IS ´AFRO-AMERICANA ´ ILL-DEFINED?
Norman Warwick hears several sides of an argument
Jake Blount (left) is an American musician, scholar and activist based in Providence, Rhode Island. He is a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist who draws upon old-time, bluegrass, and blues influences. He specializes in the traditional music of African Americans and indigenous peoples of the Southeastern Woodlands.
I am not sure I was aware of him before reading an article by him that took to task Geoffrey Himes, a writer I much respect and admire. Jake was responding with some anger to an article written by Geoffrey that, at that time, I hadn´t seen. So I reproduce the two articles in the order that I read them, though it should be noted that the article that seemed to be the bone of contention by Mr. Himes had been already edited in response to Jake´s ire. It seems to me, having now read what I have been able to find, that this less an argument about racial attitudes than it is about ownership and classification of music and certainly Jake seems to have tempered some of his initial reaction although his annoyance is still palpable in his writing, as you can see below.
written by Jake Blount, October 2021.
I am, admittedly, only an intermittent consumer of music journalism. I’m the type of artist who needs space from that sort of thing to get work done. Every now and then, though, a piece creates such an uproar in my musical community that I feel it warrants reading. The most recent example is Paste Magazine’s “Curmudgeon Column” on Black Americana artists, written by Geoffrey Himes. At first glance, I understood the outcry: The article is cutting and condescending, and a classic example of sexist arts journalism that arbitrarily pits women against one another. Himes proposes a separate (but presumably equal) musical genre for Black Americana artists called “Afro-Americana” while simultaneously condemning hip-hop and R&B as “straitjackets” for Black musicians. His thesis is that Black musicians are not as good as everybody thinks we are, and he has no qualms about naming and shaming artists who fail to meet his standards.
Of course, not everybody has to like everything. Himes is a music journalist. It’s his job to report honestly on what he sees and hears. It is also, however, Himes’s job to research the subject matter to be sure he understands it. His criticisms of Amythyst Kiah and Allison Russell make it clear that he has neglected this second duty. He finds their narratives and melodies insufficiently elaborate, but disconnected lyrical imagery and repetitive melodies have been considered hallmarks of Black music for hundreds of years. In his 1965 foreword to Newman I. White’s American Negro Folk-Songs* renowned folklorist Bruce Jackson wrote that “instead of weaving narrative elements to create a story, the Negro song accumulates images to create a feeling.”
* The book (right) is a collection of over eight hundred songs, representing most of the southern states and every type of negro folk-song. There are short chapters on twelve of the thirteen groups of songs, and longer chapters on the negro song in general and on religious songs. The full annotations show the history of each song and its connection with other published songs. There are indexes of titles and first lines, an extensive bibliography, and five appendixes containing specimens of tunes and of several types of early American songs closely related to the folk-songs of the negro. The serious student in this field will find the book not only a mine of information but the largest and most fully annotated collection yet published.
J. McKim made a similar observation over a century prior in his article “Negro Songs”
Each stanza contains but a single thought, set in perhaps two or three bars of music; and yet as they sing it, in alternate recitatives and choruses, with varying inflections and dramatic effect, this simple and otherwise monotonous melody will, to a musical ear and a heart susceptible of impression, have all the charm of variety.
That charm is—apparently, regrettably—lost on Mr. Himes. A more informed listener, however, might expect a song called “Black Myself” to exhibit traits commonly associated with Black music. In the case of Kiah’s song, as well as Russell’s album (left), the message of the work and the identity of the artist shape the music. Using sonic elements to imply certain messages or reference certain people, ideas or events is also common practice in Black music: Scholars have often applied the term “signifyin’.” Himes seems unaware of signifyin’ as a practice, or at least too unfamiliar with Black culture to grasp what is being signified and why. His complaints about the music boil down to “these songs are too Black.”
Again, Himes isn’t obligated to like the music. But I must ask: Why should we accept a white man’s subjective taste as a measure of quality for a song called “Black Myself”? For Russell’s heartrending tribute to her enslaved foremother, “Quasheba, Quasheba”? For that matter: Is a man with such a shallow understanding of Black music qualified to pass judgment on it? To write about it? To give it a new name?
Let’s talk about “Afro-Americana.” Himes’s newly coined term is problematic on multiple levels: first, in its close resemblance to earlier attempts to segregate the music industry through the production of “race records” and the confinement of Black artists to specific award categories at the Grammys. Second, in its redundancy: Black people have always been a part of Americana, because Americana was built with our sounds. Whether the hyphen is intended to segregate us out or tack us on as an afterthought, the implications are ahistorical and insulting. Third, in its apparent uselessness: Who needs this term, and what for?
In Himes’s article, “Afro-Americana” seems little more than an excuse to pit Black artists (particularly Black women) against one another, often in cases where no legitimate musical comparison can be made. Himes laments the Grammys “honoring (Black Pumas, right) when someone like Charley Crockett is still woefully underappreciated,” but is a psychedelic soul band like Black Pumas really in competition with a country singer like Crockett? Most would say the two are apples and oranges, and both deserving of recognition—but evidently not Mr. Himes. Here we may perceive the true, insidious utility of “Afro-Americana”: restructuring the genre so that Black artists must compete with one another in the Negro leagues for limited seats at the main table.
As I read through Himes’s piece, I found myself revisiting the same question time and time again: Why? The main thesis of the column seems to be that some Black Americana artists are bad, but he fails to cite anybody who argues that we’re all good. Why did he feel the need to so caustically refute an argument that no one is making? Why did he choose to deliver his points with such enthusiastic cruelty? Why is he so upset about the recent proliferation of successful Black artists in Americana?
As we wander sidetracks& detours around roots music becoming entangled in those roots is all part of the fun, but the arguments and condemnations above seem a little bit more serious .However, we must admit that although Jake Blount is clearly disturbed by what he has interpreted from Geoffrey Himes´ article, below, it does not feel to me like a hierarchical argument about the qualities of black and white, although it certainly could have more eloquently articulated, and that in itself is not a criticism I would ever need to say of his work. Of course we cannot speak on Mr. Himes´ behalf. We have always seen Geoffrey Himes as an invaluable and informed source on Americana music but our regular readers will know that we hate such categorisation and classification. I have always thought the Americana phrase came about in a bid to re-define the decidedly ´white ´ roads that ´country´ music followed. And yet, I often fall into the trap of ´that´s not folk´ or ´that´s not traditional music´ as if I even know and as if it even matters.´ Jake Blount is right, perhaps to cite, Geoffrey Himes observations that some white music doesn´t automatically include the recognition we might feel it deserves (within this tight Americana genre) but we would do well to remember how many (admittedly excellent) white artists picked up awards in the blues field whilst those who originated that music were overlooked. Its all pretty complex and on this occasion seems to have become quite vitriolic.
Sidetracks And Detours can only echo that John Stewart verse:
¨It´s alright. it´s only music
It is singing in the stars.
So keep your dreams as clean as silver.
Thís may be The Last Hurrah´.
I have always thought of journalists such as Mr: Blount and Mr. Himes as the good guys; the keepers of the flame. It is probably a good thing that guys like these tick and check each other but the edit disclaimer issued by Paste as they hastily revised the article below means that we can´t really reach any conclusion about what´s been did and what´s been hid. Perhaps the arguments from both sides slightly miss the targets. The great sin here is that music remains split into unrecognisable niche categories a couple of generations after we were all advised that what we really need is that great big melting pot, we were once promised, with room enough for all of us.
Geoffrey Himes (right) is an American music critic who has written weekly for the Washington Post since 1977. He also wrote for No Depression as a contributing editor in its first print era in the late 1990’s-early 2000’s and has written for Paste since 2004.
Afro-Americana: The Good, the Bad and the Transcendent
A Curmudgeon Column for Paste on line magazine
By Geoffrey Himes September, 2021
Paste Editor’s Note: Due to a breakdown in our editorial process, a previous version of this piece contained racially insensitive language that fell short of Paste’s standards. We sincerely apologize for the oversight, and will retain the updated piece to serve as a reminder of our intent to recognize reader feedback and accept responsibility when we falter.
One of the big stories of 2021 has been the growing emergence of younger African-American musicians working under the Americana umbrella. They’re exploring America’s rural-music tradition whether they emphasizes the blues of Robert Johnson and Mose Allison, the gospel of Pops Staples and Ralph Stanley, the country of Hank Williams and Charley Pride, the string-band music of Bill Monroe and Howard Armstrong, the Cajun/zydeco of Dewey Balfa (left) and Clifton Chenier, or the singer-songwriter folk of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. This new wave was prominent at the Newport Folk Festival in July and will be so again at Nashville’s Americanafest September 22-25.
There are many reasons to celebrate this movement—let’s call it Afro-Americana. This column has already discussed in detail some of the best recent Afro-Americana albums: Valerie June’s The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers, Sunny War’s Simple Syrup and Yasmin Williams’ Urban Driftwood. So we’ll just recommend them again and mention that June has been nominated for Best Album and Best Song at the Americanafest, and Williams will be showcasing there.
This year’s best Afro-Americana album, however, is Rhiannon Giddens’ They’re Calling Me Home, (right) her second as a duo with her Sicilian boyfriend Francesco Turrisi. Once again the combination of her lustrous mezzo and his virtuosity on folk instruments from Italy and nearby creates a gorgeous sonority, one rippling with sinuous rhythms and stacked with sympathetic harmonies. As the African and European folk traditions embrace, as they so often do in the Mediterranean and in North America, the beauty of the sonics is enhanced by the weight of that history.
On this project, that sound is applied to folk songs from Appalachia and Italy, to “Amazing Grace” and “O Death,” to a Civil Rights anthem and a Monteverdi madrigal. The uncluttered arrangements may sound simple, but such clarity and balance are not easy to achieve. And when an extra instrument is needed to complete the bouquet, the duo calls on Irish piper Emer Mayock or African nylon-string guitarist Niwel Tsumbu. The result is a world-music masterpiece in the truest sense of the genre.
Charley Crockett (left) is releasing two albums this year: last spring’s 10 for Slim: Charley Crockett Sings James Hand and this fall’s Music City USA. The latter is a 16-track, two-LP set of mostly original songs, a utopian fusion of classic country and classic R&B. Crockett calls it “Gulf & Western Music,” a blending of East Texas honky tonk and Houston jump blues as minimalist in their compact vocal lines and stripped-down arrangements as they are maximalist in their emotional impact. Providing the glue for the fusion is that tricky syncopation, that little skip-and-sit rhythm that prospers in Louisiana and Texas near the Gulf of Mexico.
Crockett has studied his sources well, as he proves on this spring’s tribute to James “Slim” Hand, an old-school honky tonker who befriended Crockett in Dallas and taught him how to put across longing and heartbreak with no frills and hair-raising twang. He’s applied those lessons beginning with his long-delayed debut album in 2015; he’s been making up for lost time ever since: Music City USA is his 10th album in six years. It’s also one of his best (along with Lonesome as a Shadow and The Valley).
The title track of the new album describes a newcomer to Nashville who can never get comfortable there. Like a lot of these songs, it blurs the borders between personal problems and social problems, suggesting that race, class and geography can complicate relationships and vice versa. This theme reaches its climax in “The World Just Broke My Heart.” As a small-town kid talks to a big-city bartender, he explains how it all ganged up on him: employers, women, landlords, strangers on the street. Over the pedal steel and subtle Texas swing, Crockett keeps his dignity even as he teeters on despair. It doesn’t get any better than that. He’s up for the Best Emerging Artist Award at the Americanafest.
Yola, who performed at both the Newport Folk Festival and the Newport Jazz Festival this year, is such a chameleon that she’s hard to pin down to a particular genre. Her impressive solo debut, 2019’s Walk Through Fire, was a genuine Afro-Americana project, a surprising country-soul hybrid by this big-voiced woman who talked with her native British accent but sang with a Southern American twang. She garnered a lot of press for this uncanny fusion, and then tossed that out the window for her sophomore record, produced like the first by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach.
Released in July, Stand for Myself abandoned those country flavors in favor of an anthemic pop-soul that recalled ABBA and Donna Summer. At Newport, Yola reinforced the point by covering songs by Elton John and Jill Scott, calling each singer “one of my favourites.” It was a risky gamble to ditch the Americana flavours that got her so much attention, but she wins the bet because her titanic voice is so warm and personable that it can make any material appealing.
Her voice is so good, in fact, that she doesn’t have to rely on diva tricks to grab an audience. If you listen closely, she uses note-bending embellishments only between lines, never when she’s singing actual lyrics. As a result, the story she’s telling is always clear, and the chorus hooks invite singing along. New songs such as “Starlight,” “Diamond-Studded Shoes,” “If I Had To Do It All Over Again” and the new album’s title track are all arena anthems waiting to happen, with earworm hooks, simple sentiments and a voice as open-hearted as it is lung-powerful.
Joy Oladokun, who has a songwriting credit on Yola’s latest project, also sang songs from a new album at the Newport Folk Festival. On her website, Oladokun is described as a “Delaware-born, Arizona-raised, and Nashville-based Nigerian-American singer, songwriter, and producer.” For someone who often writes about struggling as a gay teenager in a conservative immigrant church within a white Arizona community, her songs are impressively universal.
That she’s working as a songwriter in Nashville is a measure of her ambition and her talent. That she co-wrote and co-sings the song “Bigger Man” with country star Maren Morris is a measure of her professional success. That it’s hardly the best song on her new 24-song album, In Defense of My Own Happiness (Complete) (a remarkable expansion of last year’s In Defense of My Own Happiness (Beginnings), is a measure of her artistic success.
As a young, still evolving artist, she is still a bit inconsistent, but her instincts are sound. She doesn’t preach, but rather invites the listener along on a questioning search for answers. She doesn’t settle for generalizations; she finds sharply focused images to convey her feelings. Doubts are like cracks in a stained glass, she sings; they vanish if you step back far enough. Smoke from a neglected, smoldering joint stands in for the cloudiness of her plans. She sees God in a man with tattooed teardrops; a relationship falls apart like a paper bag being torn. A reluctant lover withholds her shine and provides only shade.
Better yet, she knows the value of understatement, both in her vocals and arrangements. She never pushes herself at the listener but instead invites one in. Even when she adds strings or horns, they hover in the background, merely adding flavor to the narrative. As fine as the new album is, Oladokun gives every sign of having even better records ahead.
Queen Esther has lent her voice to such jazz bandleaders as James “Blood” Ulmer, Elliott Sharp and J.C. Hopkins, but on her solo albums she has emphasized the Americana sounds of her South Carolina childhood. On her latest album, Gild the Black Lily, she demonstrates how thoroughly she has internalized those hillbilly and country-blues styles of the past and how inventively she recasts them in an African-American present.
The album begins with her own composition, “Black Cowboy,” a relaxed celebration of her attachment—and her right—to the open prairies. Another original, “The Whiskey Wouldn’t Let Me Pray” is a worthy addition to the honky-tonk tradition of drowning one’s sorrows. “This Yearning Thing” reminds one of the blues snaking through Hank Williams’ music. The breadth of her inspirations is obvious in her cover tunes, which stretch from Blind Willie Johnson’s 1930 blues hymn, “John the Revelator,” and George Jones’s 1962 honky-tonk classic, “She Thinks I Still Care,” to the Eagles’ 1975 country-rock hit, “Take It to the Limit.” Queen Esther, who performs at the Americanafest, makes them all her own.
Kingfish, also slated to play Americanafest, has just released his sophomore album, 662, titled after the North Mississippi area code where he grew up and still lives. Born Christone Ingram in Clarksdale, Kingfish first made his name as a guitar prodigy, a Stratocaster specialist who could play so fast and clean as a teenager that Buddy Guy volunteered to act as his mentor. Ingram’s 2019 debut album, Kingfish, showcased those skills, but the follow-up offers something more, a broadening of his interests into other areas of Americana, especially Southern Soul, swamp-funk and soul-jazz.
After several years on the road as a professional musician, he wanted to write more personal, more nuanced lyrics and those new songs demanded more understated vocals and more sophisticated chord changes. There’s a touch of jazz in the terrific lost-love ballad, “You’re Already Gone.” A slippery syncopation accompanies Delta memories of his dad at the tire shop and mosquito swarms at dusk on the title track. His Black Lives Matter song, “Another Life Goes By,” is a slow blues with a mournful murmur and nicely spaced guitar phrases. Ingram’s producer and co-writer Tom Hambridge has helped the young artist take a big step forward.
Perhaps the most acclaimed Afro-Americana album of 2021 has been Allison Russell’s Outside Child. It’s an object lesson in the tendency of a great backstory to short-circuit journalists’ aesthetic judgment. Russell was formerly one-half of the underwhelming folk duo, Birds of Chicago and the weak link in the all-star quartet Our Native Daughters. For her first solo album, she creates a song suite about the sexual abuse she suffered from her stepfather in Montreal.
The story is indeed horrific, and her courage in tackling it is impressive. Unfortunately, neither factor is a guarantee of compelling songcraft. Her melodies are generic, following predictable triad notes and toggling between line endings that are ascending or descending. Her lyrics stitch together cliches such as these: “I’m a midnight rider, a stone-bonafide night flyer. I’m an angel of the morning too, the promise that the dawn will bring you.”
Russell tries to compensate for these meager materials by coating her vocals in pseudo-profundity. Syllables are held out in portentous purrs; consonants are swallowed so the vowels can swell with connotations; timbre is left limp to invite pity. Producer Dan Knobler assists in this effort by keeping the tempos slow, the echo heavy and the embellishments gratuitous. The results have little of the power of such domestic-abuse songs as Tracy Chapman’s “Behind the Wall,” Suzanne Vega’s “Luka,” the 10,000 Maniacs’ “What’s the Matter Here” or even Sunny War’s “Shell.”
When Russell presented many of her new songs at the Newport Folk Festival, they didn’t work any better than on the album. It’s too bad, for she has good politics, a handsome alto and the ability to add surprising clarinet solos to Americana songs. One song from the project, “Persephone,” her description of a teenage lesbian affair, hints how good she could be if her verbal imagery and melodic contours were always so sharply defined. Instead most of her set was as sappy as those by Katie Pruitt and Nathaniel Rateliff at the same festival. Russell will be both a performer and an awards nominee at the Americanafest in Nashville.
Amythyst Kiah (right) was Russell’s bandmate in Our Native Daughters, along with two members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops: Giddens and Leyla McCalla. Like Russell, Kiah is a much better singer than songwriter, a paradox as apparent on her new solo album, Wary + Strange as it was on Songs from Our Native Daughters. ”Black Myself,” the one song that appears on both releases, is symptomatic: a strong, chant-like vocal and a worthy topic are undermined by the lack of a tune or a story beyond the title. It falls far short of Mickey Guyton’s similar “Black Like Me.”
The same strengths and weaknesses were apparent when Kiah sang “Wild Turkey” from the new album at Newport. One more song about trying to assuage heartbreak with whiskey, it was too predictable to distinguish itself from the dozens of its predecessors. Like Russell, Kiah tended to add echo and to extend vowels to gin up some interest unprovided by the songwriting. Nonetheless, Kiah is up for two awards at the Americanafest this month.
The Black Pumas won the 2020 Grammy Award for Best New Artist, but when the group performed at the Newport Folk Festival, it was hard to imagine what the voters were thinking. Were they not around in the ‘70s and ‘80s when funk-rock acts such as Rick James, Cameo, the Isley Brothers, the Ohio Players, Con Funk Shun, Rufus, the Bar-Kays and the Commodores were a dime a dozen? Eric Burton, the Black Pumas’ lead singer, had clearly studied videos from that era, for every bit of R&B schtick that he pulled out to the delight of the young rock fans in the crowd was so old the gimmick should be collecting social security.
The old show-biz tricks wouldn’t matter if the Pumas’ songs were as catchy and as danceable as those of their inspirations. But they weren’t. Every time the hint of a hummable chorus or danceable groove seemed to be developing at long last, guitarist Adrian Quesada would stomp it to death with an over-the-top, arena-rock guitar solo.
The old show-biz tricks wouldn’t matter if the Pumas’ songs were as catchy and as danceable as those of their inspirations. But they weren’t. Every time the hint of a hummable chorus or danceable groove seemed to be developing at long last, guitarist Adrian Quesada would stomp it to death with an over-the-top, arena-rock guitar solo. Why are the Grammies honouring these guys when someone like Charley Crockett is still woefully underappreciated?
Had the terms Americana and Afro-Americana never been invented, then this argument might never have happened. I think both parties in this debate are fiercely defending a genre of music they love and want to protect but sometimes, even with the most eloquent of writers words fail and are read or heard not at all in the way they were spoken or written or intended.
The primary sources for this article were written by Geoffrey Himes, for Paste on line magazine and responded to by Jake Blount in a piece dispersed on line and in print.
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