Please help define Americana?

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Doug
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Please help define Americana?

Post by Doug »

"Americana"...this vague term piqued my curiosity when I first heard it used in 2000. As I read more about Americana and asked other musicians what it meant to them, the term “roots music” kept coming up. I know what that means to me... contemporary music that also has the sound of an old style, I guess. But wanting clarity about “Americana”, I had a hard time finding a standardized definition that meets the criterion of mutual exclusivity.

That is to say, the functions of any definition are to reduce the ambiguity of meaning and enhance the specificity of meaning, so words with similar meanings are understood as mutually exclusive of each other. At least for most people who use them. A useful definition would separate “Americana” from other words or phrases... like “folk-based", "roots-based”, or "roots-rock"... that may have similar meanings but also may have some important differences.

The dictionary definition of Americana is: a genre of American music having roots in early folk and country music. This is a bit too vague to meet the mutually exclusive definition. “America” includes South, Central, and North Americas. North America includes Canada and Alaska. “Folk” and “country” are huge genres needing their own mutually exclusive definitions.

Since 1975 I've been considering that what we called "folk music" in the 1960s was really not folk music at all. John Hammond, Joan Baez, Taj Mahal, Bob Dylan, Richie Havens, Gordon Lightfoot, The Kingston Trio, and Bonnie Raitt were playing North American roots-based, folk-styled modern music. Is this Americana?

Folk music is orally-aurally transmitted from person to person. Often the host culture is pre- or low-literate and lacking the technology to document the music. Some folk music is documented by folklorists who are admitted into the host culture, bringing their own documentation technology...the abilities to write descriptions and explanations, and to write tablature. In the late 1800s folklorists began bringing Edison recording machines in their field research. But no one composes Folk music and it is almost always in the “public domain”, meaning it's not copyrighted or otherwise owned. This understanding of Folk music provides substantial mutual exclusivity.

The pure folk music of Henry Sloan (1870-1948?) in the Mississippi Delta influenced the first generation of Folk Blues musicians to be documented via mechanical recordings: Charlie Patton (1881? -1934), Tommy Johnson (1896-1956), and Son House (1902-1988). Patton may have been the first of his generation to hear Sloan's pure Folk Blues in the late 1890s.

By the time Patton was busking professionally, he probably had heard music on radio and phonograph. At that time, white Folklorists were searching the Southeastern United States trying to capture Old Time String Band, Blues, Native American music, Spirituals, and early Gospel. Eventually Charlie Patton's Folk Blues was recorded for commercial sale. Likewise, the people who first put into writing the oral poems now known as Beowulf, The Iliad, and The Odyssey, were moving pure oral-aural folk tales towards formal literature.

The next generation of Delta Folk Blues musicians, represented by Robert Johnson (1911-1938), were influenced lifelong by both the Folk music of their culture and by popular recorded music. Most of what Johnson recorded in 1936 was clearly from the Folk Blues tradition, while some of his recorded music was commercial popular music. Johnson is revered by modern Blues, Rock, and Blues Rock musicians as the harbinger of Rock music. So Johnson perhaps best represents the period of transition from Folk music to modern popular music like Rock.

When I first started listening to The Band in 1970, I had a hard time appreciating them as Rock. They sounded softer, more rural, old-timey, more Folk-Rock than Rock. But lighter even than Folk-Rockers The Byrds, and Crosby, Stills and Nash. Perhaps The Band fit the genre Americana. And I hear other Rock bands that are so close to what might be called North American “roots” that I hear their music as Americana as well. My prime example of this is Credence Clearwater Revival. A truly great Rock band, but sounding so close to the rural Southeastern roots of Folk Blues, Spirituals, and early Gospel, that they just could not have grown up and created their music anywhere else but North America.

Creedence Clearwater Revival may be Roots Rock. They may be Rock 'n Roll. They seem to fit into Americana as well. They are brilliant ambassadors representing chunks of North American history and culture. I'll be listening to CCR and uplifted by their music, and The Band, and Richie Havens, while you come up with more suggestions for a definition of “Americana” .

-Doug Pratt, Atlanta, Georgia, USA
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Re: Please help define Americana?

Post by plopswagon »

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Re: Please help define Americana?

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Re: Please help define Americana?

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Re: Please help define Americana?

Post by henkstroem »

Maybe it's like pop; defined by motive. Same shit can be art or pop, depending on if the creator wanted it to mainly communicate or to sell loads.

Americana could be reflective of an intent to define or describe american history, arts or ideals in songs, or to tell stories with sounds that are familiar parts of earlier american music.

Or, it is an easy way to classify lots of music without the need for sillier genre terminology, like alt right christian pop hiphop.