All Gone to Look for America

If ancient Greek history was oral, America’s is acoustic. America’s odyssey starts not with a departure but with a fresh arrival. Ours is not a there-and-back-again myth—where would we go back to? To have no history is to have no home.

Tucked in a passageway near the Bastille in Paris, Café de la Danse is an intimate concert hall with a high ceiling, a balcony bar and a framed photo of Nirvana on the lobby wall. On this night in March, the place is full of international hipsters, all beanies and bangs, here to see the Head and the Heart. I could be at Neumos if it weren’t for the cheap wine and the couple lip-locked in the balcony blocking everyone’s view.

A rowdy group of Americans on study-abroad shouts from in front of the stage: “I love you! Let’s hang out after the show!” “Il y a beaucoup d’Américains ici?” singer Charity Thielen responds in timid French. There are a lot of Americans here. But also French and German and English and Dutch. The scene is a textbook case of the Americanization that drove the French ministry of culture to impose protection laws in the early 1990s. Now 40 percent of music played on any radio station in France must be in French.

Franco-American soirées such as this are the reason my classmates regularly suggest that as an American I probably never feel “dépaysé,” which literally translated means “de-countried.” But even after seven months at the Sciences Po school of journalism, I get disoriented when I pass a group of Parisian adolescents singing “Thrift Shop” on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Certain music feels so localized that I forget it has a life of its own, detached from the country it comes from.

One of my French friends, a fiercely anti-capitalist artist named Kevin, has a theory about the success of American cultural imposition. “Americans are the best at telling stories because they have no history,” he says. It’s a variation on Godard’s proposition that “Americans want to invade because they have no history.” Free to write our history from scratch, Americans became experts at self-mythologizing. We the people of the United States invented not only the American dream, but the America dream: from the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters, the story of a land that was made for you and me.

Grantland’s Steven Hyden writes that folk musicians—not just the Head and the Heart, but Bob Dylan and Neil Young—approach music “as a gateway to lost worlds and obscured connections that bind us to narratives that both predate us and will outlast our existence.” In other words, folk musicians are our bards.

If ancient Greek history was oral, America’s is acoustic. America’s odyssey starts not with a departure but with a fresh arrival, which ties back to the idea that Americans have no history. Ours is not a there-and-back-again myth—where would we go back to? To have no history is to have no home.

The result is an American identity marked by the search for our true origins. All gone to look for America, indeed. Images of open roads and campfires—symbols of rootlessness and temporality—are central to the American folk tradition. After the show at Café de la Danse, French concertgoers tell me that the Head and the Heart call to mind road trips, open American landscapes flying past car windows. One pictures Colorado despite the fact that he’s never been west of Philadelphia.

At the end of all these roads lies home—or at least the idea of it, that unattainable holy land of security and belonging. Folk musicians speak of landscapes, naming towns and types of trees as if recalling vivid memories. If at first these places seem concrete and specific, they ultimately take on the vague dreaminess of a Frenchman’s imagined Colorado. It’s down in the valley, up in the North Country.

Pop-folk is the ultimate remedy to perpetual nostalgia, an upbeat, epic affirmation of lost-ness. It ties us to our most recent origins—the classic folk tunes absorbed around campfires or from the back seat of the family Eurovan—grounding the modern generation in a history of rootlessness. At some point, though, self-soothing becomes self-indulgence. I once played the Head and the Heart song “Rivers and Roads” for a college friend visiting from Minnesota and she rolled her eyes when Josiah Johnson bellows the line “My family lives in a different state.” She had a point—there’s something ridiculous about the anguished, privileged lament of modern mobility.

In a recent essay in The London Review of Books entitled “On Not Going Home,” James Wood describes his expatriation to America from Durham, England: “It is possible, I suppose, to miss home terribly, not know what home really is anymore, and refuse to go home, all at once.” This phenomenon applies to anyone who leaves home, whether for another continent or another town. I grew up in Seattle but my parents were both from the East Coast. Like many Americans, I was raised with the sense that true home was elsewhere—my first house in Lexington, Mass.; my mom’s public housing in Queens; my great grandparents’ shtetl somewhere in Eastern Europe. Leaving home is so widespread that this perpetual homesickness might simply be a symptom of modernity.

Perhaps the most pertinent place to listen to American folk music is abroad. Here it’s normal to long for home, to give it a name and point to it on a map and say, there are rhododendrons there, and cedars and pines. It’s between mountain ranges, up in the North Country. It’s rivers and roads and an ocean away.