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

Document Type


Publication Date



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.


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



This item is not available in The Cupola.