The Radical Legacy of Americana


Americana is one of the most diverse and ill-defined genres in popular music; when most people think about it, the image that comes to mind is a guy with a guitar playing some relaxing acoustic tunes, but the reality is that Americana is one of the most powerful and moving musical movements of the 20th century. What makes Americana unique, as opposed to most other genres, is that Americana doesn’t describe the sound of the music. For example, hip-hop consists of songs including people rhythmically speaking lyrics over a beat, rock consists of songs including electric guitar and bass with hard-hitting drums used to excite and get loud, but no such description of Americana can be given. This is because the genre is not defined by the sound or musical conventions, but rather by the theme. It’s not uncommon to summarize American history as such: a group of people decided that they didn’t like the current situation they were in, so they packed up their bags and left. There have been several such migrations both to and across America, ranging from the pilgrims on the Mayflower to immigrants coming into the country today. This leads to a very unique culture being developed based on the idea of the melting pot of diverse backgrounds, tied together with the common goal of prosperity and the common struggle of poverty, travel, simple living, and vagabondism.

This is the core of what Americana touches on thematically. The vast majority of artists in the genre write songs for the blue-collar worker, and consider themselves champions of the American people and of democracy. Americana grew out of a variety of influences, perhaps the largest being folk and work songs from the Great Depression. Woody Guthrie is perhaps the most iconic proto-Americana artist; his Dust Bowl Ballads is an impressionable collection of work songs, folk tunes, and protest anthems which went on to lay the groundwork for many Americana artists along the way.

When discussing the topic of Americana, Bob Dylan is the major figure that comes to mind, and rightfully so. His 37 studio albums are still considered canon for anyone who wants to truly explore American music. Instead of relying on conventions of popular culture, Dylan drew from an almost uncountable number of literary, social, philosophical and political influences in order to speak to the countercultural movement which was rising in the 80’s. Being a bleeding-heart radical, he denounced both liberal complacency and conservative antagonism, and fought for the down-trodden and oppressed.

Dylan lies more on the folk side of the Americana spectrum, but there were some artists like Bruce Springsteen who wrote more thrilling rock music. This led to his albums being far more commercially successful than most other Americana artists, but this doesn’t mean that his music fits popular conventions. It’s ironic that his more popular song “Born in the U.S.A.” is played at political rallies, because with lyrics like “Got in a little hometown jam/So they put a rifle in my hand/Sent me off to a foreign land/To go and kill the yellow man”, it’s clear that this song speaks to greater themes of oppression and exploitation of workers by the federal government than just an undying love for one’s country.

Americana as a concrete genre was more popular in the mid-late 20th century, but its spirit is long from gone—one of the best contemporary examples is Jason Isbell, a grassroots musician from Northern Alabama, who has cited Bob Dylan as one of his greatest musical influences. His 2001 album with the Drive-By Truckers titled Southern Rock Opera covers similar themes to traditional Americana, with a focus on racial politics and Southern identity.

Unfortunately, Americana is on the decline, but its legacy as one of the most defining elements of American culture will persist for an indefinite amount of time. During our next period of political turmoil, those who fight on behalf of democracy and the populists will look towards the great Americana writers of the the 1960’s and 70’s for influence and comfort.

Image via Wikimedia.