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Tyina Steptoe

Tyina Steptoe is an assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of Arizona. Her research examines race, gender, and culture in the 20th century U.S. She is the author of Houston Bound: Culture and Color in a Jim Crow City, which was published by the University of California Press in 2015.

“Mexi-Cajun Blues: Accordions and Multilingual Voices in the Western South”
Mingo Saldivar sits comfortably in his tour bus as it zips between Texas towns and cities. While talking about his life and career to an off-camera interviewer, Saldivar plays his button accordion. Known as the “Dancing Cowboy,” Saldivar first made a name for himself as a conjunto accordionist in the 1970s. But the songs he plays in the documentary, I Love My Freedom, I Love My Texas, reveal a more diverse repertoire. In the film, Saldivar slips easily between conjunto, the blues, and country music. Furthermore, on recordings and onstage, he plays songs like “Mexi-Cajun Cumbia” and “Cajun Shuffle” that are clearly influenced by the sounds of southwestern Louisiana. By fusing conjunto, the blues, country, and Cajun/zydeco, Saldivar’s work illuminates a regional history of music, one influenced by the English-, Spanish-, and French-speaking people who live in the “western South.”

This paper uses accordion music to explore the cultural hybridity and racial complexities of the western South, the place where the U.S. South and Southwest meet. From Saldivar’s native central Texas to the parishes of southwestern Louisiana, Mexican Americans, African Americans, Anglos, Cajuns, and Afro-Creoles have incorporated a multitude of English, Spanish, and French voices into their accordion-based music. In addition to Saldivar, younger Texans continue to use the accordion to fuse the diverse traditions found in this region. Houston, a city located at the crossroads of the western South, has produced several modern musicians who explore these linkages. Beyoncé, a self-identified Creole, recorded a Spanish-language, accordion-based norteño song in 2006. Chingo Bling, a Mexican American rapper, includes accordions on chopped and screwed tracks. The sounds of accordion music that has emanated from the western South reveal a multilingual history of race and region.

“Vocalizing Race and Religion”
Musical voices have played a crucial and contested role in the historical construction of American identity. The belief in clear sonic markers of things like “Blackness,” “Southern-ness” or “American-ness” has been central to the notion that such categories are fixed and even natural. At the same time, musicians have consistently resisted this essentialism and—through their work –have blurred and transgressed these seemingly discrete categories and their broader social implications. This panel will focus on the disruptions, spotlighting three contemporary musicians—each using a different musical “voice” (accordion, guitar, and vocals) and each based in a different region—who offer alternative visions. Tyina Steptoe will discuss Tejano accordion player Mingo Saldivar, whose musical hybridity illuminates the racial and ethnic complexity of the “western South.” David Gilbert will explore how session musicians like acclaimed guitarist Marc Ribot create “aesthetic identities” that reconstruct musical history and re-envision its cultural meaning even as they mostly work behind the scenes. Finally, Charles L. Hughes will look at how the singing of Brittany Howard—leader of Alabama Shakes and Thunderbitch—offers a “disruptive” vision of musical Black Southern-ness. Through close listening and interdisciplinary analysis, the panelists will use their subjects to offer larger comments on the close and shifting relationship between musical voice and American identities in the past, present, and future.


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