Welcome to the Pre-Conference Conversations for the New England American Studies Conference. We're writing about the things we'll talk about the conference--join the conversation!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Native American Contemporary Song Lyrics: The New Ghost Dance Literature?

Native American oral literature has been commonly categorized as originating thousands of years ago as some kind of ancient artifact, which comes down to us from a distant past rather than moments of a living poetry.  In an effort to explore this myth, I investigate the literature of modern-day Native American song lyrics taken from the 2011 Native American Music Awards (NAMMYS) winning Pop, Rock, and Song-Single of the Year songs.   

The limitation or exclusion of Native oral literature from the 21st century American canon is what Jace Weaver calls “a way of continuing colonialism…and denies to Native literary artists who choose other media any legitimate or ‘authentic’ Native identity.”  Oral poetry, or song lyrics, are another literary avenue in which Native Americans can express their worldviews and demonstrate what Gerald Vizenor calls “survivance,” Weaver calls “communitism,” Robert Warrior calls “intellectual sovereignty,” and Georges Sioui calls “autohistory.”  Although some critics have described Native Americans as finding themselves in-between two cultures, the most recent song lyrics indicate they are participating in both cultures.

Selecting a few threads from the mainstream cultural cloth and pulling them through to the Native cultural fabric (such as the musical award format, song verse configuration, and elements of Western technology) is a way for indigenous people to stabilize identity by getting recognition, reinforce traditional values and customs between generations, and share worldviews. 

The Internet is the new campfire. 

The result is not only survival of a culture, but the beginning of vocalizing a resistant, yet positive identity by dispelling the historical, descriptive inaccuracies using worldviews to illustrate new perceptions of identity.  There is an ongoing process of negotiating the forces of assimilation into mainstream American culture, but modern song lyrics are one way Native Americans appear to regenerate and maintain their foundational culture.

Lindy Hensley
M.A. in English candidate
University of St. Thomas

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Identity Creation, Region and Race in Popular Country Music Lyrics and Tea Party Rhetoric

At this conference, I will present a paper entitled “Backroads and the American South: Identity Creation, Region and Race in Popular Country Music Lyrics and Tea Party Rhetoric.” I will be presenting as part of a panel on “Music, Meaning and Identity.”

My exploration of this topic began in the odd juxtaposition of, on the one hand, long drives spent listening to the few FM radio stations that come in on the lonely, winding roads of rural Maine, and, on the other hand, my work as a graduate student, studying regionalism and the writings of scholars like Lori Robison and Richard Brodhead.

An example:

“The pull of the idea of the country is toward old ways, human ways, natural ways. The pull of the idea of the city is towards progress, modernization, development.” – Raymond Williams


"Our houses are protected by the good Lord and a gun
And you might meet 'em both if you show up here not welcome son
Our necks are burnt, our roads are dirt and our trucks ain't clean
We won't take a dime if we ain't earned it
When it comes to weight brother we pull our own
If it's our backwoods way of livin' you're concerned with
You can leave us alone
We got a fightin' side a mile wide but we pray for peace
'Cause it's mostly us that end up servin' overseas
If it was up to me I'd love to see this country run
Like it used to be, oughta be, just like it's done
Out here, way out here" -- Josh Thompson

Popular country music, like the song above, which peaked at #15 on the Billboard country charts in September of 2010, pulls the lifestyle and ideology described by Josh Thompson from the margins -- from "way out here" -- to the center of mainstream pop-culture.

In part, this paper – which is hopefully only the beginning of a larger project – is about the repetitive narratives found in country music lyrics. In a broader sense, however, it explores a socio-political climate in the post-9/11 (and even more specifically, post-2008) United States.  

In brief, my argument is this: Country music tropes function to create and perpetuate a specific relational identity that celebrates a rural, working-class lifestyle and conservative social values, and opposes modernity, urbanity, wealth and intellectualism. Further, through regional nostalgia, this identity takes on racial overtones. I offer a close-reading of these lyrics and explore their appeal in the contemporary moment. This essay suggests that the identity creation and “othering” that occur in country music resemble the rhetorical strategies used in conservative politics – particularly those used by the Tea Party. In combination, a dialogue is formed that shapes a particular notion of who and what is “American.” Ultimately, I wish to explore the role this pop-cultural form plays in a larger discourse of belonging, power, and enfranchisement.

To listen to/view one of the songs from the sample I use in my paper, see: Toby Keith, “Made in America.” 
(This song reached #1 on the Billboard country charts in 2011. It also reached #40 on the Billboard “hot 100” chart.)

-- Liz Swasey

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Mapping Cotton 1862-ish

It’s been a challenge finding time to post during the first week of classes, and I’m sure this post’s lateness will not detract from its less-than-greatness.

I’m part of the pecha kucha roundtable on “the Spatial Turn” at least in part because I attended an Arc-GIS course with Ryan Cordell at DHSI in 2011. My goal in that course was to learn enough about Arc-GIS to try out using it to work with documents associated with a set of European itineraries from 1862. Previously, I had worked with a technical liaison from our campus’s Library and Information Services to map some information associated with a woman’s journal from the 1870s. I presented preliminary results from that work at Harvard a few years ago, and I’ll be talking about that project again as part of a series on Digital Humanities for the undergraduate honors program at the University of Kansas in spring 2013.

My interest in mapping the sources of raw cotton in the U.S. South and their destinations for processing in New England in 1840 and 1850 arises from efforts to further contextualize one of those itineraries. My presentation at NEASA will focus on work in progress as I explore effects of the U.S. Civil War on the cotton industry in New England for a paper I will present at a conference sponsored by the Massachusetts Historical Society in spring 2013.

One of the account books among the primary sources we are researching in the Wheaton College Digital History Project documents the operation of a mill that produced cotton batting in Norton, Massachusetts, in the late 1840s. This account book documents the geographical sources of the raw cotton used in the mill, including Apalachicola, Florida, as well as New Orleans. It also refers to the broker from whom the raw cotton was purchased, William J. King of Providence, Rhode Island, who traded on the New York exchange.

The cotton industry shifted in Norton in the 1840s as the wealth of the Wheaton family was transferred from one generation to the next. I am interested in exploring ways in which this microhistorical set of events at the level of family and town might open up questions at the state and national level during a significant period in the economic and political development of the nation.

At the most basic level, mapping of the cotton production has shown correlations with the expansion of slavery for the decades preceding the U.S. Civil War. And last year, Frederick Law Olmstead’s 1861 map of “The Cotton Kingdom” was featured in historian Susan Schulten’s contribution to the “Disunion” blog in the New York Times. Might there be scholarly benefit in examining geospatial information about the sources and destinations of raw and processed cotton at a more granular level?

Kathryn Tomasek
Wheaton College
Norton, Massachusetts