Frankie Manning, “Shorty George”, Savoy Ballroom: The People and Places of Early Lindy Hop

 

Frankie Manning in 1938, age 24 (from the Frankie Manning Foundation)

 

I first heard about Frankie Manning through my participation in St. Olaf Swing Club, where we learn to dance a style of swing called Lindy Hop. I watched a few videos of Manning dancing, and even learned to dance one of his signature moves, the “Frankie sixes”. However, besides Frankie Manning’s name, I never felt like I knew much about the origins of Lindy Hop. Now, as a student officer of the St. Olaf Swing Club, I feel both an obligation and a curiosity to learn more.

“Dancers in Savoy Ballroom 1953” (from Grove Music Online)

Knowing also that Lindy Hop was created by Black dancers in America, I found that the African American Newspapers database was the perfect place to start piecing together Lindy Hop’s origin story. A column from a newspaper published in Topeka, Kansas in 1931 advertised for a spring N.A.A.C.P. dance happening at the Savoy Ballroom, which would feature a “National Lindy Hopper’s Contest” at midnight. The Savoy Ballroom, located in Harlem in New York, ended up being mentioned in almost every source I found relating to Lindy Hop and the early Lindy Hop dancers.

The Savoy Ballroom can be spotted on the left edge of this 1933 map of nightclubs in Harlem (from the Library of Congress).

A different segment in the exact same publication states outright that Lindy Hop originated in the Savoy Ballroom, as opposed to Broadway revues where the dance style had been made available to wider audiences in the U.S. 

“Harlem Credit for the Lindy Hop” (from Plaindealer)

At the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, a $100,000 theater was built to showcase the dance styles that had developed in the Savoy Ballroom. Fairgoers could pay 25 cents admission to enter the theater, where they could view 20-minute dance performances by “the country’s greatest rhythm dancers”. 

While I could not find a list of the aforementioned rhythm dancers who performed at the 1939 World’s Fair, multiple primary and secondary sources gave me the names of some of the pioneers of Lindy Hop. Along with Frankie Manning, “Shorty George” Snowden (who was genuinely a really short guy), “Twistmouth George” Ganaway, Herbert “Whitey” White, and Norma Miller (“the Queen of Swing”) were likely to be mentioned in accounts of the history of Lindy Hop. “Shorty George” actually coined the term “Lindy Hop” in 1937 as a reference to Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. The Frankie Manning Foundation website is an excellent source of short biographies of Lindy Hop’s founding dancers, including historical photographs. 

The amount of primary and secondary source material available on this topic thrills me, especially compared with the lack of sources on other topics of interest to me. I can and probably will dig into the history of Lindy Hop and the Savoy Ballroom for hours on end, but for now I can only share a glimpse into where my curiosity will take me: was Ben Homer’s 1939 song, “Shoot the Sherbert to Me Herbert” referencing Herbert “Whitey” White? The song has the ideal tempo and rhythm for lindy hopping, and was written during or right after when “Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers” were performing at the Savoy Ballroom. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not.


Sources:

Campbell, E. Simms , Cartographer, and Publisher Dell Publishing Company. A night-club map of Harlem. [New York, N.Y.: Dell Publishing Company, Inc., ©, 1932] Map. https://www.loc.gov/item/2016585261/.

Conyers, Claude. “Lindy Hop.” Grove Music Online. Oxford University Press, February 6, 2012. https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-1002219309?rskey=qigfiF&result=1. 

Conyers, Claude. “Manning, Frankie.” Grove Music Online. Oxford University Press, February 23, 2011. https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-1002092553?rskey=rYzt6E. 

Conyers, Claude. “Savoy Ballroom.” Grove Music Online. Oxford University Press, February 23, 2011. https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-1002092697?rskey=rYzt6E. 

“Dancers in Savoy Ballroom 1953.” Grove Music Online. Oxford University Press. Accessed October 11, 2021. https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-d58879bf34d84a3885995f0814115f9c?rskey=rYzt6E. 

“Harlem Credit for the Lindy Hop.” Plaindealer (Topeka, Kansas) 9, no. 33, February 27, 1931: [1]. Readex: African American Newspapers. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A12A7EF1A4AC47F2D%40EANAAA-12CCEC4829D292D0%402426400-12CCEC4830BFB0C8%400-12CCEC4856F06020%40Harlem%2BCredit%2Bfor%2Bthe%2BLindy%2BHop.

“Harlem’s Famous Savoy Ballroom Will be Represented at the New York World’s Fair by the $100,000 Savoy Ballroom Theater.” Plaindealer (Kansas City, Kansas) XLI, no. 13, April 7, 1939: PAGE EIGHT. Readex: African American Newspapers. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A12ACD7C7734164EC%40EANAAA-12C6036D48179C08%402429361-12C6036D939D3998%407-12C6036E6416AD90%40Harlem%2527s%2BFamous%2BSavory%2BBallroom%2BWill%2Bbe%2BRepresented%2Bat%2Bthe%2BNew%2BYork%2BWorld%2527s%2BFair%2Bby%2Bthe%2B%2524100%252C000%2BSavoy%2BBallroom%2BTheater.

“N. A. A. C. P. Spring Dance Mar. 16 to Draw New York Notables.” Plaindealer (Topeka, Kansas) 9, no. 33, February 27, 1931: [1]. Readex: African American Newspapers. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A12A7EF1A4AC47F2D%40EANAAA-12CCEC4829D292D0%402426400-12CCEC4830BFB0C8%400-12CCEC484AC7D788.

Pritchett, Judy, Mandi Gould, and Lindy Hop Reporter. “Biographies Archives.” Frankie Manning Foundation. Frankie Manning Foundation, July 26, 2020. https://www.frankiemanningfoundation.org/category/biography/. 

“Savoy Ballroom Exhibit – 1939 Worlds Fair – Youtube.com,” May 13, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6W6H586Aj7U. 

Van Dort, Paul M. “Savoy Ballroom.” Savoy ballroom, 1996. https://www.1939nyworldsfair.com/worlds_fair/wf_tour/zone-7/Savoy_Ballroom.htm. 

 

Who is she? History blanks on Elsie Blank

The summary of this 1929 photo from the Library of Congress reads, “Mrs. Elsie Blank holding a huge tuba and her son Jack holding the music for her at the Orchestra Hall, Chicago.”

The combination of this image and these words immediately sparked an avalanche of questions in my mind. Who was Elsie Blank? Why was this photograph taken, and why was her son there? How “huge” was the tuba? Was it 5/4 size, or does it just look “huge” to the summary writer in the arms of a woman? Did Mrs. Blank even play the tuba? If so, did she play in the Chicago Woman’s Symphony Orchestra as suggested by the caption of the photograph (“Features of the Chicago Woman’s Symphony Orchestra”)? 

Advanced searches for any kind of answer in every plausible database available left me with next to nothing. Interestingly, the most consistent results were offers to purchase the photograph as a poster (by which I am strongly tempted).

https://www.amazon.com/HistoricalFindings-Photo-Chicago-Symphony-Orchestra/dp/B07XBN48NR

https://www.ebay.com/itm/133862411495?ViewItem=&item=133862411495

Lost in a sea of browser tabs, search boxes, and quotation marks, I started to get the feeling that I was the only person in the world who wanted to know who Elsie Blank was. But then there was Linda Dempf.

Dr. Dempf, a professional French horn player, author, and librarian with an interest in the history of all-women orchestras in the United States, had written an article on the Woman’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago. I learned that the orchestra had existed in two versions, the “Chicago Woman’s Symphony Orchestra” (1924-1928) and the longer-lasting “Woman’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago” (1925-1947). Thus the plot thickens: if Elsie Blank was indeed a member of such an orchestra, which group was she part of? These groups and other similar all-female orchestras were started in the 1920s for a reason that one might predict: lack of opportunities to take part in professional music-making controlled by men. Unfortunately, this gender disparity continues today as the lack of written records renders me unable to learn much at all about the all-female orchestras, especially about Mrs. Elsie Blank. 

I am currently hoping for a response to an email that I sent to Dr. Linda Dempf, asking if she has any more information on the personnel of the Chicago Woman’s Symphony Orchestra and specifically any information on Elsie Blank. As I wait, I must turn to my imagination to reflect on my questions about this photograph. Mrs. Blank’s correct positioning of the tuba (see a counterexample) makes me believe that she did indeed play the tuba. Perhaps her son was in the photo to show a glance at the home lives of the women in the orchestra, who ranged from high school girls to grandmothers. I have hope that some real answers to my questions are out there somewhere, and that I’m not truly the only one who cares who Elsie Blank was.

 

Citations:

Dempf, Linda. “The Woman’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago.” Notes 62, no. 4 (2006): 857–903. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4487666.

Features of the Chicago Womans Symphony Orchestra. , 1929. Nov. 7. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2002712973/.

Harris & Ewing, photographer. Women With Tuba. United States, 1928. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2016889006/.

Hot Takes with Henry Hanchett

I have to commend Henry Granger Hanchett, a musician, doctor, and lecturer, on one thing: his choice of title for this piece, which was published in The Outlook (a New York magazine) in 1896. Posing the question, “What is ‘Good Music’?” in the title of an article implies to me that the author intended to answer that question to some degree of certainty within approximately one page, something most authors would be cautious of. In fact, Hanchett appears to have had few reservations about answering such large musicological questions, having also written during his lifetime a book with the title, “The Art of the Musician. A Guide to the Intelligent Appreciation of Music.”

In this particular article, “What is ‘Good Music’?”, Hanchett explores typical themes such as church music, the purpose of music, personal tastes, the roles of instruments and performers, and so on. However, what I found to be the most telling about Hanchett in this article, as well as the role of race and identity in his musical opinions, were his offhand comments about “Gospel Hymns”. He uses the example of the song “Way Down Upon the Suwanee [Swanee] River” being performed by a beloved opera singer, Christine Nilsson, to illustrate that even the most inferior compositions can be made into good music through a virtuosic  performance. In the midst of an article otherwise dominated by a casual and exploratory tone, Hanchett shifts to an exasperated condemnation of what he believes to be gospel music. He describes these “Gospel Hymns” as “not really worth the paper upon which [they are] printed,” having “no musical sense or meaning,” and overall, “not good music.”

As I attempted to get a clearer understanding of what Hanchett’s definition of a “Gospel Hymn” was, I searched for recordings of “Way Down Upon the Swanee River” (also called “Old Folks at Home”). This immediately led me to a video of Al Jolson, a popular minstrel show performer in the 1900s, performing the song in blackface in the movie Swanee River.

Diving deeper into the background and the lyrics of this song, it turns out that “Way Down Upon the Swanee River” is, in fact, a minstrel song written by Stephen C. Foster (and currently the Florida state song??). In addition to being written by a white guy for other white guys in blackface to perform, the song makes no reference to religion or the gospel. I may not know a perfect definition of what a Gospel Hymn is, but I’m pretty sure that this is not it. All available evidence leads me to assume that Hanchett hates this particular song, as well as the musical style, not because it is rooted in the racist practice of minstrelsy but because he actually perceives it to be genuine Black music and he’s just super racist. Although Henry G. Hanchett had his knack for musicological confidence, behind that confidence was the privilege and ignorance that make his opinions irrelevant today.

 

Citations:

Crawford, R. (2005). America’s musical life: A history. W.W. Norton.

Goldstein, H. (2001, January 20). Jolson, Al. Grove Music Online. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000014435?rskey=pQuzQC.

Hanchett, Henry G. “What is “Good Music”?” Outlook (1893-1924), Feb 15, 1896, 287, https://www.proquest.com/magazines/what-is-good-music/docview/136934140/se-2?accountid=351.

Martin, S. L. (2015, May 28). Hanchett, Henry Granger. Grove Music Online. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-1002283077?rskey=ittjn6.

Old folks at home. Song of America. (2018, July 16). Retrieved September 28, 2021, from https://songofamerica.net/song/old-folks-at-home/.

Root, D. L. (2013, October 16). Foster, Stephen C(ollins). Grove Music Online. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-1002252809?rskey=Yle74c&result=1.

Southern, E. (1983). The music of Black America: A history. Norton.