By Tanya Silverman
Additional contributors: Zach Schepis, Dane Feldman, Ashley Rodriguez
Where do our cultural ties lie in such a young, diverse nation? How do Americans–whose ancestors probably originated from elsewhere–understand our national traditions?
Well, at BTR, we decided it best to break down our understanding of US heritage into a few themes. Here are the aspects that we are most proud of experiencing.
Zach – Music
What makes American music American? If music is humankind’s long heralded “universal language,” then is it safe to say that the United States contributes its own dialect?
In short, yes. I like to believe that the landscape of American music resembles the spirit from which it all springs–where there are seemingly limitless possibilities, a burning sense of immediacy, natural fluidity of access and inclusion, and a straightforwardness that can’t help but be honest. It’s a place and it’s a song where singers and listeners alike can transcend class and challenge to attain greatness.
Our unwavering call for freedom, coupled with an ongoing quest for self-identity, have together spawned a melting pot of genres distinctly our own. Racial identity–perhaps more so than any other country–has shaped entire forms of music ineffably tethered to bloodied roots of perseverance against hardship, discrimination, and the desire to rise above.
Take one listen to Howlin’ Wolf sing “How Many More Years,” and you can hear why the blues couldn’t have come from anywhere else. A 300-pound, shoeless African American who ran away and walked barefoot 85 miles along the Mississippi so that he could ease the burden of his hardship through song. He lived the blues, long before the British and other countries would get their hands on it with watered down rock-and-roll interpretations.
Speaking of rock-and-roll, that’s ours too. There are few genres more indicative of our essence as a country than this brazen, loose, swinging, bravado-fueled dance of wild abandon and freedom. What’s more, rock comes from genres such as gospel, the aforementioned blues, country, and jazz–all of which are also American. It would later go on to inspire the birth of hip-hop.
I challenge you: go out and listen to American artists from all decades; whether it’s Gershwin, Miles Davis, Buck Owens, Ray Charles, The Grateful Dead, Kanye West, or Taylor Swift, close your eyes and tell me you can’t hear the star-spangled stitching holding them all together.
Dane – Food
It is rather difficult to think about American food without first conjuring up images of the various cuisines we eat in the Unites States, both authentic and supremely Americanized. When I think about food in this country and the foods I eat regularly, I picture sushi, Northern Italian fare, Korean soups, and the occasional burrito, but I also think about comfort food.
The pinnacle of American food lies in the comfort food of the nation: macaroni and cheese, hamburgers, fried chicken, barbecued ribs, potato salad, corn dogs, and a good ole kosher hot dog. It’s no coincidence that most of these, if not all of these, are foods we eat on the Fourth of July as we celebrate our freedom and the birth of our nation.
There’s a lot to rally against when it comes to food production in this country and for good reason too, but on Independence Day I urge you to take a step back, embrace a cheat day, and indulge in some potato salad, tater tots (my personal favorite), or even mashed potatoes. Europe may have potatoes too, but rest assured, tater tots are strictly American.
Ashley – Photography
The saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words” couldn’t be truer. Images shape the world around us. They give us a glimpse into the past–a look at the possibilities of the future. They mirror ourselves or projections of ourselves, and through them we can see places to which we’ve never traveled.
Photography has allowed us to capture some of America’s most heroic and most destitute moments. Dorothea Lange showed us the desperation of determined migrant families during her documentation of the Great Depression.
American portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz has worked with countless artists as a photographer for Rolling Stone magazine. She is responsible for many well-known portraits of musicians and artists.
Celebrity interest has been weaved into the fabric of America ever since The Beatles first landed at JFK airport. Leibovitz’s iconic images come to mind like the photo of a bare John Lennon and Yoko Ono lying in bed for a 1981 Rolling Stone cover. She also shot the recent Vanity Fair cover of Caitlyn Jenner. Leibovitz keeps celebrity interest relevant with stunning portraits of artists we admire.
Clark Little specializes in photographing moments at the shore break in Hawaii. His images represent what many Americans seek: relaxation and an escape from reality.
Surrounded by rippling water with the light of the sun peeking through the end of a wave’s barrel, his photos are breathtaking and serene. Little uses his unique perspective from underwater to place viewers inside of waves, offering a sight that only surfers would otherwise see.
Whether documenting an era or event, photographing wave breaks, or shooting musicians, photography humanizes relevant issues and evokes emotions to which every American can relate.
Tanya – Land
The USA is comprised of a motley array of distinctive landscapes: arid deserts, deciduous forests, evergreen forests, rolling hills, rushing rivers, murky swamps, and everything in between. But for as much as these natural terrains have been traveled, documented, or romanticized, that doesn’t discount the opportunities we have to personally experience them.
Photo by Tanya Silverman.
I’ve watched the white moon rise over a serene auburn canyon in Arizona, and the sun set over the windy, pine tree-lined Oregon coast. I’ve tiredly ascended the rocky timberline at Washington State’s Mt St Helens on foot, and droningly passed through North Dakota’s repetitive snow glazed plains by train. Recalling instances where I felt strongly connected with the American land definitely makes me proud to live here, and the best part is there’s still so much nature left to see.