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Tue Mar 18 06:40:13 MST 2003
George Lipsitz: "Rainbow at Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940s"
Although the record industry still marketed black and white music in
separate categories, the cultural interplay between them exemplified by
Louis Jordan's songs continued to accelerate. In place of divisions by race
and region, a new national culture was being forged. The resulting music
market so puzzled the editors of Billboard, the industry's trade journal,
that they groped for appropriate labels to describe working-class music
throughout the forties, eventually discarding "race" in favor of "rhythm
and blues," and replacing "hillbilly" and "folk" with "country and
western." The new classifications proved more useful to many in the
industry, but they still failed to realize the full significance of the
embrace of black musical styles by large numbers of whites and the
impending destruction of some of the major barriers that had divided blacks
and whites in popular music.
When those barriers did fall, Bob Wills was ready. Country music's "king of
western swing" had been a construction worker and barber in his hometown of
Turkey, Texas. His band had been playing a mixture of country music, blues,
and jazz for over twenty years, but they attained their greatest popularity
during and immediately after World War II. Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys
blended a seemingly inexhaustible inventory of fiddle tunes with ensemble
styles from Dixieland, the harmonies of Mexican fiddles and horns in
mariachi and ranchera music, the instrumentation of swing big bands, and
most important, with blues forms.
As a young boy working in the cotton fields of East Texas, Wills lived and
worked alongside black people, and he never lost his reverence for the
music he heard from them. In the twenties, Wills rode more than thirty
miles on horseback just to hear a performance by Bessie Smith, and he later
recalled, "She was about the greatest thing I had ever heard. In fact there
was no doubt about it. She was the greatest thing I ever heard." Wills
slurred notes on the fiddle to produce a blues feel, and he once
proclaimed, " I have always been a blues singer." When he started to
assemble western swing groups in the thirties, he demanded that his
musicians display mastery of black musical styles.
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