It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Idealized Swing)

The video series The March of Time was shown from 1931-1951, and provided Americans with a subjective take on current affairs or history. It reached a large amount of the American people, and “informed” many on issues they otherwise might be ignorant to. The video segment I will be focusing on is titled the “Birth of Swing”, published in 1937. To trace the history of any one branch of jazz is a difficult task, and it is all too easy to romanticize the story. Unfortunately, The March of Time does exactly that. However, the video does provide insight into one narrative that was widely disseminated on the origins of swing music. I would encourage you to watch the full, seven minute video here.

The popularity of swing music is undeniable, and The March of Time certainly addresses this. But not all swing is created equal. Swing music is described as being “accepted at Manhattan’s ultra-formal Rainbow Room” and “is indispensable at dark Harlem’s hot and noisy Savoy”. This fits into the picture painted by other musical accounts as well. To white audiences, as well as some champions of the Harlem Renaissance, jazz was music that had to be lifted up to a higher state and accepted by systems that previously would have turned from it.

Swing music as presented in “sophisticated” clubs like the Rainbow Room.

Swing music as presented in “dark” Harlem.

Ultimately, the video concludes that the Original Dixieland Jazz Band not only contributed to jazz idiom, but also was the foundation for swing music. This conclusion is not inherently flawed, and certainly has convincing evidence. Yet the context in which it is examined has some significant flaws. The narration states that “In England, Oxford students form a Hot Club. Members seek to determine whether this new music originated with the African or the Indian.”

The verbiage of “the African” and “the Indian” point towards an inherent bias in viewing those people as “other”. Arguably a third option should be included, one called “the white American”. Instead, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band becomes the savior of a sort. No, white Americans don’t need to worry about the popular swing style as coming from “the African or the Indian”. One can be perfectly comfortable enjoying the civil music developed by a group of white musicians for a respectable audience.

Bibliography

Birth of Swing. Produced by Home Box Office. http://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cvideo_work%7C1792778

What’s a Stavin’ Chain?

In 1938, American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax and the self-proclaimed inventor of jazz Jelly Roll Morton came together to lay down the definitive timeline for the birth of jazz. Their recording session resulted in a 9-hour collection of Jelly Roll Morton songs and interviews between Morton and Lomax. In the first song recorded during these sessions, Winin’ Boy Blues, Morton sings the lines

I’m the winin’ boy, don’t deny my name

I can pick it up and shake it like Stavin’ Chain’s

 

(Caution: this song contains some of the most explicit lyrics I’ve ever heard)

The phrase Stavin’ Chain stood out to me. What exactly is a Stavin’ Chain? Upon investigation, I found that this is not the only instance of a blues/jazz singer singing about Stavin’ Chain. There were songs by Lil Johnson (Stavin’ Chain) and “Big” Joe Williams (Stavin’ Chain Blues) that refer to Stavin’ Chain. From browsing various blues forum websites, I have found a variety of interpretations to what a Stavin’ Chain is. Some say it is a tool used to make barrels. Others claimed that Stavin’ Chain is a figure in African-American folklore famous for conducting trains. One man claimed that it’s an expression for having sex. Luckily, I was able to find an interview between Lomax and Morton about this very subject in Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings.

Taken from the recording Bad Men and Pimps

Lomax: And what about Stavin’ Chain?
Jelly Roll: Stavin’ Chain, well he was a pimp. Supposed to have more women in this district than any other pimp.
Lomax: Did you actually know Stavin’ Chain?
Jelly Roll:  No, I heard everybody talk about him, never get into his way…
Lomax: What what did you hear about him, this is very interesting cause, you know, they have a song about Stavin’ Chain
Jelly Roll: Well, you know, he slept like Stavin’ Chain.
Lomax: Good tune, too.
Jelly Roll: Yes, I like the tune, I can’t, couldn’t  memorize the tune, you know…
Lomax: Popular around New Orleans as well.
Jelly Roll: Yeah, at one time it was. Let’s see… that was around….19….8.
Lomax: Was Stavin’ Man a white man or colored one?
Jelly Roll: A colored one.
Lomax: Supposedly good looking.
Jelly Roll: Yes, he………. Women was supposed to be crazy about him.

As it turns out, Lomax knew this Stavin’ Chain character that Morton was singing about. Stavin’ Chain, also known as Wilson Jones, was an American blues musician that Lomax photographed and recorded in 1934. Stavin’ Chain was famous for his sexual prowess became a legend in the American blues scene. I’ve found that American blues music is one with an extremely rich history and is full of similar, obscure references. Hours of research can be done unpacking and contextualizing the lyrics from this music. For being able to do this, we owe much gratitude to Alan Lomax for preserving this music for future study and enjoyment.

Sources

“Bad Men and Pimps.” YouTube. February 11, 2015. Accessed October 02, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwxP8uT-zQ4.

“Jelly Roll Morton – Winin’ Boy Blues – Library of Congress 1939.” YouTube. June 02 2015. Accessed October 02, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fxkvu_gWlQI

Lomax, Alan 1915-2002. “Lomax Collection.” [Stavin’ Chain playing guitar and singing the ballad “Batson,” Lafayette, La. (fiddler in the background)]. January 01, 1970. Accessed October 02, 2017. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/lomax/item/2007660070/.

“Winin’ Boy Blues.” Community Guitar Home. Accessed October 3, 2017. http://www.communityguitar.com/students/Songs/WininBoy.htm.

From Blues to Jazz: Handy to Vaughan

Jazz is a musical style native to the United States, that emerged in the early Twentieth century. Jazz was influenced from Blues music, which was established most notably by W.C. Handy in 1917. Jazz has new sound that incorporates both the African American musical stylings and the European American form of music. This hybridization of the two heritages created a unique style of music which we now call under a big genre “umbrella,” Jazz. In the Library of Congress photo archives, a photo of the reputable Sarah Vaughan was present among many photos of white jazz singers. She became popular in the late 40s and early 50s when Jazz was really hitting it’s stride as popular music, with the likes of Frank Sinatra.

sarah vaughn

Vaughan was highly influenced by the early blues style, of W.C. Handy. Handy’s invention or development of the Memphis Blues, drew on the folk style of the old southern plantation music. The emotional context of this music is heard in the vocal stylings of the renowned Sarah Vaughan. The memphis blues eventually took shape to the 12-bar blues, which also led to the development of Jazz.

While Vaughan represents a big part of the Jazz era, more commonly was the presence of white artists, such as Doris Day, Peggy Lee, and Sinatra. They emulated the sounds of a soulful Vaughan, singing on topics that go back to the days of slavery.

http://www.loc.gov/jukebox/recordings/detail/id/7948/autoplay/true/

“St. Louis Blues” is a great example of an old dixieland jazz band song that evolved over the years. In the recording provided in the above link, the instrumentation, while has elements of a traditional jazz band also still has southern sounds to it… likely from New Orleans. In the video below, the song is presented in a different style of blues and jazz, one that emerged later with artists like Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, and Sarah Vaughan.

 

Bibliography

Gottlieb, William, photographer. “Portrait of Sarah Vaughan in Café Society (Downtown).” Photograph. New York, N.Y.: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs. Aug. 1946. Online.

http://www.loc.gov/jukebox/recordings/detail/id/7948/autoplay/true/