Walking through Newport Folk Fest, a certain riot grrl song frequently came to mind: Heavens to Betsy’s “axemen.” The young Corin Tucker sings “Hey, look around/There’s so much white.” Tucker was indicting Olympia’s “punk white privileged scene” of the early ’90s, but it could easily apply to the Americana scene of 2018. Is a festival that costs over $100 a person per day truly in the spirit of the protest music so prominently featured there? And can music at that kind of premium truly be considered for the people?
All American music — blues, rock, early jazz, country, bluegrass music and folk — share a common chord structure known as I-IV-V. Basically, these numbers refer to the musical relationship between the notes that form the song’s melody. Every single pop song on the radio today is built upon this foundation. There’s a reason for that. The chord structure has its common root in African music — courtesy of Africans who were kidnapped and forced into labor in what is now the United States (among other places.)
So why is the Americana audience overwhelmingly white? Upright bassist Johanna Rose and guitarist Carl Nichols of the Milwaukee duo Nickel&Rose are on the same wavelength as me. In “Americana,” Nichols uses his gospel training to interrogate the scene.
Over a gently swinging bassline, Nichols lifts his voice:
If I wasn’t standing on this stage, would you wonder why I was here
Would you ask me if I was lost or if I came to sell you pills
Well I thought this was for everyone, not just a few
But I guess you won’t be satisfied ’til it all belongs to you
If you think the first verse is a takedown, wait ’til you get to the second. Nichols and Rose deliver a takedown of Elvis and other white artists (and their fans) who refuse to acknowledge the presence of black culture in “the songs they love to sing.” (In this case, the duo lifts up Sister Rosetta Tharpe.) Through it all, Nichols mourns that there’s no “room for me” in “my own history.” While the music itself is gentle, the words are strident and forceful. I’m familiar with how we tell the story of American music. However, “Americana” reminds me of the true power of songs: while I could write pages and pages about the issues this song raises, Nichols and Rose distill the story to such a fine point that it truly takes my breath away and makes the hairs on my arms rise whenever I listen to it. It’s hard to find niceties when the points are laid so plainly in front of you.
“Americana” is the title track of the band’s upcoming EP, which will be released on September 14. The duo set up shop in the summer of 2016 and spent their first winter and the following spring traveling Europe, playing dozens of shows in France, Czech Republic, Germany, Romania, Poland, and Ukraine. While in Berlin they recorded and their EP, Oh Sweet Love, a diary of their European journey. The pair come by their sound honestly: they grew up on opposite sides of town in segregated Milwaukee. Nichols brings gospel and the sounds of Senegal, Mali, and Guinea from the city’s north side to the fore. For her part, Rose spent her teen years in punk basement shows in the Riverwest neighborhood. Together, Nickel&Rose blend many forms of traditional music to bring about a more perfect Americana.
Americana Track Listing
1. “Dog River”
3. “Moving Pianos”
4. “Life Goes On”
5. “Hard Day’s Work”