A basketball-tall and talented kid named Eric Hanke came to last week’s Americana music festival in Nashville to meet some people and sing some songs. I didn’t ask him his height, but he records for Ten Foot Texan Records.
Eric’s family came to Texas from St. Joseph, Michigan, where his great-grandfather, grandfather and father had worked at an auto brake plant. The jobs are gone now, the brakes made in Brazil or China. His heartfelt song, "The War," is about his brother heading off to Iraq just as the neighbor boy next door comes home from the occupation in a coffin.
The unbowed Hanke is enduring the soul-wrenching national nightmare of today’s American common man. Still, he is earnest and soft-spoken, and I couldn’t get him to complain.
"As a songwriter, I just write about what I see and what I know," he said matter-of-factly. Phil Gramm, listen up. Hanke’s not whining. He is singing.
There’s plenty to sing about these days. George W. Bush and his cronies are packing their suitcases with a trillion dollars of our money in the political equivalent of an armed stick-up.
Vice President Dick Cheney, with a telltale heart straight out of Edgar Allen Poe, has been purloining wire transfers for his contractor buddies in Iraq.
I imagine the Republicans’ successor-nominees have their own raid-the-treasury, Bonnie-and-Clyde fantasies. But they’re too late, even if they manage to hijack a White House hide out. Bush and Cheney hit the bank first.
Examining the transformative potential of art and music in the midst of our national catastrophe might seem less than newsworthy. It seems less urgent just at the time it is most urgent to take up the task. We are now in one of those dangerous and uncertain times, and without the guidance of soulful and committed artists, we don’t stand a chance.
Think of it as the Truth and Beauty antidote to the Shock Doctrine.
Also, Nashville might seem an unlikely place to go to look for magic teleporting spells that might return the country to somewhere near the lost precincts of economic justice and democratic decision-making. The Tennessee town’s corporate boots-and-suits barons have been little more than right wing propaganda hacks since the late ’60s.
But last week there were more scuffed work shoes in Nashville than polished alligator boots. Maybe there always have been. Last week, the old, worn shoes came on the feet of singer-songwriters from around the country who are creating something like a new cultural movement. They call it Americana.
Right off the bat I’ve got to say this is no political protest movement like many imagine (incorrectly) some of the early ’60s music to have been. Certainly, there were brilliant, important and popular anti-war and civil rights songs back then, but the artistic reactions, expressions and resistance to a rising American authoritarianism was always deeper, more complex, and more artistically interesting than simple songs of protest (as powerful as such work was then and can be now).
The Americana movement is organic to the point that no one can really describe it. Musician and songwriter Jim Lauderdale, who emceed the American Awards show, told me he thought it had to do with "rawness," with an honest, "stripped down" aesthetic that based its licks on great American musical traditions: gospel, bluegrass, folk, country, blues etc. Lauderdale’s right, but this is not the stuff manifestos are made of. And that’s a critically good thing. I don’t think Americana’s loose collection of artists could be didactic or dogmatic if they tried to be.
I can’t even be sure about the politics of everybody that came to the Americana Music Association annual festival. That, too, is a good thing, because nothing kills art faster than uniform thinking. I talked to a Texas couple who’d bought a small-town radio station a couple of years ago, and we were way into a long conversation about our shared cultural tastes before we noticed our different political outlooks were a little different.
Elsewhere, I described Americana this way, using a metaphor or model I’ve used before to point toward cultural expressions which by their nature contain powerful possibilities of political transformation:
In Australia, some displaced indigenous people have an egalitarian ritual tradition that re-connects them to one another and to the land they’ve been forcibly removed to. Inma kuwarritsa, it’s called. It means New Ritual. Every citizen of the community is expected to sing a song of new attachment, to the land and to each other.
That’s what Americana music is to us. We’re a nation of immigrants and displaced natives who won’t be still and won’t be quiet, and we reach again and again for one another in song and story. Hank Williams did it. So do Lil Wayne and the Dixie Chicks. And we sing and tell stories to one another in extraordinary numbers of garage bands, book clubs and, yes, bars.
I think Americana is a new name for a cultural tradition whose roots, reaching back to Native Americans, pre-dates the 17th Century European colonists. It was present in Revolutionary War songs. "Yankee Doodle" was a British drinking song re-worked to mock the rebellious colonists, and then those colonists re-worked it again to mock the Brits.
Americana’s driving force is present in our literature, from John Winthrop and Jonathon Edwards, through Ben Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, W.E.B. Dubois, and on and on.
The thing is, the industrial revolution, in its modern, post-modern, or post-post-modern forms, is always concentrating power away from the people and driving the people away from one other. Real art, literature and music has always been about reconnecting real folk and resisting those who oppress and separate us. In this sense, Plato was right, he just came down on the wrong side. Poetry is the enemy of the State.
Practical-minded Americans, including the old and new progressive movements, too often overlook the power of culture. (Living Liberally is proving we’re much better, actually.) And when it is recognized, it’s often, unjustly, in retrospect. Woody Guthrie was well-known, but he became a cultural icon long after the union movement reached its peak.
Of course, the transformative power of art often comes to the public’s attention when some button or other gets pushed and the censors pop out of their caves of sanctimony.
As part of the poignant and entertaining "Freedom Sings" show celebrating the 1st Amendment, Gene Policinski, director of the First Amendment Center, told Americana festival goers the hilarious story of the FBI investigation of the ’60s pop song, "Louie, Louie." He got it from journalist Dave Marsh’s book by that name.
In a nutshell, the FBI conducted a 30-month investigation of the song based on suspicions that it was corrupting America’s youth. Those suspicions were based upon nothing but concerned mothers overhearing the adolescent fantasies of young teen boys across America who thought (wrongly) that they heard some dirty lyrics in the song. The perfectly innocent lyrics, which the FCC subsequently ruled were "unintelligible at any speed," were simply mush-mouthed to incomprehensibility by a poor garage band singer in Seattle who’d just had his dental braces installed before his band, the Kingsmen, got their brief moment in a local recording studio.
The whole episode would make a great Americana song.
At a singer-songwriter circle in a small Nashville Convention Center room, rising star Grace Potter sang a song she’d written about her grandmother. The 84-year-old woman is in the hospital about to die, and she’s "heard about forgiveness" so she’s petitioning for mercy, noting that she might have been a bad mother and a bad wife, but she could sing.
Near the song’s end, the old woman sings, "Nurse, bring me my guitar."
I think that’s what America’s saying today. Our democracy’s disappearing, our economy’s been pillaged by pirates. We have hope. There’s a tough and forceful black man, Barack Obama, who hopes to overcome a nation torn by centuries of racial hatred and distrust and become our first African American President.
Like Grace Potter’s grandmother, this is a good time for America to reach for a guitar. Sing for mercy. And revolution.