Redemption Song: Why Music Is the One Giant Thing America Has Done Right

Steve Almond
Image (partial) found on Institute for Cultural Diplomacy -- photographer unknown.

Best-selling author Steve Almond on why America represents a kind of perfect storm of musical innovation: a country short on fixed traditions and long on highly mobile immigrants.

Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life: A Book by and for the Fanatics Among Us (with Bitchin' Soundtrack)

Publisher: Random House
Length: 240 pages
Author: Steve Almond
Price: $23.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2010-04

Because my wife and I have friends who are foreign-born, we often wind up at parties with guests from other countries. I enjoy these parties – the food is always great – but I also tend to feel slightly ashamed of being an American.

I realize that looks bad on paper. Let me try to explain.

It’s not that I don’t love my country, or feel lucky to live here. I do. It’s just that Americans’ international reputation isn’t exactly sparkling at the moment.

Even with a certain someone out of the White House, Americans are still viewed as a global bully, too eager to send in troops and suck precious resources from less powerful nations. Then there’s the chief export these days, American popular culture: the drunken exhibitionism of Reality TV, the violent fantasies of Hollywood, and the creepy cult of celebrity worship.

However, what redeems America in my mind is one simple and unassailable fact: Americans make the best music in the world. I say this not just as a recovering music critic, but as someone who has dedicated his life to obsessive fandom.

I’ve thought a lot about why this might be over the years, and I’ve come to the conclusion that America represents a kind of perfect storm of musical innovation: a country short on fixed traditions and long on highly mobile immigrants.

I’m happy to report that actual music historians back me up on this. They’ve written extensively about how, for instance, the field hollers of African slaves – with their call-and-response pattern – evolved into what we now know as the blues. And how those work songs combined with the music of the Christian church to produce spirituals and gospel hymns.

Or consider the immigrants who settled the Appalachian Mountains. They didn’t just arrive here with hat in hand. They brought their instruments: the Irish and Scots their fiddles, the Spanish their guitars, the Germans their dulcimers, the Italians their mandolins, and so on. They also brought their native musical forms, their waltzes and flamencos and tarantellas and jigs. The intermingling of these traditions and instruments would spawn a dizzying variety of new styles, which have come to be known (broadly speaking) as country music.

This same process has played all over America, from the Poles who imported polka to the Midwest to the Mexican immigrants who brought cumbias to the Southwest. Music has become the sonic embodiment of the American melting pot.

It’s often hard to remember this amid all the patriotic clamoring, but this country is still relatively young. For this reason, it lacks a single native musical tradition. This absence, however, has created the space for dozens of new traditions.

The movement of African-Americans from the South to the urban capitals of the north brought America not only an electrified version of the blues, but jazz, R&B, and soul.

The emergence of an iconic figure such as Elvis Presley –the most famous avatar of American rock ‘n’ roll– is properly understood as the fortuitous merger of country and blues music.

Even the so-called British Invasion of the ‘60s was really more like a re-invasion. It was fueled by bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, whose musical styles were borrowed from Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Hank Williams, and a host of other American artists.

Nearly all of the 5,000 records that reside in my basement tell some similar story of musical interbreeding, particularly the ones by my favorite songwriters.

When I listen to the Chicago rocker Ike Reilly, for instance, I hear the reels of his Irish forebears mixing with the aggressive rhythms of punk and hip hop, and the lyric myth-making of Bob Dylan, another American who used music to reinvent himself.

Nil Lara, a singer I first encountered in Miami Beach, was born in New Jersey, the son of Cuban immigrants, but he spent much of his childhood in Venezuela. His remarkable songs combine the traditional folk styles of the Caribbean and South America with his love of artists like Stevie Wonder and Pink Floyd.

One of my favorite songs of all time, “Paterson” by Dayna Kurtz, features an accordian and Kurtz singing in Italian. To be clear: Kurtz is not Italian -- she’s a Jewish folksinger who grew up worshipping Joni Mitchell -- but she’s also an American, and one wise enough to borrow from the traditions that allow her to express an astonishing depth of feeling. In the case of “Paterson,” this meant enlisting the ol’ Italian guys who played music on the street across from her house.

It’s this willingness to engage and adapt and connect that makes me proud to be an American. It is in many ways a rootless country, full of dislocated people. Its history – present and past – includes horrifying transgressions.

America’s saving grace, though, has always been its music, which has not only served as a balm to these painful episodes, but demonstrated the country’s ability, as a people, to convert hardship into the utmost beauty and joy.

Steve Almond is the author of the new book, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life.

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