critics like [Greil] Marcus, and institutions like the American Folklife Center have done great work. I only wish that other traditions of American folk music had champions as fervent and persuasive. Engaging with folk music can be difficult — Marcus quotes Dylan saying, in 1965, “folk music is the only music where it isn’t simple.” And it is no doubt even less simple when not only the imagery and English patois are exotic to a bourgeois listener, but the singers’ literal language is not the nationally dominant one, when their historical context is not the familiar one of slavery, Civil War, and Reconstruction but instead the variousness of immigrant enclaves, the Pacific world economy, the internal colonies of Indian Country, or the American borderlands that remain culturally Latin American. Yet outside the Southern-dominated folk canon there appears to be emerging a patchwork of reissued recordings and related writing that, taken together, vastly multiply the “three nations” of Marcus’s title. I have to wonder if, in the same way that Marcus’s generation looked to folk for the roots of Elvis and Dylan, younger music fans (my contemporaries, more or less) are looking for “Ancestors” of more recent pop music: the folk of rap music with roots among urban blacks as well as Caribbean immigrants (from DJ Kool Herc to Nicki Minaj); the Armenian-inflected Dada thrash metal of Los Angeles’s System of a Down; the indie-norteño and spaghetti Western soundtrack of Tucson’s Calexico; and we could name thousands of others.
Going home. That is, perhaps, what listening to folk music is about. In America going home can mean returning grateful and tired to the spectacular red-rock and sheep country from which you were marched away at gunpoint. It can mean walking to your death in a grisly mass hanging on the orders of the Great Emancipator. It can mean sailing back overseas to Europe or Asia or Africa or South America, which you or your ancestors left willingly or not, perhaps to find a horror you barely escaped. It can mean raising a fresh new home and trying to forget all that. It can mean going from bondage to freedom, whether a spiritual freedom or a literal one across the Canadian border — as in “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” evidently composed by Wallace and Minerva Willis, who were slaves of a Choctaw family (American Indians were not only victims, of course) brought to Indian Territory on the Trail of Tears. Yes, it can mean returning to the holler or the farm or the old plantation or the small Southern town. But not only that. With apologies to Greil Marcus, there is no “bedrock” or “deep foundation” to American identity, only a bed of rocks and rubble that can be eerily beautiful but will never be as stable as our folklore has imagined it.

It's long, but interesting reading.

~ Becky in Long Beach

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