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.

A Conversation with Ian Nagoski

Ian Nagoski was a name I first became familiar with through my playing activities in Baltimore, Maryland, where he was, and is again, a local legend. At the time, he was primarily known as a composer of phenomenally glacial and epic electronic music, who also happened to be a fan of records...very old records. Although he has, for all intents and purposes, stopped performing now his love of records, combined with a natural lust for understanding the historical and personal narratives around the music on them, has made him into one of the most singularly important young voices in the preservation of music in America. In Baltimore, he partnered in the opening of True Vine Records which, although he is no longer involved, still serves the area. His DIY cassettes and CD-Rs of strange unheard music, often off of old cast off 78 rpm records, became necessary purchases for touring musicians coming through town, providing hours of enjoyment on the road and making him synonymous with the city's weirdo culture.

Nate Wooley Speaks with Ian Nagoski

Ian is most famously known for his 3 cd compilation on Tompkins Square Records entitled To What Strange Place: Music of the Ottoman-American Diaspora 1916-1929 which was important in a resurgence of interest in the traditional and popular versions of the area's music in Europe and, to a lesser extent...much to Nagoski's chagrin, in the U.S. I met with Ian at the house in which he was living at the time in Asheville, North Carolina (he is now back in Baltimore). We sat in the dark garage off of a winding road up into the hills and talked for 6 hours about everything under the sun...well, everything that had to do with music, that is. Cars drove by and sometimes used the driveway next to us to turn around and head back down the hill. Birds chirped and windchimes clattered as the sun went down on a beautiful late fall day, and as dusk fell talk slowly became tainted with the patient but powerful frustration of a man that has put everything he has into the missionary call of making sure that the voices of the musicians on these old and lost 78s are not lost in the ether, that their lives making music were not lived in vain. I left Asheville after a lovely couple of days of more talking and listening with a profound respect for Ian and a desire to somehow protect him. Not because he's a fragile man, but because I gained a sense that his work is so rare and important that it should almost be treated as a ritual object, a pathway to the past and a voice for ghosts of a forgotten part of American musical history. It's my hope that in presenting him in his own words and by seeing his lectures and listening to his music, his position in American musicology will become recognized by a larger audience. He is not an academic, but a street corner preacher. His milieu is probably a bar or rock club as much as it would be behind a lectern, but that's the point of someone like Ian. His work lives in two places at once: in the mind of the academic and in the heart of the public. For that reason alone, he is special and deserves an hour of our time.