What is Americana?
Reviews and insights from Michael Stone
What, exactly, constitutes Americana? Artists have long sought inspiration in the blues, R&B, spirituals, gospel, old timey, folk, civil rights song, country, rock, pop and the realm of culture, history and politics more broadly, an expansive array of influences. The recordings essayed here suggest that the politics of everyday life have much to do with how what might be called Americana has evolved.
Some classic examples from the period in which civil rights, the free speech movement, anti-war activism, an emergent environmental awareness, and allied initiatives seeking a more inclusive definition of citizenship illustrate how music speaks to the social movements of its times: Grant Green (Feelin' the Spirit, Blue Note 1963), Jimi Hendrix's Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock in 1969, Ray Charles's singular reworking of America the Beautiful (A Message from the People, ABC 1972), Mary Lou Williams (Mary Lou's Mass, Folkways 1975), Archie Shepp and Horace Parlan (Goin' Home, SteepleChase 1977), or Charlie Haden and Hank Jones (Steal Away, Verve 1995; Come Sunday, EmArcy 2012).
Characteristic of the New Deal era and what it wrought is a range of what might be called second-generation popular artistry inspired by the social engagement of figures like Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, John and Alan Lomax, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, and the Weavers, often in dialogue with Harry Smith's iconic Anthology of American Folk Music (1952): the old, weird America of the Beats, Dylan and The Band, Joan Baez, Richard and Mimi Farina, Buffy Saint-Marie, Janis Joplin, Ritchie Havens, the Dead, the Byrds, Jim Kweskin's Jug Band, John Fahey, Robbie Basho, Leo Kottke, Dr. John, Randy Newman, Taj Mahal, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Tom Waits, Ry Cooder and so many more. Make your own additions to an expansive list.
Of course, the unruly first-generation songbook and its pointed social critiques continue to inspire contemporary artists. Rounder's reissuing of the Alan Lomax catalogue moved New Orleans musician-producers Scott Billington and Steve Reynolds of Tangle Eye (named after one of the Parchman prison farm a cappella singers whom Lomax recorded) to dub and mix, blending the talents of trombonist Delfayo Marsalis, blues pianist Henry Porter, blues singer Corey Harris and banjoist Tony Trischka with clips from Lomax's 13volume Southern Journey, sensitively amplifying the humanity of the original recordings and bringing them into the present-day vernacular.
Consider the multimedia approach of Jaimeo Brown Transcendence, inspired by field recordings from the Library of Congress, Smithsonian and Lomax archives, along with the work of hip-hop producers Jay Dilla, Dr. Dre and DJ Premier. Drummer Jaimeo Brown and guitarist Chris Sholar mix in their own original material on their self-produced Work Songs, adding effects, blues guitar, alto and tenor saxes, flute, organ, keyboards, found sound and a chorus of guest vocalists, in what Brown calls "a [sonic] fabric woven of the forgotten voices of coal miners, southern prisoners, gandy dancers, stonemasons and cotton pickers from our contemporary perspective."
From the first synchronized ax-chopping of "Hidden Angel" (built around a Mississippi State Penitentiary work team recorded by Lomax at Parchman Farm) the listener steps into clouded sociological territory. The drawling, understated period documentary introduction to "The Valley" completely elides the historical fact of chattel slavery, civil war and the Jim Crow prison farm regime that followed Reconstruction, one brute algorithm at work: "It's been called white gold, and even king cotton. Here's a view of a Southern United States cotton patch, a huge field, take a look at the size of this field. At one time these fields would have been picked by hand labor. It's all done mechanically now." Work Songs is elegiac from start to finish, powerful hard listening to voices marginalized in their own times as in our own, a penetrating signifier of the life sentence of hard labor from which Work Songs derives, conjuring new and affirmative life in a time sorely in need of the same.
Brown's label mate René Marie, with her Voice of My Beautiful Country, recorded in Charleston, South Carolina, takes what appears at first to be a straightforward approach. She mixes sensitive takes on jazz standards with Grace Slick's "White Rabbit," a singular reading of the work song "John Henry," the Manuel Álvarez "Maciste"-Andrés Eloy Blanco anti-racist Cuban anthem "Angelitos negros" (sung in Spanish), and her reworking of a trio of patriotic titles including "America the Beautiful" and "My Country 'tis of Thee." But in mapping the lyrics of African American writer, educator, diplomat, lawyer and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson's hymn "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" onto "The Star-Spangled Banner," René Marie elicited an eruption of press criticism, right-wing moral righteousness and white-supremacist death threats (consider that 500 school children in Weldon's Jacksonville, Florida hometown first performed the song in celebration of Abraham Lincoln's birthday in 1900). As Faulkner might have observed, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." These are the lyrics to which René Marie's detractors objected:
Lift ev'ry voice and sing,
'Til earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list'ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on 'til victory is won.
René Marie's drummer of 15 years, Quentin Baxter teaches jazz at the College of Charleston, performs with local quintet Ranky Tanky, and is producer of the group's eponymous debut CD. Four members are descendants of the Gullah (a.k.a. Geechee) people of the South Carolina Sea Islands, and fellow Low Country native Clayton Ross rounds out the ensemble on guitar and vocals (Ross also co-founded the New York Brazilian-inspired ensemble Matuto). Singer Quiana Parler powerfully fronts the band, whose Gullah name translates as "work it" or "get funky." Rounding out a musically tight lineup are singer-trumpeter Charlton Singleton and bassist Kevin Hamilton.
No surprise given their traditional repertoire, there is a palpable gospel spirit here, much of it originally documented by Alan Lomax, studiously resurrected by Ranky Tanky: the ring shouts "Watch That Star" (Macintosh County Shouters, Slave Shout Songs from the Coast of Georgia, Folkways 1984) and "Knee Bone" (Bessie Jones, Southern Journey Vol. 13, Earliest Times: Georgia Sea Islands Songs for Everyday Living, Rounder 1998), "That's Alright" (Mary Pickney, Been in the Storm So Long: A Collection of Spirituals, Folk Tales and Children's Games from John's Island, South Carolina, Smithsonian 1990), "You Better Mind" (Bessie Jones, So Glad I'm Here: Songs and Games from the Georgia Sea Islands, Rounder 2015), "O Death" and "Turtle Dove" (Bessie Jones, Southern Journey, Vol. 12: Georgia Sea Islands: Biblical Songs and Spirituals, Rounder 1998), Fred McDowell's "You Gotta Move," and secular work and play songs "Sink 'em Low" and "Join the Band" (Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers, Join the Band, Folkways 1959). With a straight-ahead approach and soulful feeling, reframing each of these traditional pieces as fresh and timely assertions, Ranky Tanky shines a sublime and humane light on a repertoire whose pervasive dignity and warmth are profoundly contemporary. The best Charleston, SC ensemble you've never heard of, Ranky Tanky is touring the U.S. in 2017. Missing them will be your own loss.
New York-born singer Indra Rios-Moore grew up with gospel, blues, old-timey, and Cuban recordings, along with the likes of Duke Ellington, Jimmy Ruffin, Pink Floyd and David Bowie, all influences heard on Heartland. Backed by guitar, clarinet, tenor sax, bass and drums, there's a hint (albeit never derivative) of Ella Fitzgerald in her reading of Ellington's "Azure" and "Solitude"; a charming country lilt to Doc Watson's "Blue Railroad Train" and "Your Long Journey"; a smoky enigma to her measured unpacking of Roger Waters' "Money"; and a bilingual fluency and cultural ease on the Cuban songs "Hacia donde" and "Oshun."
Perhaps most striking is her rendering of the Carter Family's cautionary gospel number "Little Black Train," underscored by some subtly menacing sax and guitar licks: "That little black train is coming / Get all your business right / Better set your house in order / Or the train might be here tonight." The intended recipients of that timeless counsel know who they are.
A saxophonist, Brian McCarthy and his nonet find inspiration in the songs of the Civil War, mixed with original McCarthy compositions ("Shiloh" and the title track). Named for an unofficial flag of the Confederacy at the war's onset, "The Bonnie Blue Flag" would seem a controversial opener to The Better Angels of Our Nature, but complicating an easy read, the album title itself comes from Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address. McCarthy follows with Julia Ward Howe's "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," setting up a tension sustained throughout the album. "Weeping, Sad and Lonely" (known in the South as "When This Cruel War Is Over") was sung in different lyrical versions by both Confederate and Union troops.
George Frederick Root's "Battle Cry of Freedom" (a.k.a. "Rally 'Round the Flag"), a northern patriotic song advocating for abolition, was characteristically retooled with a Confederate twist, and Lincoln himself had it adapted for his 1864 presidential campaign. An extended improvisation on "I Wish I Was in Dixie's Land" is juxtaposed with its immediate repudiation, "Oh, Freedom" (a.k.a. "Before I'd Be a Slave"), a timeless song of African American struggle. The album closes with "All Quiet along the Potomac Tonight," inspired by a sentimental Confederate poem narrating a rebel fighter's death by sniper fire. Adapted to music by both sides, as popular narrative has it the song was so widely embraced that commanders of both armies ordered the cessation of nightly sniper fire across enemy lines. McCarthy's straight-ahead, small orchestral approach breaks no new ground musically, but the work stands as a thoughtful reflection in a time when any sense of reasoned political debate, let alone the humanity of "the other," has gone missing.
With pianist Kris Davis and drummer Michael Sarin, New York violinist Sam Bardfeld's The Great Enthusiasms owes its genesis to his childhood memory of Richard Nixon's televised resignation speech, inspiration for "Fails While Daring Greatly" and the title track. As Bardfeld remarks in the notes, "Though Dick was a paranoid, hateful crook, there's an intelligence and complexity in him that one cannot imagine existing inside Mr. Trump. During this current dark stain in our country's history, let's continue to make weird, joyous art." So it was that, growing up, Bardfeld found musical juice in the pluralistic array of Don Cherry, John Zorn, Central Park rumba circles, Ravi Shankar, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith, Eric Dolphy, The Band, and Anthony Braxton's "Avant Hoedown." Along with Bardfeld originals we get Robbie Robertson's "King Harvest Has Surely Come" and Springsteen-Smith's "Because the Night." It's all here, even if The Great Enthusiasms, a conceptual project, is anything but easy listening.
New York drummer Matt Slocum's Black Elk's Dream is spurred by the biography of Oglala Lakota visionary Black Elk, as told in Black Elk Speaks, a book people of a certain age may well have read. Slocum's compositions memorialize Lakota spirituality, the Pine Ridge Reservation, the ghost dance that so terrified the bluecoat cavalry, and the massacre at Wounded Knee, invoking the profound sadness of a vanished lifeway within a resilient sense of Amerindian culture and history, a tragedy further sharpened by Slocum's rereading of Pat Metheny's "Is This America?"
Along parallel lines, Cuban pianist-composer Omar Sosa and New England singer-folklorist Tim Eriksen take a hemispheric assay of the New World African diaspora on Across the Divide: A Tale of Rhythm and Ancestry, interspersing Sosa originals with traditional folk songs like "Gabriel's Trumpet," "Sugar Baby Blues" and "Promised Land" (a.k.a. "Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah"). "Promised Land" (listen) folds in a historical clip of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes intoning, "The first Negroes came to America as explorers. No man wanted to be a slave." Integral is Eriksen's commanding vocal presence and banjo playing (listen to "Gabriel's Trumpet," recalling that the banjo traces its origins to West Africa). Eriksen's scholarly and artistic immersion in 19th-century white Protestant shape-note and devotional singing juxtaposes strikingly with the African-diasporic sensibility at the heart of this work.
Across the Divide is a spellbinding recording whose ageless vision addresses the universality of the human condition. As I wrote of the project's 2009 live debut at the Blue Note, "There is none of the ponderous didactic screed and technique worship of those who hawk jazz as 'America's classical music,' but rather, a conception of 'America' in its most comprehensive definition, a linguistic and cultural power shift that residents of Mexico, Latin America, the Caribbean and Canada intuitively understand. Sosa has no interest in grabbing the limelight, which only enhances the artistry of his ensemble focus. His generous musical spirit, sonic curiosity, and openness to new sounds and their unusual combination, mark his life and work." This, I would say, is the truest manifestation of Americana, a unitary pan American sensibility whose moment of truth is now as never before.Michael Stone