SA4: What Is American Music?

This issue begins to ask the question “What is American Music?” It’s a topic so huge and undefined that this is the first of many issues that we’ll, from time to time, dedicate to it’s definition. As usual, I’ve tried to take multiple circuitous paths in this quest and, as usual, they’ve taken me to a place completely different than where I expected to end up. My initial fascination with this question grew out of a growing dissatisfaction with the arrogance of the idea that American music is classified like a food pyramid with a big base of jazz and blues, tapering up through bluegrass, r n’ b, gospel, zydeco and ending with some random micro-genre such as country swing. This attitude presupposes that a certain amount of “helpings” of these genres are needed to create a healthy picture of what America sounds like. The plotting of a nation’s musical heritage is so much more complex and satisfying than that, and I wanted to, as an exercise, figure out if I could create a better definition. I wasn’t so naïve as to think that I was the only one asking this question, and it was ridiculously easy to find people that were working slavishly on their definitions of the American musical canon, and ultimately I found that SA #4 became an homage to them. One person whose work immediately captured me was Ian Nagoski. If you don’t know Ian or his work, you will by the end of this issue. He’s featured in an interview podcast, streaming video of a recent lecture in Sweden on his magnificent 3 cd set of unheard Turkish American music from the early 20th century, and a magnificent 27 track playlist of tracks from his research into lost and rarely heard 78 rpm records of American immigrant music. There is no need for a biography in this introduction, as I want to urge you to discover his personality through the many different avenues provided in the following pages. As you’ll discover, his journey is not one that can be easily set down in black and white. As I look back at the primary material that makes up this issue, the position I find myself in is that, while there is a partial answer to the question “What is American Music,” contained in the following pages, it comes out of a exploration of a specific personality type: the archeologist of sacred items, the medium of lost voices, the street corner preacher of the importance of our lost musical past. All the people in this issue have an element of at least one of these archetypes. I think the partial answer to the question of what American is, comes from what these people are passionately trying to tell us American music was and can be in the future. Of course, the history of our music must be defined by examining the people who have made it and continue to make it, but I think it’s fitting that the first of these issues examines the people that have been quietly trying to get us to wake up and listen to the music of our past for the first time.

Ian Nagoski Mixtape

 This issue of Sound American isn't a simple look at those who collect records any more than it's a discussion of the overriding passion these people feel to be custodians of unheard music. It's a vision of American music, yes, but also an attempt to find out what makes those who champion their vision live and breathe.There is a depth of experience and rigor of thought that goes into the decisions everyone in this issue have made and continue to make every day; be it pragmatic business decisions or artistic curatorial ones, each person that has undertaken this strange, undefinable course has had to find a philosophy to structure these decisions on, even if it's a subconscious one. Ian Nagoski has a philosophy. He has a number of philosophies, all of them thought through, articulated, and communicated with a near religious fervor. This is one of the reasons that we have made him the centerpiece of this strange issue and why he continues to be a spokesman for the rescue and restoration of music, and its subsequent release into a world that's ready to experience and discuss it again. His Sound American Mixtape is no different. Curated as tightly as one of his many releases, he takes on a corner of his philosophy, in this case the idea of "America" in music, and fleshes it out to make his point. As he puts it in his own words: Since I began digging around in 78 rpm discs and got connected to collectors of them almost two decades ago, it has become increasingly apparent to me that "America" as a musical idea is a problem. This particular set of performances were all recorded in the US and its territories during the period of about 1912-55 or else in nearby countries (Cuba, Colombia, Canada) or elsewhere by residents of the US (Odette Kaddo). The purpose of presenting music by, for instance, many recently-off-the-boat immigrants of that period is at least two-fold: first, to help in whatever small way, to disseminate and make living in the hearts of those able to hear it the music of these artists whose playing is so obviously (to me) beautiful, and who are all now gone from the world of the living themselves, whether they were celebrated in their time or not. Obscurity should belong only to the untalented and boring, and I find it strange that that isn't always the case. Secondly, I wish for American musicians and listeners to continue to question what is or isn't "American." Certainly this isn't the most complete way of opening those questions, even from the decades in question. Where is Hindemith or any number of other musicians from the trained elite from Europe? They should be here, too. But I assume that listeners will be able to find many of those recordings on their own, even if it takes a little looking. For this mixtape I have drawn instead from middle- and lower-class musicians, wanting to give the impression of musics that are equal in grace, dignity, and refinement regardless of the affluence that training might have implied from the years presented. It is clear to me from my time listening to old records that there is a great mystery at the center of music. It is a play with sound and every participant in that, reaching back through the millenia, should be honored equally with any notable personage in the century-and-then-some since recordings have started to be made. I hope you, reading this, are one who will participate and carry that mystery onward and expand on the joy that it can bring. - Ian Nagoski 2012 Enjoy the playlist, listen to it as many times as you can during the three months that this issue is live, and take a moment to experiment with the sense of discovery and do research on the music that moves you the most. If there is one great lesson to learn from Ian and those in this issue that have taken on this social role, it's that the great joy of unearthing the life and music of the past, learning about the people that made it and spending time thinking about what led them to this moment in time can be instructive to your own philosophy and can broaden your connection to the human race.

Mijwiz Dabka

Grito Vagabundo

Bokra Bokra pt 1

Funeral Song

Raks Camille

Funeral Pyre, pt 1

Neva Rast Gazel

Omaha Flute Music

Nivahend Karshilima

Aloha Hawaii

Sklavia tes Manes (Slavery)

To Kalogeraki

Syrto Kikladitiko

Noces de tit Pierre

Huzam Taxim

Polka Canadienne

Abdomun Mezari

Wsciekla Polka

Al ja za yer

Oj, Diwczyno, Diwczynonku

Zaapateo Cubano

Crazy Polka

Untraced Song