A Short History of Western Swing
What's Western Swing?
When did I get interested in music? Well, I guess when I was growing up in the '30s. I had to go to a boarding school in a little town in Western Illinois, Nauvoo, that is. Population about then, maybe 200. So, what did a little kid in a little town, Nauvoo, do?
If I told anybody today what a kid of 8, 9 or 10 could buy from mail order catalogues then, they probably would say, "No way". But, I could send for gun and knife catalogues, hunting and target pistol catalogues, and, among others, radio and "electronic" (I don't know if "electronic" was a widely used word then) catalogues. Thank God, Guardian Angels and whatever else were out there then watching over me, I was only interested in radios, electronics of the time, and music (not playing it, but listening to it). Oh yes, I did send away for a couple of hunting knives and a scout knife or two during my young life, but they were indispensable items to a little boy in a little town.
But, what I really got all spaced out about was crystal radio sets, horse hairs, cat whiskers, and other little pieces of wirey substance. Crystals and radio parts I could send for, horse hairs, cat whiskers, and other wirey substance, I could find anywhere in Nauvoo. That combination brought in all sorts of radio stations (don't ask me how it worked, but it did). Chicago and Saint Louis came in like a charm, especially late, very late, at night and early, very early, in the morning. I used to duck way down under the covers with my ear phones and crystal set so the wardens (Sisters) couldn't hear.
So, what did I hear very late and very early? Here's what! Did you know you could send off for a hundred baby chicks for two to three bucks? Beef and pork, on the hoof, was selling for about twenty bucks per hundred pounds. The Chicago Worlds Fair was raking in a hundred thousand bucks a day. A bunch of mean, mad, "mamas" wanted Sally Rand to wear tar with her feathered fans. Mae West and her comedy routine about Adam and Eve got banned from radio, but I heard it on the illegal Mexican stations that would come in very late at night. And, throughout every fifteen minutes of choice information, advertising, market reports and news I heard music, "Western Swing" that is. Those great big powerful, illegal (because they used more than 100,000 watts to beam out their broadcasts), across-the-border stations would play one song, and then advertise or inform for about 15 minutes before you would hear another Western Swing tune. (Always Western Swing because they copped it right off the local Texas stations.)
And, just for all you music-illiterates out there who want to know,
"Yeah, OK, so what's Western Swing?"
Simply put, it was "Regional Music."
"OK, you got me on that one, lay some more on me."
"Regional Music" has long been a feature of the American scene. The vastness of the country and its varied population has contributed to this pattern and the trend continues to the present time Like, you know (did that on purpose), sophisticated easterners, midwestern hoosiers, hicks and hillbillies, rednecks, and far out westerners. The mass media and the American way of life give the impression that all Americans are alike and maybe the impression is somewhat a reality. But, even within the narrow limits of new Rock and Modern Music there are a surprising number of cultural variants.
Starting in the late '20s and early '30s, in the vast southwest, especially Texas and Oklahoma, and Louisiana somewhat also, a new form of dance music was being developed. It came from many ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Some were country boys who played music by ear, others were big city musicians who were interested in orchestration and jazz. It all came together in the bad years of the depression to develop into what is now commonly called "Swing Music" and divisionally called "Western Swing".
The elements of what went into this music are easily identifiable. The rage, at that time, all over the country was "Swing". White and black bands, Glen Miller, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and others were widely heard on radio, records, and personal appearances. Texas had its own heritage and the influence of blues, fiddle music, and ragtime was strong in this new music. The Texas boys used to hit town on Saturday and run to the furniture store which also sold records. There they listened to the "race" and "blues" music, and copied the lyrics to fit their own music to them. An old example is "Swing Blues #1", a tune recorded in the early 30's, by Bob Wills with some of his early band members, that incorporates 'race' and 'blues' into a Texas style fiddle, dance tune with bluesy words.
The father of country music, Jimmy Rodgers, was one of the most influential recording artists, and his style can easily be heard. Mexican Border music, Cajun music, German, Czech, and New Orleans Jazz, and of course the Anglo-American fiddling tradition can be heard through it all.
Not only musical traditions and heritages blended to make "Western Swing", but a number of remarkable musicians must take credit for making this music. The Daddy of them all, of course, was Bob Wills. Bob's ability to please audiences and to gather good musicians around himself, made him popular and he was on his way to fame.
Bob Wills, Herman Arnspiger ("Pig", you'll hear Bob 'holler' on some of his recordings) and Milton Brown (The Brownies) were broadcasting over KTAT in Fort Worth and soon were in demand to advertise Light Crust Flour. The band named "The Light Crust Doughboys" managed by Lee O'Daniel came into being early in 1930 and Bob stayed until 1933. At that time Bob started a band he first called "The Playboys" and when he moved to Oklahoma on Station WKY he changed the name to "The Texas Playboys". That name stood until Bob Wills died in 1975. In 1934 Bob moved the band to Tulsa, OK (KVOO) and bought his own radio time and advertised for General Mills. Leon McAuliffe joined the Playboys as a teenager and became a master at playing an amplified steel string guitar.
Leon first tried an acoustic guitar on his lap and changed the gut strings to steel and hooked up batteries and amplifier wires to that. It's said he had a few burned fingers on occasion, but he became an innovator and master of the later pedal steel guitar. Leon has some takes on an album "Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, For The Last Time" which was recorded by United Artist on Dec 3, and 4, 1973 in Dallas, TX. Bob was with the Playboys at this recording and when it was about finished he had a stroke from which he never recovered, which makes this recording somewhat of a 'keeper'. Although Leon recorded on his own between the '30s and '70s, he started with and ended with the Playboys.
Bob Wills learned to combine the folk-fiddle music he had learned from his father with black jazz and blues he heard on the records at the furniture stores, to develop his own style of dance music. After forming the Playboys band, with good musicians, and his own improvisations, he fathered "Western Swing". Eventually Bob Wills (Bob referred to his music as "Western Dance Music") incorporated every jazz idiom, blue note, syncopation, improvisation, and a heavy New Orleans Dixieland beat into his music. Bob Wills' music could, just as well, have been called "Western Jazz". It was the jazz that made Bob's 'Western Dance Music' swing.
Western Swing made a strong impact on the pop charts, especially during and after WWII and radio helped spread its popularity until TV became the mass media. But you could still hear it, late at night, on those high powered, illegal Mexican stations over the border in Del Rio, TX and Baja, CA. Later, after my school years, I could listen, late at night and early in the morning, on my Hallicrafters™ [better than crystals and cat whiskers (hope I spelled that ™ name right)] aboard a Merchant Ship all the way across the Pacific during WWII and the Korean War. And, I listened, late at night, while driving my rig between Alexander City, Alabama and Worland, Wyoming, and other interesting places between "A" and "Z", in the later '50s. All my students that I taught to drive in the '60s and '70s never heard of "drive time traffic reports". All they ever heard on my car radio was "Western Swing", but not necessarily late at night, unless they were taking a post-graduate course.
Getting into the history of Western Swing and making it a short history can be a problem as there really is no 'short history'. So here are more details.
While Bob Wills and others were composing the beginnings of Western Swing in the '30s, let's look at where they got their ideas for the music they composed and played.
I would suppose growing up in West Texas during the '20s, playing a fiddle for local dances, young Bob Wills would need to know a few selections to play. He probably couldn't afford to buy sheet music or records with the few dollars he might earn fiddling at dances. But, the local furniture store that sold phonographs, pianos, radios, and of course records to go with the phonographs, would let you listen in hopes of selling something. Wills and other musicians would spend their Saturdays looking through the sheet music and listening to the jazz records from the big cities. Something like standing in front of the TV and Appliance store now, window shopping and watching a program. If those city guys could play it on a sax or a horn, Bob surely could play it on a fiddle. And, if he put the right combination of strings together, he could sound as good as the big city guys.
What could you hear on records and radio during the Roaring '20s? In the early and mid morning in West Texas, most certainly you would hear the local station market reports (stock?, NO; livestock and commodities?, YES). These reports were interspersed with a
few Jimmie Rodgers' recordings and a few local bands good enough to play live for the station. Mom could catch up on her sewing in the afternoon listening to 15 minute 'soaps' of "Lum And Abner" and "The Guiding Light" with a few more Jimmie Rodgers' and The Carter Family's recordings interspersed. The name 'soaps' stuck because Mom was being pressured by the announcers to buy Lux, Oxydol, Ivory soap, or washing powder. In the evenings after all the chores were done the local station would hook in with a network and pick up some big band music from New Orleans, Chicago or New York. These bands played Dixieland, Jazz, Swing, and Broadway Show Themes.
By 1928 and 1929, Bob Wills was good enough to play on local stations, but he also worked as a barber to supplement his income. Eventually he met Herman Arnspiger and they played at KTAT in Fort Worth. By 1930 Wills and Arnspiger were joined by Milton Brown and that group soon formed "The Light Crust Doughboys". They had a good Jazzy, Dixie, Swingin', Inspirational, Fiddlin' sound that caught on all over Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma.
By 1933, Wills and Arnspiger left Milton Brown, and Bob formed an orchestra called "The Playboys". Then, when Lee O'Daniel, the boss of Light Crust Flour, tried to keep The Playboys off the air in Texas, Bob moved them to Oklahoma and renamed the band "The Texas Playboys". Wills had a good group and he attracted good musicians. Beside a fiddle and string section he had a brass and reed section. His arrangements and compositions had the sound of the big bands. Swing, Jazz, Dixieland, a hint of Bessie Smith singing blues, of Jimmie Rodgers strumming and yodeling, some Carter Family inspiration, west Texas fiddling, and the addition of Leon McAuliff with his steel innovations made new sounds. Bob Wills called it Western Dance Music; the folks who flocked to the dance halls called it "Western Swing".
SOME "ROOTS" OF WESTERN SWING
(As I mentioned, getting into the history of Western Swing and making it a short history can be a problem.
The first part can stand alone without this part and now, getting into the "Roots" can also stand alone.)
While Bob Wills and others were composing the beginnings of Western Swing in the '30s, let's look at where they got their ideas for the music they composed and played and the stylings found in the 50's and later.
The "Roots" of Western Swing can be found in these old recordings if you can find them. Beside old record shops and garage sales, some of these recordings have been remastered by various Recording Companies, and the Smithsonian. They have a catalog of old records and historic items.
A piano solo by Jelly Roll Morton, recorded in 1928.
Title: "Maple Leaf Rag" Composer: Scott Joplin
You will hear a break in the middle of this recording, not because the recording was bad, but because it was recorded on a portable disk recorder and about half way through, the recording was interrupted for a change of blank acetate disks.
A couple of Jimmie Rodgers recordings. Vocal and Guitar.
Title: " In The Jailhouse Now". Composer: Jimmie Rodgers
Title: "Nobody Knows But Me". Composer: Jimmie Rodgers
Both were recorded between 1928 and 1929 by RCA Victor. In 1963 RCA re-mastered many of Jimmie Rodgers' recordings and put them on LPs. These two titles are included on the LPs.
A 1928 Bessie Smith vocal. Recorded for Columbia on a 78.
Title: "Lost Your Head Blues" Composer: Bessie Smith
The musicians are Fletcher Henderson on piano and Joe Smith on cornet. Sometimes the Lyrics are louder than the Musicians, but in 1928 only one microphone was used to pick up sound, and placed in front of the star. Mixers, per se, weren't invented yet.
Three recordings by Jelly Roll Morton And His Red Hot Peppers, c.1926.
All recorded by RCA Victor on 78s.
Title: "Grandpa's Spells" Composer: F. J. Morton
Title: "Dead Man Blues" Composer: F. J. Morton
Title: "Black Bottom Stomp" Composer: F. J. Morton
This is Dixieland Jazz. "Dead Man Blues" is a New Orleans style Funeral March.
Louis Armstrong And His Hot Five. Recorded for Columbia on 78s c.1927
Title: " Struttin' with Some BBQ" Composer: Lillian. H. Armstrong
Title: " Hotter Than That" Composer: Lillian H. Armstrong
At this time Louis Armstrong did not have his own band. The musicians he called the Hot Five were studio musicians except that Lillian Hardin Armstrong composed and arranged these two numbers and she also played the piano.
Frankie Trumbauer And His Orchestra. Recorded in 1927 for Okeh.
Title: " Singin' The Blues" Composer. D. Fields, J. McHugh
Bix Beiderbecke (cornet) and Jimmy Dorsey (clarinet) play on this recording and are part of this band. Beiderbecke made Jazz a soloist art, he was called the first White Man Jazz Musician whose work one can take seriously. He was dead before he was out of his twenties, but his recordings survive because of his own sound and imaginative solos. Several in the band have trouble with Swing and trouble escaping from the jazzy cliche's of the day.
Fletcher Henderson And His Orchestra. Recorded 1934 for Brunswick.
Title: "Wrappin' It Up" Composer: Fletcher Henderson
This is strictly Big Band Era Swing. Solos or Section Solos are featured.
"Wrappin' It Up" was one of several Henderson pieces provided for the Benny Goodman orchestra.
Benny Moten's Kansas City Orchestra. Recorded for RCA, Camden Records in 1932.
Title: "Moten Swing" Composer: Buster and Benny Moten.
Count Basie plays piano in this band and the recording was made in Camden, NJ in the midst of the depression by a bunch of hungry, demoralized musicians from the Midwest. They hitchhiked to NJ in an old bus from Kansas City to make this and some other recordings. Considering their state, the music is excellent.
Fats Waller's piano solo recorded for RCA Victor in 1937.
Title: "I Ain't Got No Body" Composers: S. Williams and R. Graham.
This recording is one of Fats' best and most thoughtful recordings, his control of dynamics throughout is exemplary.
A Meade "Lux" Lewis piano, boogie-woogie recording made for RCA Victor in 1937.
Title: "Honky Tonk Train" Composer: "Lux" Lewis
You might want to check out some Jerry Lee Lewis (no relation to 'Lux') recordings, Wonder where Jerry Lee picked up the wild piano style?
Coleman Hawkins And His Orchestra's recording for RCA Victor, c. 1939.
Title: "Body And Soul". Composers: Sour, Green & Heyman
This recording was a full blown hit in the late '30s and was still found on Juke Boxes up into the '50s. Good jazzy dance music.
These recordings are the basics of Western Swing. The ingredients are Jazz, Swing, Individualistic stylings, Blues (Bob Wills went out of his way to listen to Bessie Smith), Dixieland and the artists' own improvisations.
And here are a mix of '30s and '40s Swing with some later Western Dance Music as it changed into Western (Honky Tonk) Swing.
A couple of Billie Holiday recordings for Okeh Records. Late 1930s.
Title: "He's Funny That Way" Composers: R. Whiting & N. Moret
Title: "All Of Me". Composers: S. Simons & G. Marks
The first recording says Billie Holiday And Her Orchestra. Most of these musicians were studio musicians. On the second recording she is singing with Eddie Heywood's Orchestra. Billie Holiday always said she liked Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong and you'll hear the influence of both in her vocal stylings.
You may think Ella Fitzgerald's recording for Verve, in 1964, is beyond Western Swing, but not really--this is Western Swing revisited.
Title: "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To" Composer: Cole Porter
This song was recorded in France at a Jazz Festival, and Ella swings in the manner of her beginnings about 1936.
Her stylings can be traced to Ethel Waters and Connie Francis.
Jimmie Lunceford And His Orchestra, Vocalion 1936
Title: "Lunceford Special"
Composer: Eddie Durham
A big, 'Big Band Era' Swing Band. The Lunsford Orchestra had good soloists, but no stars. Good Swingin', Jitterbugin', dance music.
Gene Krupa And His Orchestra, Okeh 1941.
Title: "Rockin' Chair" Composer: Hoagy Carmichael
"Another Big Band", but this one had Gene Krupa on drums and Roy Eldridge, the most original trumpet soloist between Armstrong and Gillespie. This was an instant classic recording.
Two Duke Ellington recordings with the same name, one recorded in 1927 and the other in 1937.
Title: "East Saint Louis Toodle-OO" Composer: Duke Ellington
According to the history of this song, taken from The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, the original title was 'East Saint Louis Toad-low'. Ellington explained that he referred to an old man called 'Toad' from East Saint Louis, so bent with age, that he walked as 'low as a toad'. The flappers of the '20s picked it up as Toodle-OO (like good-by). Good jazzy, swing. You can pick up on 'My Sister Kate' buried in there too.
And if you can still find two Jerry Lee Lewis hits from the mid 1950s, look for these:
Title: "When The Saints Go Marching In". Traditional
Title: "Lewis Boogie" Composer: Jerry Lee Lewis
Jerry Lee's piano stylings, sort of 'Western, Loud, Honky Tonk, Swing.'
And finally some recordings by Hank Thompson And His Brazos Valley Boys, a big Western Swing Band that toured the West from Texas to California in the post war era.
You will find these almost anywhere.
Title: "Beaumont Rag" Composer: Bob Wills
Title: "Headed Down The Wrong Hiway" Composer: Ted Daffin
Title: "Woodchoppers Ball" Composer: Woody Herman
Title: "Drivin' Nails In My Coffin" Composer: Jerry Irby
Title: "Summit Ridge Drive" Composer: Artie Shaw
Title: "Hangover Heart" Composer: Hank Thompson, P. Hagen
Title: "Drunkards Blues" A Thompson Arrangement
Title: "Cocaine Blues" A Thompson Arrangement
Thompson, like Wills, played the dance halls in the booming post war period.
By the '50s it became evident that large bands were no longer the in-thing. Even big dance halls could only pay so much for entertainment, and moving large assortments of personnel and equipment became unprofitable. The radio stations no longer needed studio musicians because of the large amount of recorded material and the improvement in sound recording.
Bob Wills and his brother Johnnie Lee Wills split the band and thus were able to play two gigs at once with only Bob or Johnnie required to put in an appearance. One good steel musician with big amps could make as much sound (noise? Music?) as an entire horn and reed section.
"Beaumont Rag", "Woodchoppers Ball" and "Summit Ridge Drive" are Big Band swing/jazz music made famous by Bob Wills, Woody Herman and Artie Shaw.
Thompson and The Brazos Valley Boys do their interpretation of these hits:
"Headed Down The Wrong Highway",
"Drivin' Nails In My Coffin",
and "Hangover Heart" are still that bouncy 1 2, 1 2 Swing, but done with a smaller group.
Some other Thompson tunes are takeoffs of hits like "St.James Infirmary Blues" and done strictly in Honky Tonk style with the words the red-necks wanted to hear. Popular in the beer joints that hired small bands for entertainment, the '50s term of 'Honky Tonk' music stuck ('us-red-necks' loved 'lost-love lyrics' which made us cry in our beer).
These and music like it formed the basics of and made Western Dance Music Swing.
A LITTLE ABOUT HONKY TONK AND HANK THOMPSON
The term 'Honky Tonk' came into being in the late '40s and early '50s. It was apparent that big bands could no longer survive. So, small segments of the big bands would get weekend or Saturday night gigs in beer joints. The big dance halls could no longer afford the big groups either.
The small bands could make as much noise with the big new amps as the old big bands could in an auditorium or dance hall. The beer joints and roadhouses soon found that they could get a big payday or Saturday night crowd with a name leader and singer with just three or four musicians. Of course, there was lots of loud music, lots of beer, lots of loud mouths and lots of fights, so, 1-2,1-2 Western Swing Dance Music turned into 1-2,1-2 Honky Tonk Dance Music. Little bands learned to survive in this environment by composing and playing what the loud-mouths wanted to hear. That shut them up and kept down fights long enough for the musicians to do their gig and clear out fast enough to save the toll on band members and instruments. As long as the loud-mouths were cryin' in their beer or dancin' with some lost love, everything went smoothly.
We had a flock of Honky Tonks in Saint Louis in the late '40s and up into the '60s right on South Broadway, on Jefferson and Lafayette, and on Vandeventer from south of Olive to Tower Grove avenue. Jenny Jammieson, a Skeets Yaney protégé', and Barbara Mandrell broke in at a few of them. Skeets, who played live on radio station KMOX in the '30s and '40's, had a place called the 'Wagon Wheel' in the old Gambrinus Hall just off Broadway at Selena street. Hank Thompson and His Brazos Valley Boys did a few gigs at the Old Jeffla Hall, renamed the 'Hucklebuck'. Bill Jones, who ran for alderman every time there was an election in Saint Louis, had a joint on Kentucky and Vandeventer and on weekends there was always good music and good fights. I never missed a weekend at one or more of the above mentioned beer joints and Honky Tonks, whenever I pulled my rig into town. So much for the history of Saint Louis' hangouts.
Here is some background on Hank Thompson, aka 'The Poet Laureate of Beer Drinkers.' From the days when the gentlemen of Heidelberg lifted their steins and toasted their 'golden days' on down to the corner saloon and barroom ballads, beer drinking has been the national pastime for 'the good ol' boys.' Like any pastime, beer drinking, had its hazards as well as its joys and Hank Thompson can tell about both in his songs. It's not all beer and skittles or fun and games when your home away from home is a bar. Danny Dill wrote in a song,
"They're sellin' forgettin'
by the drink at the bar,
And I'm at home with the lonely,
where the sad people are. . ."
In most of Hank's songs, he touches a chord in anyone who has ever found a few friendly moments over a glass of beer or found the bar's dim lights just right to shed a few salty tears.
A young boy in Texas had dreams of being an entertainer, and this particular boy was Hank Thompson, who made his dreams come true. Hank, and his Brazos Valley Boys, was America's Top Western Swing Band from the early '50s up until the middle '60s He began entertaining locally in high school. When he graduated, he joined the Navy, still devoting time to his music, to the delight of his shipmates. After the Navy he went to Princeton University for a while, but returned to Texas and the band circuit. Hank signed with Capitol Records in 1948. He not only performed but penned most of his hits. He was versatile as a singer, songwriter, and musician. An early hit, "Whoa Sailor", recalls his Navy days.
Whatever Hank Thompson did, he did it up proud. His rich down to earth voice, his story-telling style, his understanding of life and love give the songs he sings and composes their own special brand of Thompson magic. From one night stands to state fair engagements, Hank and The Brazos Valley Boys brought excitement when they used to pull up in his big pink bus. To people everywhere the bus meant a good time, whether it pulled up at a dance hall or the parking lot behind the Capitol Tower in Hollywood. Given a Saturday night, or any night, and the big Western Swing Band of Hank's, and you had the makings of a real "do".
My all-time favorite 'Honky Tonk, Cryin'-In-My-Beer-hit of the late '50s, is called "City Lights". It was written by Bill Anderson in 1956 while he was doing a gig in some little town. He was sitting in his hotel room looking out over the city streets which were deserted except for the street lights and neon signs of the Honky Tonks and he penned his thoughts.
'A vast array of City Lights,
as far as eye can see,
The great white way shines through the night,
for lonely guys like me. . ."
He recorded it in '56, but Ray Price who was doing Pop and Country Western, and had both followings, made it a hit in 1957.
Soooo, pop a' top, open a big box of tear tissue and get in a 'sorry fer m'self mood' and listen close to some of those sad tales, some not so sad, and some just down right funny. It's all western dance, honky tonk, cry-in-your-beer, jazzy, sentimental, if-you're-not-with-the-one-you-love then-love-the-one-you're-with, swingin', Western Swing.