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November 1, 2018

Bob Dylan, Sammy Miller, and the Definition of American Music

By Michael Montgomery

Sammy Miller and The Congregation

One of my favorite lines by Bob Dylan doesn’t even come from one of his songs. During his 1966 concert at the Royal Albert Hall, accompanied by a band called the Hawks (they later changed their name to the Band), Dylan found himself facing a divided audience. While some clapped, others jeered; many were put off by the fact that Dylan was playing electric and with a band, instead of solo and acoustic, as he had in his early days.

“These are all protest songs now, come on,” Dylan says to the crowd, his off-kilter intonation turning his voice into a snarl. After some applause, he continues. “This is not British music, it’s American music, now, come on.”

I love the way he spits this phrase out: not exactly belittling “British music,” but making his allegiance across the Atlantic unequivocally clear. Dylan is proud of American music and proud to be playing it. It’s not that British music is inferior; it’s just not American. (Saying differently to a British crowd in the same year the Beatles released Revolver would’ve verged on treason.) The whole statement is Dylan batting down people’s expectations. Don’t come to my concerts expecting protest songs anymore, he is saying, and don’t be shocked when the music I play isn’t what you’re used to; if the times can be “a-changing,” so can I.

As an inveterate Beatles fan and a Dylan disciple, I find this whole interchange fascinating. Before hearing it, I hadn’t really given much thought to the difference between British and American music. All I knew was that somehow, during the 1960s, English rock musicians seemed to be playing an American genre better than American musicians did. What I now realize is that, just as Dylan implied in the Royal Albert Hall, British rockers didn’t play it better—they just played it differently.

Exactly what constitutes this difference is naggingly hard to define. I’m no musicologist, and if someone had asked me about the subject three weeks ago, my response would probably have piggybacked on a phrase I remember from high school English class: American music, like American literature, is characterized by “race and space.” That is to say, the United States is a vast, diverse nation with a history of reconciling (or failing to reconcile) people from different regions and different racial backgrounds. Our music, from blues to bluegrass, reflects this experience, with genres that define themselves both as independent art forms tied to particular places or ethnicities, and as pieces of a wider, nationwide musical mosaic.

As tempting as this definition of American music might be, I now consider it only part of the answer; in fact, it was the process of writing my first blog post, about race and culture in Latin America, that convinced me something more concrete was needed. A working musician’s perspective wouldn’t hurt, either. So when I got the chance earlier this month to interview drummer Sammy Miller, whose band, Sammy Miller and the Congregation, plays an eclectic mix of specifically American, audience-oriented songs they call “joyful jazz,” I couldn’t resist asking him: What is “American music?”

Here is what Sammy had to say. “The bands…that I come back to time and time again are the ones that are trying to work through their struggles. And I kind of love that in American art. There’s sort of a hopefulness in spite of whatever the situation is.”

American music, then, is hopeful music. When I asked Sammy why this appeals to him, and how he justifies playing songs that some might label old-fashioned—Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” for instance—he told me that “it goes back to authenticity.” “I’m not really interested in the idea of ‘modern,’” he said. “I think what’s modern is [if] your [music] is authentic in its time.”

In other words, the Congregation may be playing songs from a hundred years ago, but their music remains authentic and relevant for the simple reason that, as Sammy put it, “we’re not dressing in the 1920s zoot suits.” The band is playing old songs not for their connection to a nostalgic past, but for their timeless ability to lift people’s spirits in the present.

To add to this insight, I would venture that “modern” music should be authentic not only in its time but in its place as well. For Sammy, that place is a New York night club, or a classroom in which his band has done outreach—or even, on November 9, the Mondavi Center’s Jackson Hall. For Bob Dylan in 1966, that place was the Royal Albert Hall, even if the audience disagreed. When musicians stand by their vision and their self-defined place in the world, even if doing so seems out of step with the times—Sammy’s audience-centered jazz in a century of digital music, or Dylan’s electric rock in a career built on folk songs—they show the world the authenticity of that vision. Maybe it’s just me, but this willingness to stand by and for an idea seems awfully reminiscent of how the United States was founded, with its defiance of colonialism and its rhetoric of “unalienable rights” and “self-evident truths.” Perhaps this is another part of what makes American music, as epitomized by people like Sammy Miller or Bob Dylan, so quintessentially American.


Author Bio: Michael Montgomery is a third-year student at UC Davis. He is majoring in Marine and Coastal Science, with planned minors in History and Professional Writing, and is considering a career in science writing. This will be his second year serving on the Mondavi Center’s Arts and Lectures Committee.