High, Lonesome, and Sociotechnical: The Corporealization of American Bluegrass Music in Japan

Thursday, July 17, 2014: 8:30 AM
Room: 512
Oral Presentation
Denis GAINTY , Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA
In August 2013, the Takarazuka Bluegrass Festival in Japan marked its 42nd year, making it the world's second-longest running bluegrass festival.  That bluegrass – a quintessentially American popular folk music from the poverty-stricken, rural highlands of the Southeastern United States – has found such solid purchase in Japan is itself noteworthy. The continuities and reconfigurations that have marked bluegrass’s transplantation into Japan speak to larger questions of how and why explicitly rural, volkisch traditions are not only invented but also translated into foreign contexts within the larger process of modern nation/state figurations.
      But while bluegrass and American folk music more generally have been studied to varying degrees as markers of (transnational) sociohistorical transformation, the embodied, sociotechnical quality of bluegrass music – and indeed of music – has garnered less attention.  A key but understudied component in the performance and consumption of bluegrass, in both America and Japan, is its corporeality – the ways in which human bodies instantiate the ideas, identities, relationships and values assigned through bluegrass music to the actors, human and material, who comprise its sociohistorical cosmos.  Central to this analysis is the examination not only of the work of human bodies, but also of the agentive work of non-human actors – specifically, the acoustic instruments whose material qualities work recursively with human agents to produce specific physical attitudes, interactions, and limitations.
      In this paper, I show how the embodiment of bluegrass music in Japan offers insight into the sociotechnical mediation of national and local culture, linking the micro-analysis of bodily practice with transnational and transregional movements of goods and ideas.  Using ethnographic and historical data and the sociotechnical insights of Bruno Latour and others, I argue that Japanese bluegrass allows performers and consumers to engage explicitly with questions of cultural identity through intimately embodied and networked practices.