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Preview: Inventing America

Barbican Centre, London

As London's Barbican revs up its engine, pulls down its visor and gets into gear for the "Inventing America" festival, the year-long celebration of American culture and music that opened yesterday with exhibitions of Harley-Davidson motorbikes and Shaker furniture (a neat pairing, you have to admit), it's hard to suppress the thought that, just as the stable or garage door is being bolted, the mighty steed has bolted too.

For much of the American music that the festival is celebrating - there are special mini-festivals on gospel, bluegrass, country, cajun, blues and native American music set to follow the programme of classical music and jazz that begins this week - is already an endangered species. Neglected at home, its natural habitat is beginning to look more and more like a Barbican-style museum of bygone musical modes.

The rich regional culture that threw up Louisiana cajun and zydeco, Mississippi delta blues, Southern rockabilly, Western Swing and Appalachian country music has suffered badly from the creeping homogenisation of US life, and what is left is in decline. You have to think that for a young truck driver growing up in Tupelo, Mississippi, these days, the radio isn't going to be of much use, as it's more likely to be playing the global sounds of Garth Brooks or Celine Dion than blues and bluegrass.

This makes the world we have lost seem even more poignant. It also provides a handy peg for name-checking the many unsung geniuses of American popular music for whom "Inventing America" is already too late.

But first, an anecdote. Ten years ago a friend and I took a musical, journey from Newark, New Jersey, to Lafayette, Louisiana, inspired by obscure country and rhythm and blues records and Charlie Gillett's book Honkytonkin' USA. Arriving eventually at what was to be the El Dorado of the quest - the Ville Platte, Louisiana, home of Jin and Swallow Records, Sixties purveyors of regional swamp-rock, the expectation was almost unbearable. What would this temple to cajun-dialect rock'n' roll look like? Would it be a funky shack piled high with unsold cardboard cartons of records by Rocking Sidney and Johnny Allen? Would the owner, Floyd Soileau, perhaps be sitting out on the stoop playing an accordion?

As we parked the rental car near the Main Street store with a big "Floyd's" sign over the window, the reality came as a terrible shock, for Floyd's, basically, was a Louisiana branch of Curries. The window was full of white goods, with fridges and cookers taking the place of the fondly imagined racks of unspeakably rare singles and albums. Inside, next to the toasters and the blenders, was a small rack of New Orleans albums and we rifled through it enthusiastically until we realised that you could get the same stock in Camden Town at a discount.

Trying desperately - and against all the evidence - to maintain our enthusiasm, we would go out to find Cajun bands in Lafayette or Beaux Bridge, and sit glumly among the pitiful handful of punters. "I knew you guys was from England", a zydeco band-leader would say at the end of the set, "Because you applauded! We all just got back from playing in Camden Town."

In New Orleans, the legendary Tipitina's club was closed. In Baton Rouge the bar-bands were playing disco. In Nashville, we went to the Country Music Hall of Fame and looked, under glass cabinets, at the crumpled envelopes Hank Williams had written his lyrics on. On a Sunday night, even the honky-tonk bars on the Strip were dark.

The car radio was full of rock stations and crazy fundamentalist preachers but occasionally you would receive a powerful epiphany over the airwaves: a snatch of blues while driving through the delta ("Things Go Better With Coke!" said the sign on the entrance to Parchman Farm Penitentiary); a brief hit of bluegrass while negotiating the Blue Ridge Parkway over the Appalachians; and on a Sunday morning between Memphis and Nashville, an hour or so of wonderful gospel music.

Ten years later, it's much, much, worse. Everywhere you go in America, the radio formats are the same: hit the pre-sets and it's smooth jazz, oldies, R&B oldies, country, rock, and almost nothing else. Even the college- owned and subsidised Public Broadcasting stations are relatively conservative and seemingly immune to regional styles. It's only in the very big cities that you can pick up oddball programmes like the Los Angeles, college- funded "Morning Becomes Eclectic", where jazz bassist Charlie Haden sometimes does time as a DJ.

Otherwise, the whole Hollywood-inspired idea of radio-wave plenitude is nothing but a road-movie myth. Compared to most American radio, even Jazz FM sounds good, which shows you how bad it must be.

For the legendary drummer Max Roach, who opens the jazz sector of the "Inventing America" season next Friday, this is all part of what he sees as a relentless dumbing-down of the American media. "We're in an age now when the culture is being dominated by people like Kenny G," he says.

"Everything is down and no one wants to take a chance and relate to reality. I think it's something that has tapped the pulse of everybody, and in a sense, everything is winding down to the end of the century. It is bland: no one is taking a chance, and the whole country has become like that, with films and everything.

"But this is a recent phenomenon, over the last 10 years. And on the surface, when you come to the USA, you think that this is how it is, but the diversity is still there as strong as ever if you look for it. B B King is still a power, and the blues is still a force."

In part, the problems of the present are only a reaction to how amazingly good American music once was. In the late Fifties and early Sixties there was a remarkable confluence of factors that will never be repeated. The long-playing album and stereo recording were invented at about the same time as rock'n'roll, and recording techniques will never be as pure again: direct two-track recording becoming the norm; records pressed on to to satisfyingly fat vinyl platters; and the technology remaining cheap enough to be applied to all those emerging regional styles.

Despite the invention of digital recording techniques, nothing will ever sound as good as Frank Sinatra on Capitol, or Miles Davis on Prestige or CBS. But for what we have already received, we have to give thanks.

Phil Johnson

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