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josepp The hidden history of swing (39) RE: The hidden history of swing 02 Aug 11

So the idea of swing had to have preceded jazz and had, in fact, made the existence of jazz inevitable. The strange thing is, the earliest examples I can find came from white performers. One of the most important and yet unknown has to be Elida Morris's "Trolley Car Swing" from 1912. Classified as ragtime, I hear very little of anything resembling ragtime in it. What I hear is a very early form of female jazz singing. Something that foreshadowed Mamie Smith, Ethel Waters, Ella Mae Morse, Anita O'Day and Billie Holiday. The song is important because it is beyond a doubt an early rap song as well as containing the term "swing" that could only be understood in the same way that Duke used it years later when he said, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing." The question is, how did Elida Morris come to record this and who was she listening to as an aspiring singer?

Are we to suppose this obscure white female singer from the early part of the 20th century invented the notion of swing? Clearly, this is a stretch but it also demands an answer. What we have to concede is that the term "swing" in its musical usage has been around a lot longer than we care to admit.

We find a similar situation with blues. By the 1920s, blues appeared to have an entirely black listening audience. The vast majority of the blues artists were black with exceptions as Jimmie Rodgers who mixed rural white country song with blues. Howard Armstrong stated in the documentary "Louie Bluie" that he and his band mates in those days could not play blues for white audiences who simply did not want to hear it. We are told that Blind Lemon Jefferson was the first true 12-bar blues artists to record which was in 1926—that earlier blues artists were really singing Tin Pan Alley fare with "Blues" in the title but which had little resemblance to real blues. Yet the earliest known published blues is "Dallas Blues" written by a white Oklahoma City bandleader named Hart Ancker Wand in 1912 and there is some anecdotal evidence that the song was actually written by 1909. Must not be a true blues number, right? Wrong. It is a standard 12-bar blues published prior to W. C. Handy's "Memphis Blues" (a.k.a. "Mr. Crump") which was not a true blues to begin with. The earliest known recording of "Dallas Blues" was in 1918 by a black bandleader and composer named Wilbur Sweatman (who composed one of my favorite early jazz pieces "Down Home Rag"). The song was quite popular along the Mississippi River.

Again, we have to concede that it is not possible that Wand invented blues. That illiterate black sharecroppers from Texas to Mississippi—many of whom had never heard of Wand or his song—could have built huge blues repertoires and several subgenres (e.g. Mississippi, Texas, Memphis, North Mississippi and Piedmont) from this single source is untenable at best but nevertheless we must ask where Wand learned about blues since he clearly knew what constituted a blues number. On the other hand, "Dallas Blues" is a bit stiff—quite lovely but stiff. Whether Wand heard blues being played somewhere as Handy allegedly did while traveling through Mississippi or thought up the song on his own, Wand had a concept of what a real blues was at a time when whites were not supposed to know this. But our knowledge is woefully incomplete in another way: we can't be certain that Wand published the first blues. Earlier pieces certainly could have been published. But even if this turns out to be the case, we should not be surprised if the composers still turn out to be white.

By 1916, a white bandleader named Gus Haenschen recorded a piece called "Sunset Melody" in which the opening strain was a standard blues thereby belying the claim that Blind Lemon Jefferson recorded the first blues a decade later. Again, we must concede that blues were well known to the American public in the early half of the 20th century as was the concept of swing. As with rap decades later, whites picked up on it and some undoubtedly excelled at it. Wilbur Sweatman's band was undoubtedly one of first to truly swing in the 1910s but they recorded songs written whites and blacks alike. No doubt a lot of white writers and musicians enjoyed hearing their pieces swing as they themselves never envisioned and this had a great influence on how they thought about and approached new music. Then how did the blues of the 1920s and 30s become so entirely black? Again, that's one of those missing pieces—we simply don't know.

Remember that duringWW2, the Japanese cut off shellac shipments to the West. Shellac was essential for making records and so the government hoarded it for the war effort. This was compounded by a musicians' union strike that lasted from 1942 until '44. Newly formed labels as Capitol, resorted to buying up old records and record stocks, crushing them up, melting them down and pressing new recordings. By war's end, Capitol alone sold over 40 million records! That means a lot of old recordings were destroyed and no doubt a huge number were lost forever. So the missing pieces in our musical history are not so hard to understand.

Political correctness also plays a role in trying to understand the gaps in our musical history. White ragtime and early jazz singers as Arthur Collins have been ignored because he was a "coon-shouter" i.e. a white man who sang in a stereotypical black dialect. He makes us uncomfortable in this modern age so let's just pretend he didn't exist and, when forced to confront his existence, let's pretend he was of no consequence and had no influence. The truth is, Arthur Collins, for better or worse, was important to the formation of jazz—coon-shouter though he was. He popularized many of the songs and styles we take for granted today.

Brother Noah Gave Out Checks for Rain (1907):

Hello Ma Baby (1899):

To accept the importance of an Arthur Collins is to admit something about the roots of jazz that many jazz-lovers today simply don't want to think about. The lindy-hop evolving out of the cakewalk, jazz singing evolving out of coon-shouting—this flies in the face of the legacy bequeathed to us by the black performers of this bygone era who had a far-reaching vision of black-American musical expression becoming one of art—a distinctly American art. These black performers and composers include Williams & Walker, Scott Joplin, James Reese Europe, Will Marion Cook, Aida Overton (George Walker's wife), Wilbur Sweatman, James Scott, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Charles Warfield, etc. They had fought so hard against the prevailing racial stereotypes to advance the cause of black music and elevate it to the art form that jazz is now recognized to be (although we can't say that they specifically foresaw this particular evolution) only to admit that jazz at its root was helped along greatly by white artists and white racism.

But we must understand the racism in context. The racism of post-war minstrelsy and ragtime served to defuse racial tensions between whites and the newly freed blacks. Blacks were depicted as buffoons sho nuff but therefore also as harmless, contented, dumb-but-happy, comical and even endearing in a condescending way. As bad as it looks to us today through our politically correct filters, the Lew Dockstaders and the Arthur Collinses of that period were, to some extent, helping blacks to assimilate—as long as they knew their station in society. We don't know if Dockstader or Collins personally felt that way or were consciously trying to help blacks assimilate but it was the end result that enabled the American public to eventually accept black music as an art form and blacks themselves as artists.

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