All-Time All-American Musicians

During this week of great political frustration, perhaps it is best to turn our attention elsewhere for a moment. So...

The other day, I heard someone say that Aaron Copeland's Symphony No. 3 is the quintessential piece of American music. I couldn't agree. Classical music, even if it tries to incorporate "American" musical themes, never can be American at its core. It just doesn't grow out of the people here, no matter how much some of us may love it.

But the statement got me asking: Just who or what is best representative of American music? I flipped through a dozen or so answers, starting with Louis Armstrong and including Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers. I wasn't looking necessarily for the best, or even the most influential, but for the one (or ones) who best exemplify this country, its good as well as its bad.

Eventually, I came up with two (I could not bring it down to one--America just isn't that simple), one male, one female. One black, one white. One exquisite songwriter, one stupendous performer. One from country & western, one from the blues.

For me, Hank Williams and Bessie Smith cover more of what I find truly American in American music than any other two performers. Even individually, either of the two would be arguably the most American. Together, though, they are even more, for they represent that essential American dualism of African and European influence.

Ernest Hemingway, in Green Hills of Africa, wrote that ""All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn." Just so, all contemporary American popular music shows the influence of either Williams or Smith. Only jazz and classical remain unaffected... and the former has moved itself away from popular music and the latter never successfully moved towards it. America, for better or worse, is defined by its popular culture.

There would be no country & western today, certainly not as we know it, if it weren't for Hank Williams. Yes, Jimmie Rodgers ('the singing brakeman') and Ernest Tubb ('the Texas Troubadour') preceded him and influenced him, but Williams became a star at a level neither likely ever imagined. I remember, years ago, reading a biography of him called Sing a Sad Song.  The author thought Williams was rather stupid, and that bothered me.  I think he mistook simplicity for stupidity, for Williams did have a real simplicity, one in keeping with America and American culture, one that often still allows others in the world to see Americans as less sophisticated, more naive than themselves.  Like a great deal in American popular culture, Williams is deceptively simple.  Just look at a few samples of his lyrics removed from the songs and you will see that something rather complex and planned is going on:

The silence of a falling star
Lights up a purple sky
And as I wonder where you are
I'm so lonesome I could cry.

These shabby shoes I'm wearin' all the time
Are full of holes and nails
And brother if I stepped on a worn out dime
I bet a nickel I could tell you if it was heads or tails.

You have no heart, you have no shame;
You take true love and give the blame.
I guess that I  should not complain
I love you still: you win again.

Comb your hair and paint and powder; 
You act proud and I'll act prouder.
You sing loud and I'll sing louder:
Tonight we're settin' the woods on fire.

The range of Williams topics, while broad, always seems to come back to loss and the desire to get beyond it, to step out, to make the best of it, no matter what has gone before.  Exactly the same could be said for Smith, without whom contemporary blues might not even exist--not to mention r&b (rock & roll owes a huge debt to both of them).  There's an aggressive optimism to each, even in the face of failure.  Smith's first recording includes the lines:

Got the world in a jug
The stopper's in my hand
Going to hold it, baby, till you come under my command
Say, I ain't never loved but three men in my life
No, I ain't never loved but three men in my life
'T'was my father, brother and the man who wrecked my life.

Another recording, perhaps her last, includes this:

Do the Shim-Sham Shimmy 'til the rising sun.
Give me a reaper and a gang of gin.
Play me cause I'm in my sin.
Blame me cause I'm full of gin.

America, at its best, has something of a devil-may-care attitude, a willingness to try and lose, get up and try again.  And America travels, never satisfied at where it has been but always looking to set off down the highway once more (both Williams and Smith, significantly, died in cars or, in her case, after a wreck).

What's most depressing to me about this past week is that it may signal a loss of the real American spirit, replacing it with a parsimony completely out of keeping with the elan that has made America so wonderful even as it has produced phenomenal pain and heartache.  It's as though, so scared are we today, that we are willing to accept the meager rather than holding out either for the grand or the failure.

It may be safer, but safety, as the lives of Williams and Smith tell us, does not amount to a hill of beans in comparison to the magnificent successes (and failures, though we hate to admit them) stemming from American possibility.

No votes yet