Ballad for Incarcerated Americans: Second Generation Japanese American Musicking in World War II Camps

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Department 1

Conservatory of Music


During World War II, the United States government imprisoned approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were American-born citizens, half of whom were children. Through ethnographic interviews I explore how fragile youthful memories, trauma, and the soundscape of the War Relocation Authority (WRA) Incarceration Camps shaped the artistic trajectories of three such former “enemy alien” youth: two pianists and a koto player. Counterintuitively, Japanese traditional arts flourished in the hostile environment of dislocation through the high number of nisei (second generation) participants, who later contributed to increasing transculturalism in American music following resettlement out of camp. Synthesizing Japanese and Euro-American classical music, white American popular music, and African American jazz, many nisei paradoxically asserted their dual cultural commitment to both traditional Japanese and home front patriotic American principles. A performance of Earl Robinson and John Latouche's patriotic cantata, Ballad for Americans (1939), by the high school choir at Manzanar Incarceration Camp demonstrates the hybridity of these Japanese American cultural practices. Marked by Popular Front ideals, Ballad for Americans allowed nisei to construct identities through a complicated mixture of ethnic pride, chauvinistic white Americanism allied with Bing Crosby's recordings of the Ballad, and affiliation with black racial struggle through Paul Robeson's iconic Ballad performances.


Marta Roberston was presented with the Judy Tsou Critical Race Studies Award at the 2018 Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society in San Antonio, TX for this work.

At the Awards Ceremony, committee chair, Professor Mark Burford of Reed College, read the following citation: “The winner of the inaugural Critical Race Studies Award tells a sensitive and nuanced story about the role of music in the “dual enculturation” of Japanese Americans in World War II incarceration camps. Weaving together a variety of sources and intertwining histories, the article takes the discussion of race beyond the black/white binary through compelling scholarship that is methodologically conversant with oral history, sound studies, ecomusicology, and historical ethnography."

The Critical Race Studies Award honors each year outstanding musicological work in the field of critical race and/or critical ethnic studies. By "work" is meant a published article, book, edition, or other scholarly entity that best exemplifies the highest qualities of originality, interpretation, theory, and communication in this area. Work published during the preceding three calendar years (2016 to 2018) in any language and in any country by a scholar who is a member of the AMS or a citizen or permanent resident of Canada or the United States is eligible for the award.



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Original version available online through the Journal of the Society for American Music.

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