Why do I love all these strains of American (by which I mean rock, country, blues, soul, folk – I’ve never really been exposed to native American) music so much? I mean, it’s not like we Celts have been exactly backward in the music-making department. Nor indeed has the British Isles (by which I mean what’s currently known as the United Kingdom and Ireland) failed to contribute to the rock genre especially, be it the original Brit Invasion of the Sixties by the Beatles, the Stones, et al, the kick up the ass our jolly punkers gave the flabby US rock scene in the mid to late Seventies, or the continuing cross-fertilisation that flies, by digital means, across the Atlantic to this day.
I guess the answer is I, like many other earnest young aspiring musos, wanted to hear the original, albeit by my day those originals were serving up differing ladlefuls of that musical gumbo called Americana – people like Dylan and Springsteen, who mixed the genres up as they damn well pleased, rather than being purists in any one of them. It’s not like I didn’t appreciate the home grown talent of the time, such as Elvis Costello. It’s just that I recognised, like him, that when I made music of my own, it was American soil I was growing it from.
I was reminded of this recently when I did a gig with my Aldora Britain Records stablemate, Joel David Weir, on tour from the US, when he referenced several Scottish musicians that had influenced him. Well, he was playing in an Edinburgh cellar bar, I suppose, but all the same – to hear an American musician, whose work is steeped in Americana, acknowledge any Scottish influence in his work at all was kind of touching.
Of course, I’m not alone in this – nor indeed are the Brits and Irish so terribly different from other countries in that regard: from desert blues to the Japanese obsession with rock n’ roll, the world has been in thrall to all forms of Americana for the best part of a century now (George Gershwin, anyone?) I’m currently reading Sylvie Simmons’s excellent biography of Leonard Cohen, I’m Your Man, and discovering just how much a fan of country music he was, even living intermittently in Tennessee and recording in Nashville for many years.
Incidentally, the song on my current EP, ‘I Surrender,’ owes a lot in structure, and in general mood, to Cohen’s ‘Bird on a Wire.’ I genuinely didn’t realise that when I was writing it: the 12-bar blues that forms the main part of the song, together with the lift, was just a blues structure to me, on which I could hang the most outrageous analogies I could think of:
…but of course, now it’s done, I recognise the similarities.
But then, that’s the thing with Americana, isn’t it? There are basic song structures there, worn in like a pair of well-loved blue jeans, that have been slung on by legends like Hank Williams or B.B. King and then thousands of other songwriters since. A twelve bar structure of chord 1, chord 4, up to chord 5 and back again, runs like a lonesome train line through the American musical landscape. Folks have electrified it, put fuzz on it, speeded it up to punk velocity, stripped it back to pedal steel and acoustic guitar, and then gone back round to the start again, almost from time immemorial.
And the words that have gone along with them! So often of course about some from of alienation: being in the wrong town, with the wrong woman or man, stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again. No wonder that it spoke to Leonard, a minority (Jewish) within a minority (English speaking Montreal) within a minority (Quebecois), just the same as it spoke to millions of kids like me, many years later, growing up in what felt like the edge of the world, largely forgotten by our ruling classes 500 miles away.
No matter that the roots of that alienation, certainly as regards the blues, came from people oppressed by other people my colour and ethnic origin (Scotland’s links to the slave trade aren’t hard to track down). That emotion, from old blues ballads and lonesome country songs alike, infected the first generation of teenagers after the war, and their songs in turn gave us the same bug in a different variant.
There have been times recently when I’ve thought Americana, even in its most virulent form of rock n’ roll, was dying out. Rap and hip-hop seem to me to have little or nothing connecting them to Americana, however much their basic purpose of speaking to people about a shared experience or aspiration is the same. However, Joel’s second gig of the day – at the memorably named Purple Orange venue in Bathgate – gave me some hope I was wrong.
Bathgate, which features in the Proclaimers’ classic song ‘Letter to America’ as one of the post-industrial towns that are ‘no more,’ is very much still there, although in somewhat reduced circumstances, as Craig and Charlie point out. Like so many towns in Scotland’s Central Belt, and elsewhere in the world, it’s a community founded on industries which have long since passed away, with all the attendant social ills that come from such industrial bereavement.
Be that as it may, Joel’s set on the night was preceded by kids – and I mean teenagers – playing guitars. More than that, they were drawing their cover versions from the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties – their parents’ – even grandparents’ – record collection. It was kind of bizarre, but nevertheless heartening, for an old guy like me who’s been in thrall to guitar-driven popular music ever since being in thrall to any kind of music at all.
My current EP, put together before and after the pandemic with the considerable help of my pals Gerry Callaghan and Norman Lamont, could loosely be called Americana. Aside from the aforesaid ‘I Surrender,’ there’s a similarly Cohenesque song called ‘The Devil and the Snowflake,’ ‘Rollercoaster,’ which I’d describe as American folk in style, as I would ‘I Still Believe,’ and the outlier, ‘Due Ceremony,’ a straight lift of a tune written in the 18th century in Scotland to back lyrics which nearly led me to call the EP ‘Tales of Torture and Redemption.’
As I work towards a full album towards the end of this year, though, I intend to release another EP of some of its songs with a more definite Americana slant, called ‘Letter to Dead End, Indiana.’ Not that my pal Joel comes from somewhere called Dead End, but I thought the alliteration with his home state worked well: just as he grew up listening to some Scottish American-influenced bands, I hope the next generation of kids might tune into some Americana that’s boomeranging back to them from the Old Country. I’m a little past mounting a British Invasion of my own, but you can still dream as you approach your bus pass.
I’ve been going through something of a crisis of confidence about my writing – especially my songwriting – recently. Who the hell do I think I am? Who am I trying to impress? Both my parents are gone. My brother and sister, wife and daughter, would support my rationalisation if I limited my written output from here on in to signing my name on the gas bill.
Then of course there are the moments when, exiting an open mic night, total strangers ask where they can hear your songs again. Even this blog, hurriedly thrown together and lacking the three more passes than it’s going to get for a proper edit, might one day reach out and touch someone.
Likewise my songwriting. Maybe that kid in Dead End, Indiana, will hear a turn of phrase that unlocks a chamber in their own heart and mind. Maybe.
In the meantime, if you can give a listen to ‘I Still Believe,’ I’d be ever so grateful. All proceeds from sales of this go to the Red Cross for their Ukraine Appeal – I’ve raised a grand total of fifty quid so far – so feel free to buy a track or two.
Incidentally, the story behind the pictures of me in Wild West territory will be revealed in a future blog – I hope. Until then, I will only say that I can travel to their location using that bus pass when it arrives.
All will be revealed!
Terrific essay. I think that the various strains of guitar-based Americana are alive and well. I hear a lot of them on various SiriusXM channels, often by musicians I barely heard of before, if at all.
Amen to that, Neil!
welp. this is fantastic. and it turns out… i was there.. and ITS ALL TRUE!!!!!
love this. and… it turns out.. ITS ALL TRUE!!!! I WAS THERE!!! xoxo
Dead End, IN forever
[…] trying to sell my own music to you. Well, this is that word: some time ago, back in July in fact, I mentioned I was working on an EP of Americana-flavoured songs as my next […]