Why the Mayflower?

Image coourtesy of the Library of Congress

There is a statistic floating around that irritates me. The words aren't always the same, but the factoid is: "Today 10% of all Americans are descended from the settlers who arrived on the Mayflower."

No one ever says where the number came from. That's enough to make my teeth grind all by itself, but it's not the main thing that bothers me about the statistic. I'm perfectly prepared to believe it's true, given the realities of geometric progression and population growth. *

What I don't understand is why it matters. I've never seen a statistic on the number of modern Americans descended from the original Jamestown settlers, the earliest Spanish colonists in the American southwest, or the first Dutch settlers on the Delaware River. (Not to mention the number descended from the refugees from British debtor's prison who settled colonial Georgia.) ** I don't want to disrespect the courage or importance of the Plymouth colonists. *** They sailed across the Atlantic in a frighteningly small ship to start new lives in a wilderness. But so did the first Jamestown settlers--and all the rest. The Plymouth colony wasn't even the first settlement.

So why have the Mayflower, Plymouth Rock, and the stories related to them elbowed their way to the front of the line in America's foundation myths? Why does anyone think it's meaningful that 10% of Americans today are descended from the settlers who arrived on the Mayflower?

Personally, I blame it on an effective PR campaign.  Of course, American history is not my field, so maybe I'm missing something here. Anyone have a better explanation?

[Rant over.]

* I'm equally prepared to believe someone made it up.
** The numbers may well exist, buried in specialized academic papers or the reports of local genealogical societies, but they don't show up as an accepted fact in popular history.
*** Okay, I admit it. On a bad day I can work up a little historical indignation about their vision of religious freedom, or more accurately, how it has been transformed in popular history. But that's a post for another day. And it in no way diminishes their courage or importance.

Squeeze This!

I know it's hard to believe, but even history bloggers sometimes think about something other than history.  We knit, canoe, wrestle bears, feed people, drink whiskey, and play with the cat.* Whenever we get the chance, My Own True Love and I pull on our dancing shoes and two-step and waltz to a Cajun band.

The heart of Cajun music is the accordion--a fiendish instrument by any standard. So when the editor at Shelf Awareness was looking for someone to review Squeeze This!: A Cultural History of the Accordion in America I waved my virtual hand in the air and squealed "Pick me!"  (Oddly enough, no one fought me for it.  Go figure.)

Ethnomusicologist Marion Jacobson's Squeeze This! is a serious work of musical and cultural history written in an engaging and accessible voice. **

Jacobson goes beyond a consideration of the accordion as physical artifact.  Writing in the tradition of Paul Berliner's The Soul of Mbira  and Karen Linn's That Half-Barbaric Twang,  Jacobson also looks at how the accordion operates in social, cultural, and symbolic terms.

Squeeze This!  begins with Jacobson's inadvertent introduction to America's "accordion culture" and ends with the modern accordion revival, which repositions the often-derided instrument "as avant-garde, edgy, even sexy".  In between, she discusses how the role of the accordion in American society evolved in response to changes in immigration law, the death of vaudeville, the rise of radio, the invention of the electronic microphone, cultural assimilation, cultural preservation, and the youth culture of the 1960s.  She traces the rise and fall of the accordion in popular culture through the careers of the musicians who play it, from Guido Deiro to Weird Al Yankovic.

Possibly the most interesting portion of the book is Jacobson's exploration of the accordion as "a low-tech, anti-postmodern antidote to synthesizer saturation". Subversion, the search for authenticity, and the contrast between images of female sexuality and male nerdiness are not topics commonly associated with the accordion and accordion players.

Squeeze This! is not just a book about accordions.  It will appeal to readers interested in both the development of American music, America's cultural history as a whole.

Now if you'll excuse me--I think I'll lure My Own True Love away from his desk for a quick two-step down the hall.  They're playing our song.

The body of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers


* Note bene:  I'm not claiming I do all of the above.

** Warning for Cajun music enthusiasts and other fans of the button accordion.  Jacobson focuses almost entirely on the piano accordion.  Squash down your prejudices and read the book anyway.

The War of 1812–Why Should We Care?

"Peace" by John Rubens Smith, from the Library of Congress

I admit I'm slow. It wasn't until I read Donna Seger's excellent blog post on historical anniversaries that I made the connection. It's the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. Duh! *

It's an easy war to overlook for those of us who aren't specialists in American history. It's so small in scale and seems so pointless. British impressment of American sailors. The British burn the capitol. Dolly Madison takes a valiant stand. "They ran through the briars, and they ran through the brambles, and they ran through the bushes where the rabbits couldn't go." And then it's done.  In short, one of those little wars that only a specialist can love.

A closer look at 1812 tells a different story.

At the end of the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin warned, "The War of Revolution has been won, but the War of Independence is still to be fought." The Treaty of Paris in 1783 recognized the United States as a new nation, but left many problems between the two countries unresolved.

Britain and its former colony butted heads at every point of contact. Disputes over the fur trade, commercial fishing rights, and the placement of the Canadian border were common. American frontiersmen accused the British of supporting Native American uprisings in the Old Northwest territory. British ship owners complained, not unreasonably within the context of British law at the time, that if the American colonies were no longer colonies then American ships should no longer be allowed to trade directly with British colonies. Americans refused to pay debts owed to British merchants from before the Revolution and continued to seize property from former British loyalists. The British not only refused to relinquish existing forts in what was now American territory, they built a new one. Then there was the problem of impressment--the one thing every American school child learns about the war.

Things got worse when Britain and France went to war in 1793. Britain enacted laws that interfered with America's shipping rights as a neutral power. The number of sailors impressed to served on British ships rose. Americans saw every British decision as a direct attack on America's economic freedom. The British made the mistake of assuming Americans would see Britain as the lone defender of liberty against Napoleonic tyranny.

The United States declared war on Britain on June 18, 1812. Discussions aimed at ended the war began before the first shot had been fired and continued throughout the war. In the summer of 1814, a five-man delegation from America met a team from Britain to begin formal peace negotiations.

The Treaty of Ghent, signed on December 24, 1814, restored North America to the condition that had existed before the war. The war brought no major changes in territory and policy. It did result in a change in the relationship between Britain and the United States. Britain had been forced into a grudging respect for its former colonies and a new appreciation of their economic importance for British industry. The war for independence was finally over.

Not such a stupid little war after all.

*And speaking of anniversaries, History in the Margins just had it's first anniversary. I'm not sure if I should say "Dang! A year already?" or "Dang! Only a year?" Either way, thanks to all of you for reading along.