Nashville has been buzzing for months now about blues singer Adia Victoria’s feud with the Americana Music Association. It started with Charles Aaron’s piece, “Americana’s year of reckoning,” which ran at MTV.com in December.
He interviewed Adia Victoria for the piece, and she had some pointed questions for him about why he considered her an Americana artist. “So, my question for you is — why did you want to interview me for an article about Americana?” she said. “My record is not an Americana record. I’m not an Americana artist. I have no interest in being appropriated by that genre.”
This led to Craig Havighurst, a country music scholar, writing a response defending the genre and the Americana Music Association, which he felt had been unfairly maligned by Aaron and Victoria. He argued that Americana is an open and accepting genre, one in which Victoria should feel welcome.
Victoria responded in an open letter, which read in part:
There is an arrogance in assuming that your community can claim an artist because she represents the things you would like to see yourself representing. Americana thinks of itself as the more ‘enlightened’ arm of the country music machine, yet I look at the artists you laud, and I am met with the same homogenous blanket of White (throw in a few token artists of color to keep the mix right.)
Victoria’s efforts to be seen as an African American artist playing in a tradition of African American art have been strangely and surprisingly difficult. If you listen to her album “Beyond the Bloodhounds,” you can hear the influence of Nina Simone, a large pantheon of blues artists and even the harmonies of girl groups such as The Marvelettes or The Crystals. Yet in 2015, Liz Raiss at Fader in an article titled “Meet Adia Victoria, a poet making country music a little creepier” called Victoria’s songs a “sinister breed of gothic country music.” But it’s not country music. It’s not Americana. Why do people keep insisting that her music, which doesn’t sound like music in those genres, must be in those genres?
The answer, I think, is exactly what Victoria says. She’s being claimed by people who want to see themselves representing the things they’ve decided she represents — a deep knowledge and appreciation of African American musical forms channeled into genres they’re familiar with — whether that’s accurate or not.
Every year, Nashville puts out music that is incredibly commercially successful and every year, people complain that this — whatever ‘this’ is this year — is not real country music. (For a while now we’ve been bemoaning all the beer, girls and trucks songs as being bro-country and therefore not real country.) The genius, then, of Americana music has been how it’s posited itself as “real” country music in opposition to commercial country music. The pitch is that these aren’t the folks going for commercial success (even though some of them have had it). These are the folks who are really tuned into the real roots of American music, who know and love the history of American music.
In Aaron’s MTV piece, he places Americana as the descendant of Southern rock and, to some extent, I guess he’s right. But I would argue that Americana solidified into a genre because of two enormous cultural influences: Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz,” the documentary of The Band’s last concert, and the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” “The Last Waltz” would dictate what an Americana concert should look like: a talented house band, lots of famous guests, a feel-good singalong at the end. (Catch any replay of the Americana Music Awards and see what I mean. Even many of the performers are the same ones who appeared in the documentary.) The “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack shaped how Americana music would sound and which constellation of musicians would be at its core.
There’s a famous scene in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” in which the white protagonists crash a Ku Klux Klan rally and save their black friend from being lynched. As is everything else in the movie, it’s played for farce. Tommy, the intended victim, is rescued by bighearted white men. There’s a wonderful, bone-chilling rendition of the song “O, Death.” This real American tragedy for black people becomes in the movie a charming caper for white people that even features a great song. When white people want black people to feel welcome in a genre with a musical and visual aesthetic that has at its core black tragedy as white joke, is it really so hard for white people to understand that black people might be uncomfortable with that welcome?
There’s a similar tension at the heart of “The Last Waltz.” Early in the movie, The Band plays its iconic song, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” This song is beautiful and deeply moving. It’s also about the tragedy of the defeat of the Confederacy (a topic Americana is still not that shy about tackling — see “Carry Me Back” by Old Crow Medicine Show or “Missionary Ridge” by Shovels & Rope.) But then there are appearances by the Staple Singers and Muddy Waters, as if The Band or Scorsese or both are trying to show that black people don’t mind if white people want to have their rebel fantasies. It doesn’t affect their shared affection for each other and this great music.
That’s one way to read it.
But context changes things. And there at that concert in 1976, not even a decade removed from the Rev. Martin Luther King’s death, Muddy Waters stands on that stage after the Confederate cry-fest singing “I’m a man. I spell M. A, child. N. That represent man,” how can you not hear the echoes of the signs of the Memphis sanitation workers whose placards reading”I Am a Man” brought King to town that terrible April in 1968? Waters was spelling out what’s at stake for him and other African Americans and what’s ignored in the tragic nostalgia of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
Still, let’s look closely at that nostalgia, that past to which Americana music is alluding with everything from ubiquitousness of the banjo to the popularity of dressing in old-fashioned fancy clothes that have gone a little shabby. The true root of much of roots music and, in fact, much of American popular music is blackface minstrelsy — white people impersonating their stereotypes of black people and fooling themselves into believing that it gave them insight into what it means to be black in America while performing songs they’ve either explicitly ripped off from black people or songs other white people wrote for them they knew audiences would think sounded “black.” (Yes, black blackface minstrelsy was also very popular, but black people were not painting their faces with burnt cork for black audiences because they thought it was great that white people did it for white audiences.)
Yes, Americana music is so good in large part because they’re tapping into an old and pleasing aesthetic, but let’s be clear: It’s an aesthetic born out of minstrelsy. Yet even as white Americana performers put on their bowlers and their vests and strum their banjos, there’s almost no recognition of where that aesthetic comes from. Even when artists are dressing in an “old-timey” fashion or paying homage to “old-timey” music, those old times aren’t really specified. The enormous cultural influence of blackface minstrelsy on “old-timey” America remains unacknowledged and I suspect mostly unknown to the very people so deeply influenced by it.
Without a recognition of the deep and troubling cultural legacy Americana music is tapping into, there can be no reckoning with Americana’s approach of keeping and celebrating the fun parts of blackface minstrelsy while trying to leave behind all the ugliness.
On its surface, the impulse to save what’s good and ditch what’s bad in roots music seems like the right one. Obviously, we’re better off now that white people aren’t playing in blackface to white audiences on a regular basis. And though it’s obnoxious, the impulse to want black people to see how hard we white people are trying and to validate our efforts comes from a good place of wanting to be better than we were. But it puts African Americans in the unfair position of being asked to grant white people dispensation from feeling bad about the traditions we still participate in.
You can’t ask people to pretend to have selective cultural amnesia. If you like Adia Victoria because her music is a brilliant synthesis of a lot of American musical traditions — in other words, because she knows her stuff — and you like to see yourself as someone who also knows a lot about American musical traditions, it’s not fair to be mad at her for knowing history and making her judgments about whether she wants to participate in your genre based on that knowledge.
Knowing your history means knowing all of it. If Americana wants to reward people with a sense of history, it can’t be mad at the people who have learned its history. Americana can claim to be welcoming, but as long as it’s just ignoring the ugliness at its root instead of reckoning with it, there’s going to be a limit to the artists who find that welcome sincere.