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A critique: 'The South Stole Americana'

Desert Dancer 19 Mar 18 - 06:29 PM
Mick Lowe 19 Mar 18 - 10:37 PM
Ernest 20 Mar 18 - 06:23 AM
leeneia 20 Mar 18 - 02:31 PM
Roz 22 Mar 18 - 11:43 AM
GUEST,Greg.F 22 Mar 18 - 12:36 PM
Joe Offer 23 Mar 18 - 01:38 AM
Brian Peters 23 Mar 18 - 06:13 AM
Jon Bartlett 23 Mar 18 - 07:44 PM
Joe Offer 23 Mar 18 - 09:39 PM
Desert Dancer 26 Mar 18 - 12:48 AM
Joe Offer 26 Mar 18 - 02:30 AM
GUEST,Phil d'Conch 26 Mar 18 - 04:32 AM
meself 26 Mar 18 - 10:39 AM
GUEST,Phil d'Conch 26 Mar 18 - 12:48 PM
meself 26 Mar 18 - 02:26 PM
Joe Offer 26 Mar 18 - 02:42 PM
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Subject: A critique: 'The South Stole Americana'
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 19 Mar 18 - 06:29 PM

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.

Excerpts:

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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Subject: RE: A critique: 'The South Stole Americana'
From: Mick Lowe
Date: 19 Mar 18 - 10:37 PM

The author could have cut out all the twaddle and got to the only salient point "there is no bedrock to American identity, just rubble). A bunch of disparate States who get together to elect a president they all ignore and to celebrate St Patrick's Day..
Give it another 500 years or so before you can even begin to start trying to define "American Folk Music".


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Subject: RE: A critique: 'The South Stole Americana'
From: Ernest
Date: 20 Mar 18 - 06:23 AM

Not a singular phenomenon: When people think of german folk music, they will think of bavarian stuff, not frisian, hessian, saxon etc.

As for american music the author states that the music of the southern borderlands is predominantly latin-american. Might that be the answer why it is not dominating? Not that latin american music is in any way inferior, but it did not develop in the US and is more representative for Latin America than the US.

Claiming latin american music as us-american would also be seen as cultural appropriation - the author is opening a can of worms here...


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Subject: RE: A critique: 'The South Stole Americana'
From: leeneia
Date: 20 Mar 18 - 02:31 PM

"The South Stole Americana" ?

Just because a few white men who have reputations as folklorists concentrate on the South doesn't mean American traditional music is stolen away. To name few forms: polka, western music esp with yodelling, music of the SW, such as "Vaya con Dios." Music of the pueblos.

Josh has fallen into the historian's fallacy that only prominent, (and usually white) males make history.


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Subject: RE: A critique: 'The South Stole Americana'
From: Roz
Date: 22 Mar 18 - 11:43 AM

I don't know that I'd agree that claiming some latin music is grounds for culture appropriation, not while Texas is still one among us. There are many states, especially in the south, where spanish language folk music is certainly common. I think that's the point the article tries to make- 'folk music' is often synonymous in the US with a sort of Country Lite. It's viewed as a genre rather than as a representation of culture, a genre of broken-hearted white southerners, which is quite the wrong definition.


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Subject: RE: A critique: 'The South Stole Americana'
From: GUEST,Greg.F
Date: 22 Mar 18 - 12:36 PM

Stevie Wonder is jumping to Bruno Mars' defense after accusations of cultural appropriation reemerged last week.

“Here’s the thing, God created music for all of us to enjoy. So we cannot limit ourselves by people’s fears and insecurities," the 29-time Grammy-winner told TMZ when they caught up with him in Los Angeles. "He’s a great talent, so all the other stuff is just bulls---. He was inspired by great musicians and great artists and songwriters. So it’s cool.”


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Subject: RE: A critique: 'The South Stole Americana'
From: Joe Offer
Date: 23 Mar 18 - 01:38 AM

I read the South Stole Americana article, and I wanted to keep shouting, "No! No! This isn't right!"
I wanted to mention Rickaby's Folk Songs Out of Wisconsin and Gardner/Chickering Ballads and Songs of Southern Michigan and Korson's Pennsylvania songs and Cazden's Folk Songs of the Catskills and the Helen Harkness Flanders collections from New England - but I have to admit that these are not the songs that garner attention.
I grew up in a very ethnic Midwest, an area that was working as hard as it could to assimilate and to deny its roots. My French ancestors arrived in the Americas with the founding of Detroit in 1701, and it's hard to find any French influence anymore in the huge part of America that was French. The music of my Irish heritage was mostly religious songs written in the late 19th century, not traditional Irish music. My German great-grandfather may well have been a Jew who denied his heritage, and I know of no music from his part of the family.
My Rhode Island wife's first language was Polish, even though both her parents were born in the United States. I have learned parts of Polish songs she learned when she was young, and I also learned Polish songs from people I knew in Detroit and Milwaukee.
But I guess I have to admit that the Northern States did not develop a music of its own. The North was largely ethnic, and the ethnic groups did their best to leave the music and traditions of their homelands behind. I learned songs from school songbooks, not from family tradition.
-Joe-


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Subject: RE: A critique: 'The South Stole Americana'
From: Brian Peters
Date: 23 Mar 18 - 06:13 AM

This is a well-researched and thought provoking piece, which needs more time to formulate a considered response than I have just now.

Joe is right to point out that Northern collections like Flanders have in the past received less attention that Southern ones, though people like Jeff Warner and Jeff Davis have been championing Northern music for years, and it's good to see that Anna & Elizabeth (and others) are now digging into Flanders.

On Garrett-Davis's wider point about non-Anglo-Celtic music, the obvious response is that musics like Cajun, Zydeco, Tex-Mex and polka are very successful in their own regions (and more widely), but they're just not pigeon-holed under 'folk' - although all clearly qualify as such.

There are two points about Southern music which might explain the kind of hegemony that Garrett-Davis complains about. One is the historical view, popular in the early 20th century and beyond, of the US as essentially an Anglo-Celtic culture, of which the purest survivors were to be found in the Southern Mountains. This was obviously an oversimplification even then, and is clearly only a part of the story today.

The other is that Southern music just sounds good. It has a particular quality arising from the collision of Anglo-Celtic and African-American traditions, which lend it the the heady combination of keening vocals, insistent rhythms and immediate story-telling. That doesn't make it better than other folk musics, but it does make it very attractive to an urban audience seeking something different. And then of course there's the banjo!

I hope we get more debate on this topic.


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Subject: RE: A critique: 'The South Stole Americana'
From: Jon Bartlett
Date: 23 Mar 18 - 07:44 PM

What Brian said. There's a huge amount of unpacking to be done with the article. My own area (songs of work) I see as grossly underestimated in what passes for American folk music, with the exception (inter alia) of Larry Hanks' work. I think of mainstream culture as a roaring torrent, against which all other cultures have to struggle, as salmon heading upstream. There are various pools where the current is not too strong, and we can kid ourselves (historically) that we, representing traditional vernacular culture can made some kind of headway (the Big Folk Scare of the 60's, for example). Swept downstream are subaltern cultures - the mid-west, the working songs of the south, the Polish, Russian and German traditions of the old east coast, the almost extinguished culture of French language material from the mills of New England as from the bayous of Louisiana, and the Spanish language cultures of the southwest. Are there vehicles for the kind of discussion Brian is looking for?

Jon Bartlett


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Subject: RE: A critique: 'The South Stole Americana'
From: Joe Offer
Date: 23 Mar 18 - 09:39 PM

Jon Bartlett asks: Are there vehicles for the kind of discussion Brian is looking for?

Hi, Jon-
Take a look at some of the threads Richie has been working on lately. Here's an example:

I think that Richie has done half a dozen or more of these guided, edited PermaThreads, and they have been wonderful. I'll be glad to set up a PermaThread with editing rights for anyone who wants to try one.

I'm very proud of Rickaby's Folk Songs Out of Wisconsin, because it's a collection of songs from home. I've been meaning to do a project researching the songs in that book, but I haven't gotten around to it. I have been working for years off and on, studying Sandburg's American Songbag; and another study of the songs of Malvina Reynolds and Jean Ritchie. I'm also working on a study of the songs in the pocket songbooks from Cooperative Recreation Service/World Around Songs, and on School Songbooks.

I hear all sorts of complaints about the format of Mudcat, but I've found that Mudcat's 1996-era format works very well for guided research projects; and I'll do anything I can to support such projects.



-Joe- joe@mudcat.org


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Subject: RE: A critique: 'The South Stole Americana'
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 26 Mar 18 - 12:48 AM

I looked up this article when I saw a quote from it in a recent review of the new Anna & Elizabeth recording, which, as Brian says, drew on the Flanders song collection, something new for them, even though Anna is from Vermont.

The quote that was chosen included the couple of sentences about the "heritage not hate" promotion of southern culture. That was a new interpretation for me (as a northerner who has been known to complain about northern folk music sources being ignored), and seemed kind of provocative. I'm not sure that I buy it.

The author, who is from South Dakota, is now based in Los Angeles and doing his doctoral dissertation on "a history of American Indian engagements with recording and radio technologies between 1890 and 1970". So, his particular gripe is no doubt founded in that interest.

I think that I agree that for English-language song, and certainly instrumental music that's superficially labeled "Americana" or "American roots", on sheer numbers of recordings, and probably several other measures, the winner would be southeastern in some form (maybe stretched to Texas). For the folklorists' part in this, we can probably blame it on Professor Child. ;-)

~ Becky in Long Beach


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Subject: RE: A critique: 'The South Stole Americana'
From: Joe Offer
Date: 26 Mar 18 - 02:30 AM

I heard Mick Moloney give an interesting lecture yesterday that he titled "If It Wasn't for the Irish and the Jews" - mostly the music of Tin Pan Alley. Much of the sheet music from the end of the 19th century came from Irish and Jewish musicians in New York, and it was played on pianos and sung in parlors all over America. For the most part, this was music from the north, mostly New York, but it was popular all over the country.
-Joe-


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Subject: RE: A critique: 'The South Stole Americana'
From: GUEST,Phil d'Conch
Date: 26 Mar 18 - 04:32 AM

#AmericanaSoCracker or earning your Ph.D. on the bell curve.

Full disclosure, imo “Americana” is pundit inclusive.

A lot of post-2016 election salt for the tired old “folk - not folk” rehash. He 'says' Southern Americana but I think the burr under his saddle is actually Americanism in general.

Being middling average, normal and typical and not collecting Ojibwe 78s is not evil.

RE: Bedrock – Arts majors aren't licensed for foundation work. Wouldn't know a footer from their left foot.


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Subject: RE: A critique: 'The South Stole Americana'
From: meself
Date: 26 Mar 18 - 10:39 AM

I suppose it's just me, but - I think you take exception to the article in question; beyond that I'm not sure what you're saying ... ?


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Subject: RE: A critique: 'The South Stole Americana'
From: GUEST,Phil d'Conch
Date: 26 Mar 18 - 12:48 PM

Sooooo... "Academia here I come...?"


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Subject: RE: A critique: 'The South Stole Americana'
From: meself
Date: 26 Mar 18 - 02:26 PM

I didn't want to say it, but .......


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Subject: RE: A critique: 'The South Stole Americana'
From: Joe Offer
Date: 26 Mar 18 - 02:42 PM

Of course, Americana is a recent use of the word, and it describes music that chiefly has southern roots. To say that "the South stole Americana" is putting the cart before the horse. The music existed long before the current use of the term. There's music from all the other parts of America, but the record stores didn't choose to call it "Americana."

-Joe-


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