Just One Degree of Separation: From Americana to the United Kingdom
We listened to a lot of traditional folk revivalist artists growing up. Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, and Joan Baez populated the family’s car CD collection. As I started to explore music a bit more on my own — with Spotify’s recommendations to guide me — I developed an even stronger, more individual taste in folk and Americana music. Artists like Jason Isbell, of whom I wrote earlier this year, Tyler Childers, John Prine, Zach Bryan, Josh Ritter, Chris Stapleton contributed to a good chunk of my listening minutes. These artists’ richly warm voices and fluid acoustic instrumentals made me feel cozy. They sparked that “wholesome vibe” my generation seems to speak of frequently. And they reminded me a lot of my family and fireplaces.
When I moved to the UK, I thought my setting change meant that I would be leaving this sound behind, that folk and Americana were inherently un-British, and that I should spend a bit more time with my other musical loves: Arctic Monkeys, the Kooks, the Strokes, Interpol, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Eagles, and We Were Promised Jetpacks. These were British culture classics. They were the British sound I had in my head. And they lived on the other side of the pond, far away from my Americana.
Americana-style folk music is actually not uncommon in St Andrews. Brother-duo Cal and Ally played Jason Isbell’s “Cover Me Up” on Market Street. The folk songs played in the One Under Bar sounded familiar. I heard a more country-style soundtrack on the speakers on my first trip to Assai Records in Dundee. The music in St Andrews did not seem foreign from the Americana I associated with my walks at home. There was an obvious connection and community of this seemingly American style in St Andrews, so I decided to take a closer look into the background of the genre.
As explained by MasterClass, folk music and the Americana sub-genre are defined primarily by three characteristics: acoustic instrumentals, English words, and ‘regional authenticity.’ The genre of music did not just follow one line of American historical development; it grew from many different places and cultures: enslaved West Africans and French settlers both strongly contributed to the sound’s evolution. They paved the way for the aforementioned artists, Joni Mitchell, the Seegers, the big names we view as the initial embodiment of folk revivalism and Americana. I learned even more about settlers from England and Scotland shaping the Appalachian tunes. These settlers over time inspired the Americana sound, laying the groundwork for not just Mitchell, Seeger, and Prine, but also for Isbell, Tyler Childers, Zach Bryan, Maggie Rogers, etc.
These settlers and the folk revivalists still pursued a relationship with the UK even after the sound moved across the Atlantic British culture furthered its influence on the sound I considered definitively American. Mark Slobin in his brief introduction to folk music writes of the ballad, often a European song focused on a specific story with short verses typical to folk music and its development from British culture in the classic American culture. Slobin explains “The reasons that ‘Barabara Allen,’ the most collected ballad, is so much more popular in the United States than in the British Isles might have to do with its frequent publication in American songbooks.” I discovered not only the roots of the ballad and its success Stateside but also of the early Americana pioneers’ travels to England. Ronald D. Cohen and Rachel Clare Donaldson in Roots of the Revival detail early folk singer Jack Elliott’s move to London, where he “would be a cultural sensation and cement closer ties between folk songs and their communities across theAtlantic.”Cohen and Donaldson explain that Slim Whitman’s hit “Rose Marie” remained on the UK’s singles chart for 11 weeks. Not only did the folk genre, and the umbrella category of what I understand as Americana music, hold strong roots in Britain but also the original 20th-century folk artists maintained dialogue with the UK and developed a transcontinental relationship. Today, we see British bands like Mumford & Sons channeling the seemingly American sound and look. But what some might consider a façade, I consider a potential continuation of these Americana roots and the US-UK folk relationship.
So when I heard Isbell playing on Market Street, of the Country 2 Country festival in Glasgow and London, and the familiarity of the classic British folk music groups, I understood how the folk and country artists’ performances in the UK made a bit more sense. The genre of my home was inspired and perpetuated by the sounds and communities of Britain.
As it turns out, my love for the genre was not necessarily triggered by any sort of uniquely American aspect but a rich international musical conversation. My American citizenship didn’t draw me to the music. The music showed me this America. I first learned of John Prine not sitting around a firepit with a banjo, but through Maggie Rogers and Jason Isbell’s tribute posts after his death in April 2020. My arrival at the Americana music stop was not more natural, really than anyone else who found themselves perusing Spotify and Instagram. My love for Americana music, therefore, seemed even a bit less American.
Today, I hear Americana and other traditional folk styles and still think of my family drives across New England. But I consider the genre more deeply now, where it came from, who inspired it. And I understand fully its role during my time back in St Andrews: a sound not to leave behind.