Music and Place

Relationships between place and music can be drawn on various levels, as each influences the other.  While the physical and cultural geographies of a place often provide inspiration for music, and may even dictate style, music also influences the character of a place.

Creation:  Place can simply be a space to gather and create music or celebrate it.  Congo Square in New Orleans is a prime example of this.  This space where slaves gathered and played music was originally named “Place de Negres,” or “Place Congo.”  It provided a means of holding on to their heritage and culture and escaping reality for a brief time.  Another example close to home is the evolution of Appalachian music.  Many manual laborers sang old traditional songs to pass time and others eventually integrated a wide array of influences to create what we know as Old-Time music.  Much of the songs’ subject matter is representative of Appalachian ways of living and Appalachian people’s sentiments and values.  No matter the location, these types of spaces have been vital to the emergence of new musical forms and shared musical experiences.

In the past, certain types or styles of music were more closely connected to small areas, speaking to local-scale innovation and creativity.  In modern times, music seems to defy the concept of “place” due to the relative ease of movement and rapid sharing of ideas and techniques.  On the flip side, while it may seem that “place” becomes trivial or less relevant as musical influences and cultures mesh, origins of music cannot be ignored.  The importance of place has always been an integral component in the evolution of music.  It represents a certain time in history when people and situations converged to allow for the creation of something powerful.  With regard to Appalachian music specifically, no other place shares the same exact geographies, lifestyles, mindsets, interests, etc.

Mutual influence between place and music:  Typically, music is a means for telling a place’s story…for expressing values.  Therefore, the place itself infiltrates musical content.  Within Appalachia, the physical geography of the mountains is so evident in the region’s music.  The lifestyle of Appalachian peoples is a main component of the song material.  Furthermore, the content in music itself seems to influence a place.  We can see this in the power of music and its use in past social struggles throughout history.  It can drive people to act and changes ways of thinking and doing, in general.  A famous example of the unifying power of music is the performances during the March on Washington in 1963:

Preservation and influence:  A place, or space, can also allow for the preservation and celebration of a musical heritage, whether it be through the collection of material music or through festivals and performances to commemorate it.  Fred Bartenstein wanted “to fix a place where the tapes and records and biographies of these artists can be kept so that a hundred years from now, people could come and hear the original generation, the way they played” (Goldsmith, p. 189).

One thought on “Music and Place”

  1. Wonderful break down of the ways in which place functions! I am wondering what your thoughts are (as a geographer) about “place-based” musical communities in cyberspace?
    I am also struck by the example of the slaves in New Orleans— what types of music were being produced and what place did it represent?

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