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11.05-PSYCHEDELIC DIASPORA: AMERICANA

The Band album     Willy & the Poor Boys

American Beauty     Harvest


The Americana genre in Rock attempted, often by evoking 19th or early 20th century history and using simple production techniques, to create timeless folk standards in reaction to the modernist impulses to “astonish us!” (Jean Cocteau) and “make it new!” (Ezra Pound) that had propelled psychedelia. Though Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and Van Dyke Parks had begun exploring Americana in a psychedelic context for the albums SMiLE and Song Cycle, producing some of the first post-modern pop music, Americana really took off in reaction to psychedelia with the release of Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding in December 1967. Dylan’s album reached the #2 position on the U.S. charts (#1 UK), at the time the highest position one of his albums had reached. Music from the Big Pink, released in July 1968 by a new group, The Band (with Bob Dylan’s assistance), though only reaching to #30 in the U.S., began to cement a new fashion trend. The Band’s first single The Weight only reached #63 on the American charts when it was released later in 1968, but it achieved #21 in the UK and was covered by a number of other artists. Also on Big Pink was the first version of Dylan’s I Shall Be Released, which has proven by the 21st century to have achieved the goal of being a timeless American standard. By the time The Band released their eponymous second album September 1969, they had made inroads into the aesthetic of their audience. The Band album got to #9 on the U.S. charts (#25 UK) and of the two singles released from it, Up on Cripple Creek reached #25 in the U.S. and Rag Mama Rag achieved #57 (#16 UK). Their most successful album in America was called The Basement Tapes, re-mastered recordings with Bob Dylan, parts of which had been available as a “bootleg” since 1967. Officially released in June 1975, The Basement Tapes reached #7 in the U.S.

It is true that Americana, especially in Country music like that of Hank Williams’ Hey Good Lookin’ and Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire, had long pre-existed Rock’s movement toward writing traditional standards. Pop music in the 1960s had a few efforts in that direction as well—Roger Miller’s King of the Road and a few of John Sebastian’s tunes written for the Lovin’ Spoonful, such as Daydream, prove the point. But these songs had not been taken seriously at the time as art because of their gently comic and ironic presentation, and the pop audience’s substantial prejudice against “rednecks”. With Bob Dylan clearing the way, Americana became more popular in the late 1960s. It was a form that could consistently push John Fogerty and his group called Creedence Clearwater Revival into the top of the American charts. Their Proud Mary, a proven standard, released in January 1969, reached #2 (#8 UK); Bad Moon Rising, released in April 1969, climbed to #2 also (#1 UK). In November 1969 with the release of the album Willy and the Poor Boys (#3 U.S., #10 UK), Creedence had a double hit with Fortunate Son / Down on the Corner, which made #3 on the American charts (#31 UK), and in January 1970 they had another double hit Who’ll Stop the Rain / Traveling Band that got to #2 (#8 UK). That’s a lot of hits near the top of the charts within the space of a year. In September 1973, another #2 American hit in the genre was produced by the Allman Brothers Band, titled Ramblin’ Man, the group’s only Top Ten single.

Ironically, even the English pop musician Elton John would jump on board of the Americana wagon in March 1970, producing Tumbleweed Connection as his second album in America, which reached #5 in the U.S and #2 in the UK. Perhaps even more shocking was the transformation at this time of the Grateful Dead from a heavily psychedelic group known for long LSD inspired jams to “working class heroes” (as John Lennon put it at the time with his first solo album, released December 1970). In June 1970, the Dead released an acoustic album Workingman’s Dead, their most successful album yet, that made it to #27 (#69 UK). With vocal harmonies influenced by David Crosby, the group wrote timeless standards such as High Time, Dire Wolf, and Black Peter that made no reference to contemporary living. A companion album, American Beauty, was released in November 1970 and rose to #30 (#27 UK). Lyricist Robert Hunter himself said an interview (which I have lost track of) that Friend of the Devil, included in the American Beauty album, was the closest he & composer Jerry Garcia ever got to making a traditional classic. Truckin’, a single from that album that reflects on events during a Grateful Dead performance tour, became the Grateful Dead’s most successful single up to that time, reaching #64 in the U.S.

Though former masterful psychedelic artist Neil Young would enter the 70s decade primarily as a singer-songwriter, he produced a couple of albums that are among the best Americana of the period as well. After the Gold Rush, released in August 1970, the first of his albums to break into the Top 10, reaching #8 in the U.S. (#7 UK), is considered one of his best. A single from the album, Only Love Can Break Your Heart got to #33, his first American Top 40 hit as a solo artist. In February 1972, Young released his biggest selling album Harvest; indeed, it reached #1 both in the U.S. and UK, and was the best-selling album in the U.S. for the entire year. From that album came Young’s only #1 single (#10 UK), titled Heart of Gold, and Old Man which peaked in the U.S. at #31.

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