How Mumford Stays True

What can often happen — both inside and outside the Church — is that the thread of authenticity becomes confused with cultural similarities.

Today, the biggest name in Americana music is undoubtedly Mumford & Sons. Despite having released only two albums so far, they’ve reached a level of success that few Americana bands have, making waves in the Top 40 circuit and selling over two million albums in two years. They’ve sold out shows throughout the country and have catapulted into the same category as The Avett Brothers, Gillian Welch, and Steve Earle as far as cult followings go. But oddly enough, the kings of Americana aren’t even American!

The four members of Mumford & Sons grew up as upper-middle class Brits with classical training and what some might call a “sheltered” upbringing, at least when compared to poor Delta blues singers and 20th century authentic folkies like Dock Boggs and Loretta Lynn. Some might call the British band “fake folk” because of this, but that’s simply inconsistent in the world of Americana music. While many “purists” reject Mumford & Sons on the basis of their popular success, genre-bending, and supposedly inauthentic music, it must be noted that Americana music has always been much broader than people give it credit for.

While some might argue that Mumford & Sons are not “Americana”, that is an argument built to fail. Taylor Coe recently wrote an excellent piece for PopMatters defending the authenticity of “inauthentic” folk musicians, and it would be redundant to reiterate Coe’s argument here. But why does the battle for authenticity exist within Americana music in the first place?

At the forefront of this issue is the mythology of folk music (of which Americana is a very prominent sub-genre). Since Americana is one of the only truly original American art forms (hence the name), it has developed its own stories, heroes, and villains that get preserved through the communities that have embraced it. Consider the story of Robert Johnson: born a poor boy, loses his wife and is forced into a life of aimless ramblin’, sells his soul to the devil, is discovered by a wily record executive, and goes on to record some of the greatest music ever recorded on American soil. Or the story of Dock Boggs: by day, practically a slave to the coalmines, and by night, one of the greatest songwriters ever to be happened upon. And we — by “we”, I mean people like myself who love these stories and have fallen in love with folk music — begin to attach the music to the myths. Therefore, when great Americana music comes along that is demythologized (e.g., Mumford & Sons), we balk at it.

While it’s easy to dismiss the authenticity issue due to all of the logical flaws in those who dislike the “inauthentic”, there is a seed of spiritual truth in the desire for authenticity. Man’s deep needs for acceptance and identity work themselves out in the stories that we associate with those values. It is built into the nature of man to find identity through narrative. In Deuteronomy 8, God commands Israel to obey the commandments that they have been given out of an identity found through the story of their deliverance from Egypt by God. He tells them first what to do, and then reminds them of why they should do it.

The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the LORD swore to give to your fathers. And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that He might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. And He humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. Your clothing did not wear out on you and your foot did not swell these forty years. (Deuteronomy 8:1-4, ESV)

The pattern seen in this passage is “identity, narrative, identity, narrative”.  And so, just as the Israelites shared this common story and common identity, the Americana world has its own narratives, which influence identity. This is not to say that those outside of the narrative should not share in the identity; it is simply a look at why people don’t like outsiders taking their identity.

It’s helpful to look at Americana like the Church, not the Israelites. The Church began as a purely Jewish tradition: Jesus was a Jew, as were His twelve disciples and the initial converts to Christianity. And like Americana, for awhile, only those who shared the same culture embraced Christianity. That is, until the gentiles started embracing Christianity in droves! At first, many Jewish Christians did not like this influx of gentile Christians because Jesus was a Jewish savior for the Jewish people — or so they thought. As it turned out, God had a global vision of salvation, and Christianity became much different from the culture that fostered it. As a result, there’s a certain thread of authenticity that flows throughout Christendom from the Messianic Jews to Liberty University to the underground church in China. This spiritual thread which makes Christianity pan-cultural is archetypal. In other words, to quote theologian Richard Lovelace:

It seems that mankind always retains a kind of rudimentary awareness that there are two kinds of people in the world -the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman, the City of Man and the City of God.” (Dynamics of Spiritual Life, P. 185)

What can often happen — both inside and outside the Church — is that the thread of authenticity becomes confused with cultural similarities. This threatens to, and sometimes succeeds at, destroying the common narrative of all believers. But the Christian identity is not limited a certain culture. The gospel narrative is universally appealing, so we shouldn’t be surprised with those outside of certain cultural norms identify with it.

So it goes with Americana music today. Mumford & Sons have never worked in a coal mine, never lived hand-to-mouth as a starving artist, and never gotten into a bar fight in a small Alabama town (that I know of). Instead, Marcus Mumford and his gang of well-educated Brits were captivated by the stories and sounds of Americana music and made it their own – and with overwhelming success at that! Because of the success of Mumford & Sons, Americana is experiencing a revival with those who have never previously connected with the genre. Like Christianity in the first century — or now, in China and in urban areas — sometimes the message explodes when it is heralded by outsiders.

It is inherent to want to identify with our own stories and our own identity, but we should be grateful that our friends across the pond are so enamored with American Folk Mythology that they would make it their own — just as Americans themselves have done to so many things (e.g., “Mexican” food, St. Patricks Day, and most art). We should embrace Mumford & Sons and be thankful for their participation in the world of Americana. They have a lot to teach us about ourselves.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out his graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.

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  • Michael

    I would point out that much of the ecclesiastical imagery in M&Sns lyrics is not the product of a fascination with American images, but rather Marcus Mumford’s childhood as the son of a clergyman.

    Much American folk music draws from distinctly British roots anyway.

  • Yes and no. I absolutely agree that *much* of Mumford’s lyrics are influenced by his upbringing. But to deny his American folk influences is going a bit too far. Remember ‘Dust Bowl Dance’ on Sigh No More? Direct Steinbeck references. Also ‘The Boxer’ on Babel has lyrics specifically about America. And I would argue that historically, much british music (skiffle, rock & roll, neo-folk) draws on American jazz, blues and early rock & roll. Albeit, the Brits have traditionally perfected and popularized great American sounds. Today, many American artists simply imitate brits that were imitating Americans.

  • If we go back even further into the nineteenth-century we can see the roots of American folk styles in Irish folk music. I find it fascinating that there are hints of Irish and Celtic music throughout our culture from Celtic Women, to Riverdance to the theme song to the new “Battlestar Galactica”. While Brits tend to have a fascination with American music we seem to go back again and again to that Celtic sound.