More On Western Swing
Author's Notes: This is to thank all the readers who wrote in about my original Western Swing article, which appeared in the October 2000 Issue of PENCILSTUBS. Many of you wrote me personally or commented on the article. Some thanked me for mentioning relatives and sent pictures (see below). Some inquired as to where they might find a certain song or albums. Some asked for information on the artists. I hope I was of help to all and I do appreciate your comments. If I can be of any help in locating recordings, feel free to ask.
Even though Bob Wills is credited with fathering Western Swing, there are a lot of individuals and groups who were around early on. They came and went as things happen, but these individuals and groups were 'Swinging' and adding improvisations to Western Dance Music even before Bob Wills thought about doing it. If you can find any old recordings of these groups you might be surprised at how they sound a lot like a Wills tune. But then on some of these recordings, Bob Wills was a member of the band before he put his own band together.
One of the earliest Western Swing tunes in my collection is:
"Sunbonnet Sue" first recorded by the Fort Worth Doughboys at the Jefferson Hotel
in Dallas, TX, February 9, 1932. Give Milton Brown credit for the composition. And, if it sounds a bit like Bob Wills, well, he is in the band, with such others as, Milton and Derwood Brown, and 'Sleepy' Johnson playing tenor guitar. The Fort Worth Doughboys are a forerunner of Milton Brown and His Brownies, and The Light Crust Doughboys. The latter was a band brought into being by W. Lee O'Daniel, who managed Burris Mill and Elevator Co., the makers of Light Crust Flour. They were quite popular in the early '30s around the Dallas/Fort Worth area. But, both Brown and Wills quit the band when they were not allowed to play at local dances to earn extra income.
Bob Wills towers over Western Swing like a West Texas oil derrick looms over the flat sandy plains. But, many times Bob Wills is credited with some innovations that were really not his. For example, Leon McAuliffe and Eldon Shamblin are cited for introducing electric steel and electric guitar into country music. They did not, but both popularized their instruments playing with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboy Band. Six months before Bob Wills ever took his band into a studio, Roy Newman and His Boys (among others) were already recording Western Swing.
Here is one of Roy's in my collection:
"Sadie Green (the vamp from New Orleans)" by Roy Newman and His Boys. I don't have much more information on the record. Band members are not listed and the date is obscure, but probably very early '30s. It is a jazzy, swinging tune. Roy Newman not only recorded 'swinging jazz' before Bob Wills, but his influence stretches all the way into the birth of Rock and Roll. His versions of "Honey Don't" and "Everybody's Tryin' To Be My Baby," provided the basis for Carl Perkins' early hits at Sun Records.
W. Lee O'Daniel, who emceed bands, never sang a note or played an instrument, and I don't know if he could even read a sheet of music. He eventually was bounced from Burrris Mills and The Light Crust Doughboys. He did however form a band of his own called W. Lee O'Daniel and His Hillbilly Boys. That band helped him peddle his own brand of flour, and also aided him in his successful campaigns into the Texas Governorship and then into the U.S. Senate. Maybe some old-timers will remember the '30s Political Arena where politicians were going to change everything for the better.
Well, here is an old time favorite in my collection:
"There'll Be Some Changes Made." Credit this to maybe one of O'Daniel's campaign chants, but it is a lively tune from the mid '30s, by W. Lee O'Daniel and His Hillbilly Boys.
Sources of Western Swing go all the way back to early America. Fiddle styles began emerging in the Southeast and the Southwest. The early roots in the Southeast were the Scotch/Irish/English. In the Southwest, with the wide open spaces, fiddle styles were physical, fast, and full of life. Texas fiddlers were more rhythmic, more energetic than their Southeastern counterparts. Texas fiddle bands such as the East Texas Serenaders and Prince Albert Hunt's Texas Ramblers helped pave the way for Western Swing. Old time fiddling was at the base of all of Bob Wills' music. Regardless of how sophisticated Wills' bands became, he played a heavily bowed fiddle in the traditional manner, but he more than likely left the 'hot jazz' licks to his hired help. You have to listen to Bob 'holler' at his band members when he points that fiddle bow at one of them to do their thing.
Minstrel Shows are roots of Western Swing that are mostly downplayed, maybe because doing 'blackface shows' is a part of the culture we would like to forget. But, then Bob Wills grew up and even worked with Black and Mexican farm workers and knew a lot of the black chants heard in the fields. And, Western Swing is sometimes defined as 'white guys' playing jazz on stringed instruments. On the other hand, minstrelsy is itself a white innovation of the black music that became known as jazz. Whatever hair-splitting one wants to pursue, I have a couple of recordings from about 1930, that emphasize these statements.
Here is one of 'a white guy' playing jazz on strings:
"Hesitation Blues" by Al Bernard, accompanied by the Goofus Five, circa
And another of a white innovation of black jazz:
"Lovesick Blues" by Emmett Miller and His Georgia Crackers, about the same
date. (And, my gosh, here you thought Hank Williams was the only guy that did
Lovesick Blues, but he only did a down-home country version about 20 years later).
Minstrel shows began in the 1830s or so, and were popular in the South, Later they gave way to Medicine Shows in the South and Vaudeville in the North. Vaudeville did not hit the South until the end of WWI. By the late 1920s, the decade before the rise of Western Swing in particular and of Country Music in general, vaudeville was pumping the Tin Pan Alley Music into the South. Vaudeville brought Southern Performers into the North and Midwest, where they soaked up musical influences first-hand. For such musicians, Medicine Shows and Vaudeville were just different branches of the minstrelsy tree, as the careers of Bernard and Miller so indicate.
Al Bernard, billed as the Boy From Dixie, composed and recorded hundreds of songs in the minstrel style before his death in 1949.
Emmett Miller was born around the same time as Wills, probably in North Carolina. By the '20s, he had mastered blackface dialect and was working Medicine Shows. Miller's yodels, his jive talk, and his swooping voice, as well as his jazz backing, and his pioneering use of drums, were all major influences on Bob Wills. It is remarkable that he is not recognized more often, because Wills, himself, claimed that Miller was a primary inspiration.
One of the last and best Western Swing Bands, from the '40s on, was Spade Cooley and His Orchestra. Cooley lasted long after other bands were just bits and pieces of their former selves. By this time, Bob Wills had moved to California, and remained popular with guest appearances and Radio Shows, even appearing in movies with members of his band. His Tiffany Recordings made to be used as Radio Shows, helped to keep him in the public eye. Hank Thompson and His Brazos Valley Boys also were popular in California. Between the three, Western Swing stayed alive in the West. If it were not for Cooley being charged with the murder of his wife and being sentenced to prison in 1961, he may have remained as popular as Wills. His life ended tragically about 3 months before he was to be paroled from prison in 1969, while traveling to do a show for the County Sheriff's Association. There are still a lot of Spade Cooley recordings around today.
And, Western Swing is very much alive today, too. Don't forget, 'If you want to play in Texas you gotta' have a fiddle in the band.'
More to Come!
Thanks to The Family of Skeets Yaney for this old photo
of him (with guitar) and the band that played Country Western
and Western Swing, live, on (CBS) radio in the '30s and '40s.