It is probably not the 4th of July any more where you are, but here in Honolulu we are still celebrating — and in some cases, protesting — America’s birthdays here in our islands. Since Adam has recently been posting about whether or not remix happens, I thought this was the perfect day to remind us of how malleable culture is, and how central to our American identity remixing culture is. Songs — particularly hymn tunes — are classic examples of pre-digital remixing, as people took lyrics and tunes and reused them in a variety of ways: the song ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ is, as some may know, actually about Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, the Nazi national anthem was originally a hymn which was originally (iirc) a choral piece by Handel. Large portions of Messiah are Handel remixing his earlier pieces in order to meet an unexpected royal deadline for an oratorio. And then there is, of course, our national anthem, which is actually a drinking song. Don’t believe me? Try out the first verse — I’m sure you know the tune:
To ANACREON in Heav’n, where he sat in full Glee,
A few Sons of Harmony sent a Petition,
That He their Inspirer and Patron wou’d be;
When this Answer arriv’d from the JOLLY OLD GRECIAN
“Voice, Fiddle, and Flute,
“No longer be mute,
“I’ll lend you my Name and inspire you to boot,
“And, besides, I’ll instruct you like me, to intwine
“The Myrtle of VENUS with BACCHUS’s Vine.
As any musician can tell you, the sprightly waltz-like tempo of the drinking song (as well as lines where you can grow across the phrase breaks) make it much better than the plodding, pathos-filled renditions our anthem is regularly subjected to.
As an old-fashioned analog — indeed, instrumentless — musician, I’m skeptical of claims that digital technology enable remix. What could be simpler than simply raising your voice in song? In fact, what I find so terrifying about our current copyright regimes is that they take place in the middle of a sociotechnical system where it is possible to criminalize all unmonetized semiosis. The national anthem helps remind us of the time when copyright and our country started more or less simultaneously: the Statute of Anne and the declaration of Independence were written within a lifetime of each other.
Call it remix, diffusion, rentextualization, or what will you — America’s strength is it’s ability to aid and abet variety. I’m not sure how the semiotically complex act of white guys dressed up as Native Americans dumping a South Asian beverage ingredient into the ocean got turned into a rallying call for ethnoreligious populist homogeneity, but I’m pretty sure it involves ignoring most of the cross-cultural connections which made the event possible. Indeed, as Ralph Linton reminded up over a half century ago, there is nothing more thoroughly remixed than being “100% American”:
Our solid American citizen awakens in a bed built on a pattern which originated in the Near East but which was modified in Northern Europe before it was transmitted to America. He throws back his covers made of cotton (domesticated in India), linen (domesticated in the Near East) or silk (discovered in China). All of these materials have been spun and woven by processes invented in the Near East. He puts on his slippers (adapted from moccasins invented by Indians in the Eastern woodlands) and goes to his bathroom, whose fixtures are a mixture of European and American inventions, both of recent date. He takes off his pajamas (a garment invented in India) and washes with soap (invented by the ancient Gauls).
He puts on garments whose form was derived originally from the skin clothing of the nomads of the Asiatic steppes. His shoes are made from skins tanned by a process invented in ancient Egypt and cut into a pattern derived from classical civilizations of the Mediterranean. He ties a strip of brightly colored cloth around his neck, which is a survival from the shoulder shawls worn by 17th-century Croatians. Before going out to breakfast, he glances through his window (made of glass invented in Egypt). If it is raining, he puts on overshoes (made of rubber discovered by the Central American Indians) and takes an umbrella (invented in southeastern Asia). On his head, he puts a hat made of felt (a material invented in the Asiatic steppes).
On his way to breakfast, he stops to buy a paper, paying for it with coins (an ancient Lydian invention). At the restaurant, a whole new series of borrowed elements confronts him. His plate is made from a type of pottery invented in China. His knife is of steel (an alloy first made in southern India). His fork is a medieval Italian invention, and his spoon is a derivative of a Roman original. He begins his breakfast with an orange (originally from the eastern Mediterranean), a cantaloupe (from Persia), or perhaps a piece of African watermelon. With this, he has coffee (from an Abyssinian plant) with cream and sugar. (Both the domestication of cows and the idea of milking them originated in the Near East, while sugar was first made in India.) After his fruit and first coffee, he goes on to waffles (cakes made by a Scandinavian technique from wheat domesticated first in Asia Minor). Over these he pours maple syrup (invented by Indians of the eastern woodlands). As a side dish, he may have an egg (from a species of bird first domesticated in Indo-China) or thin strips of bacon (flesh of an animal domesticated in Eastern Asia which has been salted and smoked by a process developed in Northern Europe).
When our friend has finished eating, he settles back to smoke (an American Indian habit). Tobacco was domesticated in Brazil. Indians from Virginia smoked it in a pipe, while the cigarette was derived from Mexico. The cigar was transmitted to us from the Antilles by way of Spain. While smoking, he reads the news of the day (printed in characters invented by ancient Semites on material invented in China by a process invented in Germany). As he absorbs the accounts of foreign troubles, he will (if he is a good conservative citizen) thank a Hebrew deity in an Indo-European language that he is “100% American.”
Happy Fourth of July!