Swing, That Modern Sound

Swing, That Modern Sound

Swing, That Modern Sound

Swing, That Modern Sound


It was for stage bands, for dancing, and for a jiving mood of letting go. Throughout the nation swing re-sounded with the spirit of good times.

But this pop genre, for a decade America's favorite, arose during the worst of times, the Great Depression.

From its peak in the 1930s until bebop, r & b, and country swamped it after World War II, swing defined an American generation and measured America's musical heartbeat. In its heyday swing reached a mass audience of very disparate individuals and united them. They perceived in the tempers and tempos of swing the very definition of modernity.

A survey of the thirties reveals that the time was indeed the Swing Era, America's segue into modernity. What social structures encouraged swing's creation, acceptance, and popularity? Swing, That Modern Sound examines the cultural and historical significance of swing and tells how and why it achieved its audience, unified its fans, defined its generation, and, after World War II, fell into decline.

What fed the music? And, in turn, what did the music feed? This book shows that swing manifested the kind of up-to-date allure that the populace craved. Swing sounded modern, happy, optimistic. It flouted the hardship signals of the Great Depression. The key to its rise and appeal, this book argues, was its all-out appropriation of modernity--consumer advertising, the language and symbols of consumption, and the public's all-too-evident wish for goods during a period of scarcity.

As it examines the role of race, class, and gender in the creation of this modern music, Swing, That Modern Sound tells how a music genre came to symbolize the cultural revolution taking place in America.

Kenneth J. Bindas is an associate professor of history at Kent State University, Trumbull Campus, in Warren, Ohio. He is the author of All of This Music Belongs to the Nation: The WPA's Federal Music Project and American Society, 1935--1939.


Swing music has experienced a revival of sorts over the last few years. Scan the entertainment sections of the nation’s newspapers and see the advertisements for bands with swing-like names and clubs announcing swing dance lessons. Going to one of these events, you notice what these people—who obviously weren’t around in the 1930s or 1940s—have appropriated regarding swing. They are not authentic swing bands, nor are the songs they play swing by musical definition. Yet the people in these clubs are stylistically connected to the swing era. Many of them dress in period clothes, use language from the era, and mimic dance styles such as the Lindy Hop.

It is their selection of symbols of the swing era that concerns this study. They are attracted to the style of swing, from the hard streamlines of their jackets, pants, and dresses, to the symmetry of their fedoras and pillboxes, to their fascination with the precision required of the dances they try to learn. Their appropriation of swing’s more symbolic appearances does not suggest an inauthentic response, for during its era many saw the music as less modern and innovative than the jazz that came before it or the bebop that would follow. in fact, one of the characteristics of swing was its commercial appeal, which many critics, and even musicians, associated with a certain watering-down of the creative aspects of jazz, as though its success made it less authentic. When the kids screamed and swayed and called out for hot solos during a show, some found it too popular, as if by their visible . . .

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