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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.