Culture

They Wanna Hear Some American Music

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In a fun spelunk through the history of country music, Barry Mazor explores the ways "authenticity" and "Americana" are constructed. Here's an excerpt:

Efforts to generate catchy new pop-country ballads in a folk-like ballad style began in those same country boom years — the new yet old-like mining songs of Merle Travis being a milestone. But to see what he had to do in terms of presentation to sell the sheer Americana of "Dark As A Dungeon" to identified fans of pop folk, check out the Vestapol DVD Merle Travis: Rare Performances 1946-1981.

The California hipster (from that same Capitol Records) who appears on a 1951 soundie version of "Sweet Temptation" shows up just a few months later decked out as a coal-stained miner to perform "Dungeon" — and, in a perfect indication of things to come, feels it necessary to tell this song's audience about miners' lives and to spell out the point of the song. It's blatantly "serious," downright educational even — the very opposite of the bopping in "Sweet Temptation".

The audience for this new "old" music video, Travis and his soundie producers saw presciently, was going to be observing the stuff of someone else's life and taking it in as a powerful literary metaphor, perhaps, but not likely as a shared working experience.

One style isn't "better" than another — I love both "Sweet Temptation" and "Dark as a Dungeon," though I prefer the latter without any extraneous exposition added — but both were aimed at different audiences. As Mazor puts it later in a somewhat different context, the key issue was "not really a question of song-presentation 'authenticity'; it's about who wanted what, when, and where they got it."

Here's one more quote from the piece, because here at Reason we never pass up a chance to have some fun at the expense of Pete Seeger:

When Pete Seeger overcame political blacklisting enough to get at least an "educational TV" series, Rainbow Quest, in the mid-'60s, he did have acts such as the Stanley Brothers and Johnny Cash and June Carter on as guests. He seemed flummoxed by Carter and Ralph Stanley's presentation of their act in its full vaudeville style, complete with dance numbers and jokes, as he's presenting bluegrass as ancient and "folk music with overdrive." He tries to disguise the nature of the Stanleys' act by referring to the Cumberland Mountain Boys as some friends of theirs, who seemingly just happened to drop in for the occasion. (No professional band, they!) Cash, who sang a range of country, folk and new singer-songwriter material at Newport, shows up in a folk singer leather vest — and also quite visibly strung out — on Seeger's show, as Pete proceeds to describe how Maybelle and Sara Carter were daughter and mother, and June attempts to clear things up for him.

The article is long, but it isn't half as long as it could be — the author stops a few years before the hippies got into the act. And there's plenty of clips of good music along the way.