Friday, January 19, 2024

A to the M to the E to the Ricana

“Jazz” opined the songwriter and philosopher Otis Lee Crenshaw “ain’t nothing but a blues quartet falling down a flight of stairs”, thus neatly labelling an entire genre of music which encompasses everything from Louis Armstrong’s gravel-coated reading of ‘Wonderful World’ to Pat Metheny’s atonal ‘Zero Tolerance for Silence’, which one critic called “…an incendiary work by an unpredictable master” while another called it, simply, “rubbish” which is, frankly, nitpicking. Thus, to define ‘Americana’, we need to dig into its - appropriately - roots. 

I was having a conversation about authenticity in music at The Maverick Festival at Easton Farm Park, where if nothing else the presence of horses, goats and sheep lends a bucolic air to the self-styled first and finest Americana music festival with a visiting musician who posited that folk should really sing in their natural accent, prompted not by an outbreak of MacCollesque revisionism, but by a performer who had sung a song in a broad Tennessee twang and then explained the genesis of the ballad in an accent which reflected nothing so much as a deep immersion in the history and culture of (say) Beccles. My companion nodded approvingly at the next turn, who provided a thorough exegesis of the Appalachian ballads she had wrought regarding mining disasters and backwoods stills. When we looked her up in the programme it turned out she was from New York.

And so we try to define ‘Americana’, the granddaddies of which are probably The Band, who after all were eighty per cent Canadian and steeped in rock n’ roll and Motown roots. ‘Roots’ being the term many thrusting young women and men adopted in order to avoid being pigeonholed as ‘folk’ (too finger in the ear), ‘country’ (big hats and songs like “When You Leave Me, Walk Out Backwards so I Think You’re Coming In”) or blues (literally endless versions of “Sweet Home Chicago”). Put them all together though, and you have a form which encompasses all the best of everything. To paraphrase Sanjeev Bhaskar’s grandfather character in ‘Goodness Gracious Me’; “Guy Clark - Americana”, “Police Dog Hogan - Americana”, “John Craigie - Americana”. It’s a convenient shorthand for an all-encompassing genre which wends its way from the close folk harmonies of The Black Feathers to the (now) bombastic Zeppelin-esque onslaught of Larkin Poe or the stadium-bound LA-centric Morganway.

If Beyonce opined that you should really put a ring on it, Americana suggests that if you like it you should put a fiddle on it. Or a dobro. Or a banjo. Our old friend Otis might suggest that Americana ain’t nothing but a folk singer in a lumberjack shirt, but the breadth and scope of the genre is the most welcoming of churches. After all, one of the early adopters of the opportunity to simply get up and perform songs from the heart-worn highway in a checked shirt is immortalised on You Tube in an early performance at Maverick.

Local lad. His name was Ed Sheeran.