- Introduction by the Guest Editor
Viewing American music from a transatlantic perspective is nothing new. Take Josiah Flagg, who adopted just such a perspective in 1764 when he preemptively apologized to readers of his new collection of sacred music. Fretting that anyone with nascent patriotic leanings would take umbrage at the number of British tunes in his Collection of the Best Psalm Tunes (Boston, 1764), Flagg was quick to point out that “however we are oblig’d to the other Side of the Atlantick chiefly, for our Tunes, the Paper on which they are printed is the Manufacture of our own Country.” The tunes were imported, but at least the paper was locally sourced. In fact, Flagg’s concern was unfounded (and perhaps exaggerated). Although on the doorstep of the American Revolution, most colonists blithely purchased as many imported goods as they could afford. But his decorous handwringing speaks to an underlying issue: when it comes to so-called American music, how do local and transatlantic elements interact? And what do those interactions tell us about the nature, significance, and history of American music? Today scholars of American music—whether conceived of hemispherically or narrowed to a nation-specific definition—are taking up such questions with gusto.
This special issue of American Music, “Transatlantic Perspectives,” delves into the porous and relational field of transatlantic music studies. It aims to explore how transatlantic perspectives might push conceptions of “American music” beyond standard geographical and ideological boundaries. From the enthusiastic response we received to the call for papers, it is safe to say that many music scholars are already mapping the musical interactions and influences that for the past five centuries have stitched together the four continents and many islands that comprise the Atlantic world’s geography. [End Page 281]
The four articles in this special issue explore the circulation and significance of transatlantic music. Each does so by dropping anchor in specific ports of call. Like Flagg’s psalm tunes, the music may be from far-flung places, but there is something indelibly local that draws each author to his or her subject. And each author implements a different methodology. Myron Gray uses forensic bibliographical and musical analysis to track the output of a Haitian-born French composer in late eighteenth-century Philadelphia. Through archival research Christina Baade reconstructs the BBC live radio broadcasts of American jazz bands (who were usually African American) in the immediate pre–World War II era. Transatlantic jazz’s contemporary forms and its ideological reverberations take center stage in William Bares’s article, which is based on the author’s ethnographic research at the North Sea Jazz Festival. Finally, Griff Rollefson offers a contrapuntal reading of Senegalese-French rapper Sefyu’s song “En noir et blanc,” which stitches together various moments of twentieth-century African American music making into a powerful postcolonial sonic tapestry.
Because three of the articles attend to African and African American music, it is worth highlighting how they respond to Paul Gilroy’s well-known work, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness (1995). Twenty years ago Gilroy’s suspicion of racial essentialism, ethnocentrism, and cryptonationalism in the field of cultural studies led him to a new site for cultural analysis: the Black Atlantic, a literal and figurative place where diasporic currents flow into modern, transnational black culture. Music is integral to Gilroy’s vision, and the articles in this issue help to historicize and bring out new textures of musical encounters in the Black Atlantic. In particular, sophisticated critiques of media and institutional structures help elucidate how such encounters played out.
Together these four articles adumbrate new conceptual and topical horizons for transatlantic music studies. Unlike Josiah Flagg, these authors harbor no concerns about how music crosses boundaries. Indeed, one of the strengths of a transatlantic perspective is how it pulls our focus away from the nation and toward the interstices between nations (or empires, or international corporate conglomerates). Such a perspective allows us to see our field with fresh eyes and is rejuvenating as we move forward in the study of American music, both here on the pages of American Music and beyond. [End Page 282]