THE DEVIL’S BLUE NOTE: What is “Americana?”
“Why should the devil get all the good tunes,
The booze and the neon and Saturday night?”
Several years ago Dave and I were on one of our day trips to Sonoma Co. We saw a poster for the Sonoma Jazz Festival featuring headliners Bonnie Raitt & Joe Cocker!
We have observed this trend over the years, a blurred understanding of musical forms. When Norah Jones burst on the scene she was referred to as a “jazz singer” just as Sade was a decade earlier. Norah is a natural country blues singer and Sade is a pop singer. Both have a grace and style that seem to evoke those reactions. Oddly, Joni Mitchell received withering criticism for her 1979 album, “Mingus,” a real jazz project with the big boys. She never did that again. When she won the Grammy for her 1994 album, “Turbulent Indigo,” a reporter asked, “Aren’t you that folksinger from the 60’s?”
The term “heritage music” started to take hold as a catch-all for jazz festivals losing audience and money, this seemed a good solution. But what has caught on instead is the term “Americana.” Everyone is using it.
What is Americana?
We went to an “Americana” show at a local songwriter’s venue featuring three different acts. A 50 year old white guy with an acoustic guitar chose to do “Fantasy” by Earth Wind & Fire and a couple of other odd pop songs.
Clearly the term means different things to different people and is well nigh impossible to define. BUT, I am going to take a stab at it, we’ll see if I can add anything to this discussion.
The birth of American culture was basically British and Irish, tightly administered by Christian sects with defined notions of music and its place in society. Over time the influx of more Europeans widened the scope, in addition to more and improved instruments, all still mostly European.
What, then, is the single most powerful element separating the Old World from the New World in terms of cultural influence? Slavery. The introduction of African and Caribbean rhythmic and melodic sensibilities. The blue note. It is the most identifiable difference. The flatted 5th was called the Devil’s note. It both repelled and seduced white Americans. From the fields into the churches and into the brothels these blues inflected notes led the way into gospel, blues and jazz.
Eventually, poor white folks, who lived and worked closely with black folks, began to emulate the sounds in the fields changing the colors of their own folk music into country gospel, country blues and bluegrass. When Scott Joplin merged classical techniques with the blue note he invented ragtime changing the sound of popular music forever. The older white establishment was horrified but the young people couldn’t get enough and it couldn’t be stopped. A few years later a Jewish boy from Brooklyn, George Gershwin, would write the first important classical pieces incorporating complex jazz chordings and rhythms. At the same time, Duke Ellington, a black man, was composing reams of music dazzling audiences of all colors all over the world, taking “Americana” everywhere. Can we even imagine rhythm & blues, rock & roll, rockabilly, doo wop, folk rock, disco, or even rap, without jazz as the pre-curser?
Recently I contacted a Southern Californian venue booker we had met at the FAR-West conference. He said he did not book acts like ours. I asked what kind of music did he usually book? His reply,” You are too jazzy and showy.” Hmmmm…is this the establishment once again afraid of the Devil’s note? There is nothing more deeply “Americana” than jazz, nothing more embedded in the roots of music that emerged from the soil of the cornfields and cottonfields of rural America.
What, then, is “Americana?”
I conclude it is the distinct and original music grown out of the gracefully dignified European study of controlled form with the wild improvisation of the encaptured African spirit struggling for freedom. These two seemingly opposing forces found a unification and strength that has all the world envious, still trying to find that Devil’s note.
Americana, then, is the blue note that made the world green with envy while bringing together black and white, free and slave, devils and angels.
Chappell Holt, November 24, 2012