Bill Booth: 'Songs of the land'

American singer and songwriter Bill Booth has made a record that delves into the lore and history of his adopted homeland Norway and depicts aspects of Norwegian culture as seen by a charmed foreigner.

Bill Booth

Bill Booth’s latest record, his fourth, seems to fill a gap, or at least it fits in perfectly as a piece in a puzzle; the meeting of Norwegian culture and American music. “Songs of the land” is a thematic album that bespeaks some essential Norwegian topics in the language and music of America; that beacon in the west toward which Norwegians have so often looked.

Norway is in a way infatuated with America, Americana and the icons and symbols of that culture. Most of all this is true for the rural part of Norway, but it also holds true in general. Our modern history is intimately linked with that of USA: few countries saw a higher percentage of its population emigrate across the Atlantic, and after WWII the trans-Atlantic relationship has been almost tantamount to a child holding a parent’s hand.

One of the most evident signs of this infatuation is Norwegian’s love for American music, and most of all the epitomic forms, such as blues, folk/roots and country and western. These are genres and kinds of musical expression that have both a vast following and innumerable artistic representatives in Norway. First and foremost the love is for the music itself of course; the sounds and moods, but also the emblematic kinds subject matter that recur in the lyrics have been adopted. Many Norwegian bands and artists seek to appropriate American archetypes, and thus contribute to a kind of national lore that is not really their own.

And what has has largely been missing is Norwegian artists letting this American kind of music, which in essence is existential and bound to the grassroots and common archetypes of a people and culture, merge with a truly Norwegian national heritage, i.e. the Norwegian equivalent to what is denoted "Americana." It would seem a natural thing that such a common national love for American music would entail that it merged artistically with Norwegian national lore, history and archetypes.
But this has largely been a blank spot, until Bill Booth, an American roots musician and songwriter based in Norway, released his fourth album, “Songs of the land” this fall.

Booth came to Norway in the mid-eighties and soon established an artistic foothold here. Twenty years of collaborating with numerous Norwegian artists and innumerable live performances across the whole country has given Booth a unique experience and sense of Norwegian culture; unique by being the receptive experience of a foreigner, yet deep and sustained. On his tours crisscrossing the country Booth has been talking to locals, listening and collecting stories. Thus he has been introduced to narratives, legends and lore of both national and more place-specific nature. And it is this sum of his experience of the Norwegian spirit and heritage, as experienced by a charmed American, that is the theme for his record “Songs of the Land.”

“Norwegians sing about America and route 66, so I find it natural to sing about Norway. I feel at home here, and this record is my homage to Norway” says Booth on his web-site.

On the record he takes the listener on a geographic tour of the land, and through time: He describes Viking voyages, modern emigration across the Atlantic and resistance to the Germans. Thus Booth recaps some of the foundational times, characters, legends and episodes of Norwegian national heritage and he does it in the tonal language that is his own; the American roots-folk-blues songwriter tradition which Norwegians are so infinitely fond of.

Thus a kind of subject matter that has been mostly associated with Norwegian traditional expressions, (and national romanticism) both musically and otherwise, have been lifted up again, and reiterated in novel robes. In a way Booth contributes towards Norwegians rediscovering tales and characters they already know, meeting them again in a different context. And the bonus is the freshness and charm that a foreigner’s rendering of this subject matter means, something in itself of great value, as an outsiders eyes and experience can often make us see things anew and differently.

Norwegian critics have truly embraced Booth's project and the warm response “Songs of the land” has been met with indicates that he has really struck a deep nerve. As we have said already, Booth seems to have filled a gap in the musical landscape with his thematic album that delves into Norwegian heritage and history and merges it with a genuinely American musical expression. Much of the acclaim must also be attributed to Booths exquisite musicality of course. Subtly blending typical elements such as steel guitars, slides, banjos and fiddles he achieves an expression that is profoundly arresting and translucent but also shimmering and warm. A string of well known Norwegian artists have contributed on the record, making the thematic cultural bridging also manifest in the actual recording process.

“Songs of the land” is a record that touches and surprises, so the critics say, and it is likely to become a favorite among many Norwegians, because the affinity between what’s genuinely Norwegian and American music is simply a fact of our culture.

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