Western Swing: Cowboy meets Jazz
(with a German accent)
In the mid-1930’s, two of the dominant musical styles in America, cowboy music and jazz met and melded together somewhere in the mid-south or southwestern United States. Some say that Texas, being a western state, yet close enough to New Orleans, St. Louis andChicago, the hotbeds of jazz in the mid ’30s, was the birthplace of western swing. It is also true that many of the Texas immigrants were from Germany and the Slavic European countries, all known for their polkas, waltzes and energetic dances. Perhaps in this environment of western, jazz and Eastern European dance music, the style known as western swing was born.
At its core, western swing is danceable western music: combining the sounds of cowboy (fiddles, guitars, accordion and standup bass) with the sounds of jazz (trumpet, clarinet & drums) and adding in the steel guitar, a relative newcomer to American music. Its song titles and lyrics, when present, are more closely aligned with Texas cowboy songs than eastern jazz: “San Antonio Rose”, “Cowboy Stomp” and “Get Your Kicks From the Country Hicks”.
“Boogie”, “Stomp” and “Polka” were all part of different western swing song titles, showing the influence from three distinct genres. For almost twenty years, groups like “Johnny Hicks & His Troubadours”, “Johnny Bond & His Red River Valley Boys”, “Paul Howard & His Cotton Pickers” were a part of the texture of western swing.
In its earliest stages, a “string band” which consisted of fiddle, guitar, banjo and standup bass played cowboy dance music. Later instrumentation was expanded to include piano, drums, guitar with any combination of twin fiddles, accordion, steel guitar alternately providing solos or fills between sung lines. The tempo was between 120 and 150 bpm, comfortable for up-tempo two-step dancing. Western Swing, like the jazz of New Orleans and Chicago and the polkas of Germany, was designed to be danceable, toe-tapping music.
The structure of the western swing song was more often like the blues (12 bar, 3 lines) or a jazz boogie than a verse/chorus cowboy folk song.
By the mid-’40s, occasional trumpets or clarinets were joining the fiddle section of three or four and the western swing band of 4 or 5 had grown to as many as 20. At the heart of the sound was the fiddle or steel guitar solos and simple, steady “dom-tat-dom-tat” backbeat of the drums.
Contemporary Western Swing group: Hot Club of Cowtown performing western swing classic “Ida Red”: