Sounds American provides new perspectives on the
relationship between nationalism and cultural production by
examining how Americans grappled with musical diversity in the
early national and antebellum eras.
During this period a resounding call to create a distinctively
American music culture emerged as a way to bind together the
varied, changing, and uncertain components of the new nation. This
played out with particular intensity in the lower Mississippi River
valley, and New Orleans especially. Ann Ostendorf argues that this
region, often considered an exception to the nation-with its
distance from the center of power, its non-British colonial past,
and its varied population-actually shared characteristics of many
other places eventually incorporated into the country, thus making
it a useful case study for the creation of American culture.
Ostendorf conjures the territory's phenomenally diverse "music
ways" including grand operas and balls, performances by church
choirs and militia bands, and itinerant violin instructors. Music
was often associated with "foreigners," in particular Germans,
French, Irish, and Africans. For these outsiders, music helped
preserve collective identity. But for critics concerned with
developing a national culture, this multitude of influences
presented a dilemma that led to an obsessive categorization of
music with racial, ethnic, or national markers. Ultimately, the
shared experience of categorizing difference and consuming this
music became a unifying national phenomenon. Experiencing the
unknown became a shared part of the American experience.
Subjects: History, Sociology, Music
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