An American Song

23 Apr

For nearly ten years, I could not listen to music without really knowing why. Any song, but especially voices in polyphonic harmony caused me either great emotional pain or annoyance. All I wanted was silence. In the car, in the house, in the world. I have a clear memory of returning from a Celtic festival in 2007 listening to a CD from Seven Nations and literally keening to high harmony. As I steered the car around the Beltway, the voices and notes linked into my soul much too deeply and a vast ocean of raw emotion was revealed. In that time, connection to artistic form was too intense, too close and I could not allow its energy near. Music moved me without much persuasion. However, last spring I slowly began to listen again to songs I loved once, a long time ago.

I am not your rolling wheels
I am the highway
I am not your carpet ride
I am the sky
I am not your blowing wind
I am the lightning
I am not your autumn moon
I am the night. . .
The night.

And once started, I ate it like a starving child. Music fed my flame. I couldn’t stop. Lyrics called to me. Rhythms took me into dream, into memory, the notes translating my emotion into sound beyond word. And since, I have wandered from those old beloved songs through genre after genre until now, landing into something that intrigues me intensely not just musically but culturally: Americana.

With spring’s slow onset, daily runs with bluegrass and old time carry me forward. A search then began for live experiences. After a chat about my love for bluegrass with one of my friends, he suggested a performance by the Carolina Chocolate Drops at the Jefferson in Charlottesville. The opportunity seemed perfect. I’d never heard of them, but that concert unknowingly opened a door for me to satisfy this new penchant for “southern roots” music. In dancing and connection, a deep happiness blossomed which has carried me for weeks. Country Girl, Cornbread and Butterbeans, even a remake of Hit ‘Em Up Style had me alternately flat footin’ and hip poppin’. The quartet’s style is so unusual, a curious modern re-visioning of bluegrass, old time country, R&B and early 20th century jazz; all of it was an amazing new encounter. A cultural interest in traditional instruments and the links back to Scots and Irish roots also endeared the band to me. When their lead singer Rhiannon Giddens performed a puirt a beul (gaelic mouth music), I was keeping time with a boot heel and hand to the thigh, calling out at every emotional turn. In singing of an ethnic cultural past, the slave narrative of Julie shone most brightly in this musical form. I didn’t know what to call it, but I knew I had to hear more. Even in watching dancers from Good Foot Dance Company, I began to see convergence culture for the first time. For someone who has been in a dark silence musically for over a decade, this type of audio fusion was enough to completely capture my senses.

As a result, the fueling for traditional and bluegrass edged live music has delivered me to the Ciderworks and Rapunzel’s and then finally, this past weekend to DxDT in Roanoke, Virginia. The Down by Downtown festival celebrates local music by providing venues for the numerous artists of all musical genres in the Roanoke Valley. When had I last seen a local band perform or even had choices among them? In the recent past, modern consumer culture has delivered to public approval only “marketable” bands, those who had potential for profit in one form or another. But now, much like the early days of rock and roll, self promotion and production allows artists to present their efforts directly for public discernment. Through the advent of technology, all art forms are undergoing a local Renaissance, from what I have observed. While it does create more chatter, more need for sifting through the overwhelming volume of expression, it does allow more voices to be heard ….more perspectives of culture and diverse American life.

Friday night took me to Fork in the City to check out The Floorboards, a rock-blues- folk fusion band with audible ties to the Eagles and Van Morrison, with some Mellencamp and Stones thrown in for good measure. The songs were fresh and entirely danceable, Matt Browning’s vocals in clear strong harmony with fiddler- mandolin player Patrick Turner and Bob Chew’s blues guitar. The Floorboards musical blend was like an early evening ride down a mountain country road windows rolled down with a gang of friends, beer and bonfire to come.

A real treat during the evening was fifteen year old Gabe, a blues guitarist and singer invited to play a tune with the band. From the moment he began, I think all who were there would agree that we were witness to a musical virtuoso. And the fact that these ensemble moments happen in local venues extends the idea of the importance of community art expression and the connections which grow each artist within it. To me, this is the heart of a commitment to “local”.

On Saturday evening, I stopped at one of the market restaurants to hear a DxDT band, but soon found the atmosphere a bit seedy and the blues duo not too compelling. Down by Awful Arthur’s, I strolled into the waves of music. Venue after venue, the sound floated like flotsam on a sea, swirling between the brick and glass fronts of packed restaurants. Chilled night air was held back by curtains of lamplight and neon glow. I stopped to watch members of Another Roadside Attraction busking in front of the Market, soon amazed that not many stopped to enjoy, to take in the creativity and life of the street. After a song and a juggle, I swam through the crowd around the corner toward Fork in the Market, stumbling onto a raucous party featuring Welcome to Hoonah, another Americana style band with a unique eclectic blend of folk, country, zydeco, and blues. Spencer McKenna and Jessica Larsen’s vocals wound out song after country rootsi-fied song, blending guitar with old time washboard …yes, a washboard. Add violin, steel guitar, bass, drums and a swinging party and the tiny Fork dance floor flooded with the lot of us. And dance? Yes…yes we did indeed.

In thinking about this genre and the artists who comprise it that night, I texted a friend.

“I’m destined to be an Americana chick…I need ten years back.”

“But what does this mean?” she said.

And I don’t really know, honestly. These artists and the lot who love them are so creative and unique, at least the ones I’ve encountered. They seem to be making a world more attentive to the environment, committed to local art, craft and expression, and living a full and rich life by navigating two worlds, both real time and virtual space. I’ve labeled them Tech Hippies. They give me hope that the limits and excesses of ultra conservative materialist culture will be challenged and surpassed without renouncing all the positives that technology has brought to us. Maybe we’re just beginning to learn to balance another new world of thought and music which might take us all further toward home on this collective journey. It’s an American song I want to sing. . . with them.

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