Western swing music is a subgenre of American country music that originated in the late 1920s in the West and South among the region's Western string bands. It is dance music, often with an up-tempo beat, which attracted huge crowds to dance halls and clubs in Texas, Oklahoma and California during the 1930s and 1940s until a federal war-time nightclub tax in 1944 contributed to the genre's decline.
The movement was an outgrowth of jazz, and similarities with gypsy jazz are often noted. The music is an amalgamation of rural, cowboy, polka, folk, Dixieland jazz and blues blended with swing; and played by a hot string band often augmented with drums, saxophones, pianos and, notably, the steel guitar. The electrically amplified stringed instruments, especially the steel guitar, give the music a distinctive sound. Later incarnations have also included overtones of bebop.
Western swing differs in several ways from the music played by the nationally popular horn-driven big swing bands of the same era. In Western bands, even fully orchestrated bands, vocals, and other instruments followed the fiddle's lead. Additionally, although popular horn bands tended to arrange and score their music, most Western bands improvised freely, either by soloists or collectively.
Prominent groups during the peak of Western swing's popularity included The Light Crust Doughboys, Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys, Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies, Spade Cooley and His Orchestra and Hank Thompson And His Brazos Valley Boys. Contemporary groups include Asleep at the Wheel and The Hot Club of Cowtown.
According to Merle Travis, "Western swing is nothing more than a group of talented country boys, unschooled in music, but playing the music they feel, beating a solid two-four rhythm to the harmonies that buzz around their brains. When it escapes in all its musical glory, my friend, you have Western swing."
Western swing in its beginnings was just dance music. The term swing, meaning big band dance music, wasn't used until after the 1932 hit "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)". Recording companies came up with several names before World War II trying to market it—hillbilly, old-time music, novelty hot dance, hot string band, and even Texas swing for music coming out of Texas and Louisiana. Most of the big Western dance bandleaders simply referred to themselves as Western bands and their music as Western dance music, many adamantly refusing the hillbilly label.
Bob Wills and others believed the term Western swing was used for his music while he and his band were still in Tulsa, Oklahoma between 1939 and 1942. The Los Angeles-area Wilmington Press carried ads for an unidentified "Western Swing Orchestra" at a local nightspot in April 1942. That winter, influential LA-area jazz and swing disc jockey Al Jarvis held a radio contest for top popular band leaders. The winner would be named "the King of Swing". When Spade Cooley unexpectedly received the most votes, besting Benny Goodman and Harry James, Jarvis declared Cooley to be the King of Western Swing. On the other hand, The Billboard, in its January 29, 1944 issue, reported Cooley came fourth in the orchestra section, behind Sammy Kaye, Freddie Martin, and Jimmy Dorsey.
Around 1942, Cooley's promoter, disc jockey "Foreman" Phillips, began using "Western swing" to advertise his client. The first known use of the term Western swing in a national periodical was the June 10, 1944 issue of The Billboard: "...what with the trend to Western music in this section, Cooley's Western swing band is a natural. ... Music is not the true Western type... Dancers can foxtrot or do a slow jitter to it." A more widely known "first use" was an October 1944 Billboard item mentioning a forthcoming songbook by Cooley titled Western Swing. This, however was preceded by this item on page 11 of the May 6, 1944 Billboard. "Spade Cooley, who moved in with his Western swing boys several months ago, has released the Breakfast Club. Cooley moved up from Phillips' County barn dances at Venice, Calif., ballroom, where he was featured for 74 weeks."
After that, the music was known as Western swing.
Western swing began in the dance halls of small towns throughout the lower Great Plains in the late 1920s and early 1930s, growing from house parties and ranch dances where fiddlers and guitarists played for dancers. During its early development, scores of groups from San Antonio to Shreveport to Oklahoma City played different songs with the same basic sound. Prince Albert Hunt's Texas Ramblers out of Terrell in East Texas, and the East Texas Serenaders in Lindale, Texas, both added jazz elements to traditional music in the later half of the 1920s through the early 1930s. Fred "Papa" Calhoun recalled that around 1930, he played in a band in Decatur, Texas that played "a lot of swing stuff like the Louisiana Five was playing back in those days. We also liked Red Nichols and Bix Beiderbecke."
After ending his pioneering partnership with Vernon Dalhart, country music trailblazer Carson Robison formed Carson Robison's Madcaps, a "hot jazz" band with a decidedly country sound. Their recording of "Nonsense" (Edison Lateral 14085) in September 1929 was an uptempo, pioneering example of Western swing. It featured instrumentation common with dance bands of the time, such as reed and brass instruments, but also several elements that gave it some "Western" flair, such as a banjo being prominently "finger picked" rather than strummed (the standard role for the banjo in jazz of that time), a lush fiddle sound, and drums played prominently with a strong and syncopated beat.
In the early 1930s, Bob Wills and Milton Brown co-founded the string band that became the Light Crust Doughboys, the first professional band in this genre. The group, with Fred "Papa" Calhoun on piano, played dance halls and was heard on radio. Photographs of the Light Crust Doughboys taken as early as 1931 show two guitars along with fiddle player Wills.
On February 9, 1932, Brown, his brother Derwood, Bob Wills, and C.G. "Sleepy" Johnson were recorded by Victor Records at the Jefferson Hotel in Dallas, Texas under the name The Fort Worth Doughboys. Derwood Brown played guitar and Johnson played tenor guitar. Both "Sunbonnet Sue" and "Nancy Jane" were recorded that day. The record was released by Victor (23653), Blue Bird (5257), Montgomery Ward (4416 & 4757), and (Canadian) Sunrise (3340). Montgomery Ward credited "Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies".
When Brown left the Doughboys later in 1932, he took his brother to play rhythm guitar in what became The Musical Brownies. In January 1933, fiddler Cecil Brower, playing harmony, joined Jesse Ashlock to create the first example of harmonizing twin fiddles. Brower, a classically trained violinist, was the first to master Joe Venuti's double shuffle and his improvisational style was a major contribution to the genre. Photos from 1933 show three guitar players in the Doughboys.
In October 1933, Wills was fired and a new group of Doughboys went to Chicago for a recording session with Vocalion (later Columbia) Records. The years between 1935 and World War II were the most successful for the group. By 1937, some of the best musicians in the history of Western swing had joined the band. Kenneth Pitts and Clifford Gross played fiddle; in 1939, Brower replaced Buck Buchanan as fiddler in the string section, but playing lead where Buchanan had played harmony.
In late 1933, Wills organized the Texas Playboys in Waco, Texas. Recording rosters show that beginning in September 1935, Wills utilized two fiddles, two guitars, and Leon McAuliffe playing steel guitar, banjo, drums and other instruments during recording sessions.
The amplified stringed instruments, especially the steel guitar, gave the music its distinctive sound. As early as 1934 or 1935 Bob Dunn electrified a Martin O-series acoustic guitar while playing with Milton Brown's Brownies. According to Jimmy Thomason, "It happened when Dunn was working at Coney Island in New York...he ran into this black guy who was playing a steel guitar with a homemade pickup attached to it...hooked up to this old radio or something and was playing blues licks...and he got this guy to show him how he was doing it. I never knew this black musician's name but both Bob and Avis talked to me about him often."
In 1935, Brown and His Musical Brownies recorded W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" (Decca 5070) using a shortened arrangement of what they played at dances at the Crystal Palace outside Fort Worth, Texas. In the dance hall arrangement, the band would play at slow-drag tempo for as long as 15 minutes with an accompanying vocal. The tempo would then increase to presto for the final choruses. The crowds of dancers loved the arrangement and eagerly anticipated the change in tempo. Waltzes and ballads were interspersed among faster songs if the dancers, who would dance two-step or round dances, became tired after faster numbers.
A documented instance of a Western swing group adopting the newer, by then mainstream 4
4 meter swing jazz style, replacing the 2
4 style, was when producer Art Satherley required it at a September 1936 Light Crust Doughboy recording session.
1938 session rosters for Wills recordings show both "lead guitar" and "electric guitar" in addition to guitar and steel guitar. The "front line" of Wills' orchestra consisted of either fiddles or guitars after 1944. That helped the style gain a much wider following through the music of Wills and his Playboys in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Brown and the Light Crust Doughboys in Fort Worth.
Wills recalled the early days of Western swing music in a 1949 interview. "Here's the way I figure it," he said. "We sure not tryin' to take credit for swingin' it." Speaking of Milton Brown and himself—working with popular songs done by Jimmie Davis, the Skillet Lickers, Jimmie Rodgers, songs he had learned from his father and others—Wills said, "We'd...pull these tunes down an set 'em in a dance category. ...They wouldn't be a runaway...and just lay a real beat behind it an' the people would began to really like it. ...It was nobody intended to start anything in the world. We was just tryin' to find enough tunes to keep 'em dancin' to not have to repeat so much."
By the mid-1930s, Fort Worth was a hub for Western swing. The Crystal Springs Dance Pavilion was at the center, and it prospered as a country music venue until the 1950s. An estimated 1,800 persons attended a New Year's Eve Dance there in 1955.
Western swing was extremely popular throughout the West in the years before World War II and blossomed on the West Coast during the war. In the 1940s, the Light Crust Doughboys' broadcasts went out over 170 radio stations in the South and Southwest, and were heard by millions of listeners. From 1934 to 1943, Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys played nightly at Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa, reaching crowds as large as 6,000 people. 50,000-watt radio station KVOO broadcast daily programs. Regular shows continued until 1958 with Johnnie Lee Wills as the bandleader. Doyle Brink and his Texas Swingsters out of Waco, Texas, also played on the road for almost 50 years.
Phillips developed a circuit of dance halls and bands to play for them. Among these halls in 1942 were the Los Angeles County Barn Dance at the Venice Pier Ballroom, the Town Hall Ballroom in Compton, the Plantation in Culver City, the Baldwin Park Ballroom, and the Riverside Rancho. These Western dances were a huge success. According to Hank Penny, Phillips had said, "I don't want any of that Western Swing!" He got it nonetheless, drawing large crowds.
One groups which played at the Venice Pier Ballroom was led by Jimmy Wakely with Spade Cooley, his successor as bandleader, on fiddle. Several thousand dancers would turn out on Saturday night to swing and hop. "The hordes of people and jitterbuggers loved him." When Bob Wills played the Los Angeles Country Barn Dance at the Venice Pier for three nights shortly before he broke up his band to join the U.S. Army during World War II, the attendance was above 15,000. Fearing the dance floor would collapse, police stopped ticket sales at 11 p.m. The line outside at that time was ten deep and stretched into Venice. Another source states Wills attracted 8,600 fans.
Riverside Rancho, operated by Marty Landau, had a 10,000-square-foot (930 m2) dance floor, three bars and a restaurant. According to Merle Travis, "At that time "Western swing" was a household word. Al Dexter had had a million-seller on his "Pistol Packin' Mama" record. Bob Wills was heard on every jukebox with this "San Antonio Rose". T. Texas Tyler was doing well with his "Remember Me (When the Candlelights are Gleaming)". It was practically impossible to wedge your way into the Palace Barn where Red Murrell and his band were playing. A mile down the hill was the Riverside Rancho. You were lucky to find a ticket on a Wednesday night. Tex Williams and his Western Caravan were playing there."
Other Los Angeles "country nightclubs" (places that weren't "dives", of which there were many) included The Painted Post ("Where the sidewalk ends and the West begins"), Willow Lake, Cowtown, Valley Ballroom, Cowshed Club, Dick Ross's Ballroom, and Dave Ming's 97th Street Corral. In 1950, Hank Penny and Armand Gautier opened the Palomino in North Hollywood, "one of country music's most fabled venues, the commercial and social focal point of Hollywood's country set." "Western jazz" brought it its initial popularity.
According to one report, crowds of ten thousand people were not uncommon at Western swing dances in the Los Angeles area. Another eyewitness report described the California crowds as "huge." Western swing bandleader Hank Thompson, who was stationed in San Pedro during World War II, said it was not uncommon to see "ten thousand people at the pier" at Redondo Beach.
Fred "Poppa" Calhoun, piano player for Milton Brown, vividly remembered how people in Texas and Oklahoma danced when Bob Wills played. "They were pretty simple couples dances, two steps and the Lindy Hop with a few Western twirls added for good measure. By 1937 the jitterbug hit big in the West and allowed much greater freedom of movement. But the jitterbug was different in the West. It wasn't all out boogie woogie; it was 'swingier'—more smooth and subdued."
Another orchestra from the era was The Deuce Spriggins Orchestra, which played nightly at the Western Palisades Ballroom on the Santa Monica Pier, then known as the largest ballroom on the West Coast. The music was broadcast as a radio show, The Cavalcade of Western Music, on KFI-AM. The group also appeared on the American Forces Network's Melody Roundup radio program during the war.
In the 1940s, many "jukebox" short film features featuring prominent bands (Wills, Cooley, and others) were produced by several small companies, usually based on simple Western movie plots.
In 1944, with the United States' continuing involvement in World War II, a 30 percent federal excise tax was levied against "dancing" nightclubs. Although the tax was later reduced to 20 percent, "No Dancing Allowed" signs went up across the country. Jazz drummer Max Roach argued, "This tax is the real story why dancing...public dancing per se...were just out." Club owners and promoters couldn't afford the combined city, state government taxes. The decline of Western swing in the years following the war also reflected the waning of the more mainstream big band sound.
Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys remained popular after the war, and could not provide enough new recordings to fill demand. In 1947 Columbia reissued 70 of their older recordings. In January 1953 Billboard reported Cooley played to 192,000 payees over 52 Saturday night dates at the Santa Monica Ballroom, grossing $220,000.
In 1955, Decca Records, in what Billboard called "an ambitious project", issued seven albums of "country dance music" featuring "swingy arrangements of your customers 'c&w' dance favorites". Milton Brown and His Brownies, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, Spade Cooley and His Buckle-Busters, Adolph Hofner and His San Antonians, Tex Williams and His String Band, Grady Martin and His Winging Strings, and Billy Gray and His Western Okies all had their own albums. In November, Billboard reported Decca was rushing out three more albums in the series, albeit with less of a Western swing flavor.
Western swing influenced genres known as honky-tonk, rockabilly, and country rock, popularizing the following in country music: use of electrically amplified instruments, use of drums to reinforce a strong backbeat, expanded instrumentation, a honky tonk beat of a heavy backbeat superimposed onto a polka or waltz beat, and jazz/blues solo styles.
Moon Mullican, who had performed with Western swing bands, later found more success as a solo artist and his 1940s and 50s hits often were done with a more Western swing than pure country feel.
Western swing was one of the many subgenres to influence rockabilly and rock and roll. Bill Haley's music from the late 1940s and early 1950s is often referred to as Western swing, and his band from 1948 to 1949 was named Bill Haley and The 4 Aces of Western Swing.
Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Alvin Crow and The Pleasant Valley Boys and Asleep at the Wheel helped make Austin, Texas a major center of Western swing beginning in the 1970s. The annual South by Southwest music festival and the Austin City Limits PBS television series have contributed to this success. Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen were also key players in this revitalization. Western Swing Monthly, based in Austin, is a newsletter for musicians and fans.
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