Hearing the Americas explores the first decades of recorded music, revealing how ideas about genre, race, and nation were formed in the transnational circulation of people and records. We focus on the United States and Latin America, whose vibrant musical interactions originated in the African diaspora and were reactivated in new ways by the advent of the record industry.

Our goal is to overcome the barriers of time and technology to make this music easier to hear, appreciate, and understand. In this period, the broad genres we tend to take for granted, like blues, jazz, folk, country, or Latin, didn’t yet exist. Record companies were still figuring out how to market recorded music, and they looked for novel ways to re-package earlier conventions. For example, a record marketed as a “blues” in 1914 might sound like a marching band playing a tango. We want to make sense of these strange-sounding records.

Modern genre conventions often depend on some idea of racial or folk authenticity. Hearing the Americas instead draws on recent scholarship to examine how ideas about authenticity or racial character emerged from the commercial circulation of records.

Rather than simply using music as a decorative evocation of what the era “sounded like,” we want to make it easier to bring music into historical analysis. We use digital media technology to offer simple and clear explanations of key terms like “syncopation,” whose historical meanings might be unclear to non-experts. We explain the technology of recording and use lyrics and sheet music illustration to show how musical styles and technique were packaged and sold.

The site is not an encyclopedia. Rather than aim for comprehensive coverage of this vast topic, it makes an argument about music that develops further on repeated use. Individual pages offer a straightforward argument about the subject, and users can follow embedded links to learn more. Hearing the Americas, we hope, rewards both the casual visitor and the more committed scholar.

This project was made possible by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities

Project Staff

Technical Details

Hearing the Americas was built on Omeka S, using a custom theme designed by Kim Nguyen. The site makes use of the modules Custom Vocab, Mapping, Metadata Browse, and Numeric Data Types.

Project associates used Timeline JS and SoundCite JS from Knight Lab to create the timeline and audio clips embedded in many pages.

Contact us through RRCHNM.

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