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  • Sounds American: National Identity and the Music Cultures of the Lower Mississippi River Valley, 1800–1860 by Ann Ostendorf
  • Robyn Lily Davis (bio)

Music, Mississippi River Valley, Ethnicity, Race, Ethnic music, Ethnic culture

Sounds American: National Identity and the Music Cultures of the Lower Mississippi River Valley, 1800–1860. By Ann Ostendorf. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011. Pp. 272. Cloth, $69.95; paper, $24.95.)

Diversity is a hallmark of the American experience, but so too is the disquietude that comes from living among others. During the early republic and antebellum eras, this was nowhere more evident than in the lower Mississippi River Valley. In the sixty years spanning purchase to secession, the area from St. Louis to New Orleans was awash in diverse newcomers as slave-holding Americans bent on expansion, creoles fleeing unrest in the Caribbean, displaced Natives, and a motley mix of Europeans seeking asylum and opportunity poured in. These migrants only added to the region’s entrenched ethnic, racial, and cultural mélange, encompassing as it did Native Atakapas, Caddos, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Natchez, Opelousas, and Quapaws; the Acadians; French and Spanish colonials with their bondsmen and women; a smattering of native-born Americans; and assorted Europeans. At a time when an [End Page 514] American identity was still being defined and articulated, when national unity remained a sought-after if elusive goal, this region’s extreme heterogeneity was particularly significant. In Ann Ostendorf’s Sounds American: National Identity and the Music Cultures of the Lower Mississippi River Valley, 1800–1860, the territory and its people serve as a microcosm of the nation itself and a case study for the ways in which Americans made, consumed, and defined music to alleviate the anxieties of being, and being among, the Other.

By the early republic, writes Ostendorf, Americans were an apprehensive people. Riddled with insecurities and foreboding, troubled by the lack of a unique, agreed-upon, and visible national culture, and worried that without one, the nation would fail, geographic expansion and increasing diversity heightened a perceived need for national unity. That need was pressing indeed, since unity was deemed a prerequisite to a national culture. The lack of a national culture was itself profoundly threatening, since real independence could not exist without it. Ostendorf turns to an array of theoretical models to describe how Americans responded to repeated calls for a national culture to serve as handmaiden to the new nation in its ongoing and seemingly urgent process of self-identification. Borrowing explanatory methodologies from race theory, theater history, literary criticism, postcolonial studies, and sociology, Ostendorf argues in part that ethnicity and race are American inventions, emerging from a process of characterization that was ongoing in the nineteenth century, as labels were applied to various groups upon arrival. By drawing such exclusionary boundaries, people and groups could define themselves by that which they were not. This work of characterizing difference itself became an integrative, nationalizing experience, and the creation of a uniquely American identity and culture emerged from the labeling of things considered to be not American.

Neither an ethnographic investigation into actual music cultures, nor an explanation of musical adaptation and transmission, Sounds American instead is a study of how Americans perceived differences. Exquisitely careful to explain that race and ethnicity can neither be used interchangeably nor defined with precision, Ostendorf nonetheless argues that for Americans of all stripes in the nineteenth century, music ways were seen as intimately connected to amorphous and fluid concepts of race and ethnicity. Labeling music ways as ethnic or racial permitted residents in a young America to identify themselves and to distinguish others. And just as the distinctions of ethnicity and race were American productions, [End Page 515] so too were the ethnic music genres that developed over the course of the century, emerging from the discursive practices that Americans employed to make meaning through, and give meaning to, music. Music thus provided an avenue to express difference and contemplate how such differences might undermine national unity, but also offered the means by which the perceived menace of diversity could be mitigated. Simultaneously permitting incorporation and exclusion of self and others into American culture, music perceptions...


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pp. 514-517
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