Why Is a Music Genre Called 'Americana' So Overwhelmingly White and Male?

The genre seeks to represent and celebrate a national identity, but in the process, it erases the history and diversity of its influences.
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Bob Dylan performing at Les Vieilles Charrues Festival in France in 2012. (AP / David Vincent)

On Friday, Bob Dylan will wrap up the Americanarama Festival of Music, his six-week U.S. tour alongside an all-star cast of colleagues, including Wilco, My Morning Jacket and Ryan Bingham. All those acts have a home in the genre called Americana -- a nostalgic musical stomping ground where musicians act as ambassadors for the country's past and its indelible ideals: community, endeavor, democracy, frontierism.

But there's something wrong with this picture. If Americana represents some broad definition of American identity, then how does it manage to exclude the influence of so much music made here in the past 40 years? And where, you've got to wonder, are the artists of color? Can a genre that offers itself up as a kind of fantasy soundtrack for this country afford to be so homogeneous and so staunchly archaic?

Maybe, at the very least, it's time for a name change.

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Before it became a term for a musical genre, "Americana" was slang for the comforting, middle-class ephemera at your average antique store -- things like needle-pointed pillows, Civil War daguerreotypes, and engraved silverware sets. In the 1990s, radio programmers coined a new, related usage: "Americana" became a nickname for the weather-beaten, rural-sounding music that bands like Whiskeytown and Uncle Tupelo were making. It was warm, twangy stuff, full of finger-plucked guitars and gnarled voices like tires on a dirt road. If you can imagine an Americana song as a bottle of beer (easy enough), you'll probably taste a hint of salt from the lead singer's tears mixed in.

But the genre defines itself by its progenitors more than its present. Any Americana artist working today ought to know his Woody Guthrie, his Carter Family, his Willie Nelson, his Blind Willie McTell.

Case in point: The nonprofit Americana Music Association formed in 1999, and held its first festival and conference the following year in Nashville. The big coup came in 2009, when the Grammy Foundation established an independent category for Best Americana Album. In the four years since, no musician under 60 has won the award.

And despite the genre's roots in gospel and the blues, the 20 Americana nominees to date have included only one black artist: the singer Mavis Staples, who won the award in 2011 for You Are Not Alone. (The album was produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy.)

"It sometimes seems like the Delta's legacy is most present in modern hip-hop, where its basic tenets are still being perpetuated, even if the form has altered dramatically."

Americana's proponents position themselves as anti-establishment gadflies to the left of commercial country. Many see themselves as preserving some bygone, purer strand of Americanness, and argue -- in distinctly rockist terms -- that this genre is just the modern-day manifestation of a timeless truth. (CBC radio personality Madonna Hamel gave a digestible synopsis in a recent radio special on Americana: The Americana Music Association, she said, is a brotherhood of "ex-industry types [who] quit their lucrative day jobs to get exposure for the artists they love. Their goal was simple: find a home for singers who can sing, writers who can write, players who can play.")

But you'll notice that it didn't take long for Americana to earn industry acceptance, which can be explained in much the same way as the existence of the genre's other, less flattering nickname: "dad rock." The music business was happy to create a niche for the country's most fiscally dependable demographic -- white, male Baby Boomers. Along the way, a handful of artistic traditions founded in rebellion (blues, Appalachian folk, outlaw country) got elided into a relatively conservative format.

Americana is music that sticks up for its drinking buddy, remembers the first time the flag was hoisted over the corner store, kicks up dust on its way out of town. After work, it watches TCM. But ultimately, if an art form is going to name itself after this country, it should probably stop weatherproofing itself against America's present-day developments. And it hardly seems like enough to say you're carrying on the legacies of black gospel and blues if the performers and listeners venerating them are almost all white.

In her book It Still Moves, a loving depiction of Americana's roots, Amanda Petrusich gets it right: "It sometimes seems like the Delta's legacy is most present in modern hip-hop" -- rather than Americana -- "where its basic tenets are still being perpetuated, even if the form has altered dramatically."

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When Bob Dylan performs, he channels a whole universe of time-weathered emotions, ideas, and legacies. He refits himself to work as their vessel, but in the process, he makes them his own. In his memoir, Chronicles, Dylan describes songwriting as a form of inheritance: "Opportunities may come along for you to convert something -- something that exists into something that didn't yet." That, he said, is composition. And he's right; the vast American songbook and the styles that bind it together have always developed as a negotiation between self-sustaining tradition and venturesome experimentation. This is often lost on Dylan's latter-day disciples in Americana.

Older societies around the world -- African, European, Native American, and so many others -- developed folk-music customs that held for many generations. The United States, though, didn't have that option. It's a relatively new country, and one founded on adaptation and expansion -- into new territory, new markets, and new models for society.

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Giovanni Russonello is the editor of CapitalBop.com and a regular contributor to JazzTimes. His work has also appeared on NPR Music, MSNBC.com, and Politico.

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