In 2007, Marybeth Hamilton’s book In Search of the Blues opened a new doorway into the ever more monolithic edifice of “traditional” American music. Rather than just following meekly in the footsteps of Peter Guralnick, Robert Palmer and the legions of other distinguished writers and musicologists who’ve gone hunting for the holy grail of musical authenticity in the back roads of the American South, Hamilton had the courage to examine the process by which the gospel of the Delta blues was originally constructed.
At first sight, in It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways and the Search for the Next American Music, the American journalist Amanda Petrusich appears to have embarked upon a worthy companion project to Hamilton’s. The cultural assumptions underlying the folksy musical enclave sometimes dubbed “Americana” certainly merit in-depth investigation, and it would be very interesting to see to what extent any real continuity can be discerned between the kind of contemporary musicians revered by readers of Uncut magazine and the unheralded musical prophets of Greil Marcus’s “Old Weird America”.
So is this book going to finally solve the mystery of how and why what Petrusich plausibly defines as “20th-century, indigent, mostly rural music that is often connected with poverty and usually written on an acoustic guitar” became a cultural touchstone for a 21st-|century audience of techno-savvy early-adopters? Well, to a certain extent, yes. But perhaps not quite in the way its author intended.
Even before Petrusich has left her home in the fashionable Brooklyn enclave of Williamsburg (think of it as the Hoxton of the Big Apple) to head South on her own voyage of self-drive discovery, warning signs have started to appear about the true nature of her quest. Where you or I might simply walk out of our front door, Petrusich describes herself “Scrunching my nose to the smell of street-boiled, urine-soaked trash, corking my ears with headphones, curling myself away from sirens, body taut and defensively posed”.
Egotism has always been a big motivating factor in rock journalism, but in recent years the blogosphere’s exponential expansion of the opportunities for individual self-indulgence has opened up a new narcissistic frontier. And Amanda Petrusich explores that terrain with a pioneering zeal Davy Crockett would be intimidated by. “My whole body is craving the highway”, she confesses breathlessly, “and I am reminded again of my weird unshakeable affinity for Interstate 64”.
However much Petrusich loves music – and no-one who reads It Still Moves could doubt that her awareness of which Wilco albums it is a good idea to mention is genuine – she could never love the music itself as much as she loves the idea of herself loving it. “It’s half past midnight when I slip the first disc into my stereo” she writes, in the first of this book’s many carefully staged audio-visual epiphanies. “… I dance, shimmying backwards, ponytail swinging.”
As what is less of a narrative than a series of photo opportunities for the author’s inspired lifestyle choices unfolds, Petrusich’s determination to envision herself as the main character in a certain kind of US independent film becomes increasingly wearing. One minute she’s “pulling the car over to snap photographs and dip my toes in tiny gurgling creeks”, the next a particularly filling breakfast has caused her to “readjust my side-view mirrors and pat my belly apologetically”.
It’s not that Petrusich’s writing lacks descriptive power, just that her self-regarding and undifferentiated application of it leaves no room for a critical agenda. Had an editor only taken the time to strike out a few sentences such as “Leaning hard on the drinks counter, I dump powdered creamer into a cup of watery coffee, stirring vigorously with a red plastic straw”, that space could have been so much more profitably filled with consideration of the actual issues at hand.
Such as why the very validity of “Americana” as a genre is consistently called into question by those considered to be its leading practitioners. (Will Oldham, the pre-eminent Louisville singer-songwriter |better known as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, has identified this musical category as “racist”.) Or how the unfettered individualism of the 21st-century consumer can be reconciled with the impoverished collectivity which is folk music’s well-spring.
To that last question, Petrusich does ultimately supply an answer. A rare moment of scepticism about what she calls the “rote-signifiers of Williamsburg hipsterism” gives way to the following satori: “American apparel t-shirts, too much jewelry, choppy haircuts, skinny waists. We all look the same.”