The Swing Era: A Time of Hidden (Beauty and Limited) Oppression
Amidst America’s largest economic depression, the small state of New Orleans turned to a particular style of music and dance in an attempt to find happiness within hardships. It became a showcase of African-American culture and served as a source of optimism for many. The quick tempos and masterful improvisation transformed jazz into a musical idiom of the 20th century, inspiring a mass movement that rampaged throughout the nation. From East to West, people of all colours, all classes and all generations lived by jazz culture. This was the Swing era. It was 1935 when swing became popular and Americans spent an entire decade dancing, singing and swinging away to the joyful rhythms. Many believe that swing was more than just a stylistic trend. It sparked a cultural revolution in America, introducing a time of liberation and social development. Feminism, individualism and the promotion of culture were all byproducts that contributed to societal progress. This is the narrative society preaches, and it is false. Humanity cowers behind a mendacious account of history to avoid the truth: although the Swing era contributed to sociocultural developments in America, the perpetuation of stereotypes, covert discrimination and white supremacy were constituents of an era that introduced reputably damaging forms of oppression.
The reinforcement of stereotypes during the Swing era was damaging due to its ability to disguise suppression The surge of Black artists led to an increase in cultural representation, which resulted in widespread subjugation. First and foremost, misconstruction of the Black community in the media was prevalent due to prejudiced, White writers. A video clip from Hellzapoppin, a 1941 film, portrayed African-American dancers performing the ‘Lindy Hop’ (a Swing dance) while wearing maid and bellboy costumes. The accompanying music was vibrant to match the smiles and happy-go-lucky movement of the dancers (Potter, 1941). This clip alone perpetuated many stereotypes. The use of those costumes implied that African-Americans belonged to lower socioeconomic classes due to their low-paying jobs in servitude of the White population. Moreover, the energetic and cheerful atmosphere of the clip undermined the racism and struggles Black people endure in an anti-Black society; it conveyed the false message that Blacks were content with their current quality of life. Black struggles of this time portray unprecedented means of subjugation as altercations became less physical and more institutionalized.
In addition to the development of damaging stereotypes, covert discriminatory practices were pervasive during the Swing era. One of the most prominent issues of the time was the lack of Black representation on the radio. During a 2002 interview, John Hammond, a renowned swing record producer, explained how “[w]e didn't have a Black musician in a radio band until 1942… there were no Black musicians in Broadway shows if the shows were white shows” (Learn360. 2008). The effects of this discrimination can be seen in the discrepancy of top hits between Black and White bands. “Between 1935 and 1945 the four most popular big bands led by [W]hite musicians… racked up a total of 292 Top 10 records, of which 65 were number one hits. In contrast, the four most popular [B]lack swing orchestras… scored only thirty-two top hits, three of which made it to number one on the charts” (Starr and Alan, 2014). African-Americans introduced and developed swing music, yet White people were the ones to profit at the expense of Black artists. As Whites received more exposure on the radio, success for Black bands became increasingly unattainable, which has been illustrated by the disproportion of top hits throughout a ten-year span. The industry’s purposeful exclusion of African-Americans on the radio stripped Black artists of opportunity, which further degraded the community and led to new means of suppression; this discriminatory practice was masked by false notions of progress due to a slight increase in Black representation.
Furthermore, oppression ensued through acts of White supremacy. This is seen through swing’s White narrative. As swing began to gain momentum, it was largely viewed as a White social movement rather than an expression of Black culture. In a 2002 interview, Bud Freeman (a White swing musician) explained how swing liberated White people from their social responsibilities through a recount of his first time listening to swing music:
I was not only hearing a new sound but witnessing a new way of life that I'd known nothing about. Because here were these people hemmed into this little section, impoverished section, of Chicago. And they seemed... they were really having a good time. They were having a good time because they knew no boundaries... They were not limited to the kinds of things we white people have been brainwashed into believing. And we'd go out to the South Side and go into their clubs (Learn360, 2008).
This quotation is the epitome of White supremacy as it focuses on White social freedom and ignores Black struggles. Freeman’s inaccurate description of African-American lifestyles insinuates that the African-American people were living a life free of oppression, racism and discrimination. He also portrayed White people as the victims of daunting social restrictions despite the continuous subjugation Blacks endured. In doing so, African-American voices were silenced.
Another prevalent example of White supremacy is seen through Benny Goodman; a White musician dubbed “King of Swing''. Goodman, although a talented musician, commissioned a lot of his work from Black artists. King Porter Stomp, Down South Camp Meetin’, Bugle Call Rag, Sometimes I’m Happy, and Wrappin’ It Up were Goodman hits
arranged by Black artist Fletcher Henderson (Baur, 2020). Goodman also recorded a cover of Edgar Sampson’s Stompin’ on the Savoy which quickly topped charts as well (KUVO, 2019). A lot of Goodman’s success derived from songs created by Black musicians. Consequently, it is evident that consumerist behaviour indicated a strong bias towards music created by Whites rather than song quality. Benny Goodman was still dubbed “King of Swing” despite the fact that many of his top hits were composed by Black artists. This clear favour for White artists reduced the presence of Black musicians within the industry and thus ensued the marginalization of the African-American community in the music industry. Overall, White supremacy during the Swing era contributed significantly to the suppression of African-Americans as seen through the White narrative and the “King of Swing”. Once again, this era introduced subtle means of oppression through the continuance of Swing’s White narrative in society.
The surge in cultural exposure during the swing era concealed the immense oppression racialized groups experienced throughout the decade. White supremacy, covert discrimination, and the enforcement of stereotypes worked to further subjugate marginalized people. As swing became more mainstream, so did oppressive and racist behaviour, an issue still seen today. African-Americans are still at a disadvantage in society a century after the Swing era’s alleged step towards integration. Through analyzing the Swing era, it has become evident that society can be incredulously deceptive. Swing has been commended for its role in promoting societal unification yet African-Americans and Whites remain segregated. One cannot help but wonder what other eras have been romanticized by history’s writers.
About the author:
Leena has been studying music for ten years and recently received her Level 8 RCM credential, making her a qualified music teacher. She is graduating from John Fraser Secondary as the Valedictorian of her grade 12 class. In the fall, she will be attending the University of Toronto Mississauga to study social sciences in hopes of attending law school after.
Bauer, Patricia. "Fletcher Henderson." Encyclopædia Britannica. September 3, 2020. Accessed October 27, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Fletcher-Henderson.
Hellzapoppin. Directed by H. C. Potter. 1941. Accessed October 25, 2020.
Jungle Music: Jazz—All You Need Is Love: A History of Popular Music. Learn360. 2008. Accessed October 23, 2020.
KUVO. ""Stompin' at the Savoy": Listener Picks, April 10." KUVO. April 24, 2019. Accessed October 27, 2020. https://www.kuvo.org/stompin-at-the-savoy-listener-picks-april-10/.
Starr, Larry, and Christopher Alan Waterman. American Popular Music: From Minstrelsy to MP3. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Swing That Music! Swing: All You Need Is Love—A History of Popular Music. Learn360. 2008. Accessed October 23, 2020.