Americana: What is it?


Well for one thing it’s the title of a volume of autobiography by Ray Davies.

For another, Rod Stewart said in interview a few months ago that he did not understand the term, which might be thought a little disingenuous coming from a man who has made his living from it, but given that the expression has for the last quarter of a century been used in a way that suggests specificity and yet remains somehow nebulous, perhaps I can understand Rod’s problem.

Let me then offer three definitions of the term:

1. Pretty much all English language popular music as we know it is Americana. This goes way back before the advent of rock’n’roll - people such as Joe Loss and Ray Noble took their inspiration from America. (In the case of Mr. Loss the music was so emasculated that any black American roots were pretty much obliterated). Furthermore, it was not only British rockers who took American icons as their exemplars- reggae would not have been the same without what Jamaican musicians picked up from New Orleans R & B, Chicago soul, Motown and Stax.

2. The particular sense in which the term “Americana” has been used in recent times has been much discussed, but it seems to me that any musician who perceives their music to be part of American folk traditions may be considered an Americana artist. Just to be clear, this is not a new idea. When Bob Dylan went electric he understood that he was still performing folk music even if many in his audience did not. The Band had this understanding when they made “Music From Big Pink,” and artists such as The Byrds and Neil Young always had this perception. People such as Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder have always regarded what they do as folk music whether they are playing blues, country, R & B, Latino, or Hawaiian.

When a few years ago John Mayer (a terrific guitar player whatever else you might think of him) entitled an album “Continuum” he could not have been any clearer in asserting that his music is part of an ongoing tradition.

This way of thinking about popular music is perhaps a bit foreign to us Brits, who have tended to think that the excitement of pop derives from its’ immediacy, its’ “nowness” if you like, where this week’s big thing is quickly forgotten when the next big thing comes along. This attitude however denies any intrinsic value in the music, and I like to think that “The People’s Music” as Ian McDonald called it does have intrinsic value, and that to deny it is a sort of snobbery.

3. I recently read a semi-serious definition of Americana as “Country music for Democrats.” Too narrow perhaps, but I kind of liked it.