Crooners and Swing

Crooners and Swing

Wall Street Crash in 1929

In the autumn of 1929 came the catastrophe which so few had anticipated but which in retrospect seems inevitable–prices broke on the New York Stock Exchange, dragging down with them in their fall, first the economy of the United States itself, subsequently that of Europe and the rest of the world. Financial losses of such magnitude had never before been known in the history of capitalist society, and the ensuing depression was also unprecedented in scope.

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Bing Crosby’s Sweet Music for Poor America

Bing Crosby was the King of Crooners and one of the best examples of great singing! His voice is still heard everyday around the world. At the opening of the twentieth century the decisive influence of the ragtime pianists fell on white audiences tiring of the minstrel show and willing to pay to hear black performers. At the same time the American band was being heard everywhere, promoted by John Philip Sousa, the most successful musician of his time, and testifying among other things to pugnacious nationalism. Both phenomena would modulate into dance bands playing vigorous dance music.

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Radio Music at Home and Wartime Dance Halls

A boom in social dancing began during the second decade of the twentieth century, along with the first recognition of music called jazz. Nat Shapiro quotes Variety as estimating that in the mid-1920s there were 60,000 dance bands playing on the dance floors of jazz age America. Beginning in 1920, radio broadcasting brought recorded and live music into homes, posing an economic challenge to pianos and combining with the Depression in 1929 to decimate record and phonograph sales.

The music that America absorbed through these media came mostly from New York, from Tin Pan Alley publishing houses and from the flourishing Broadway stage, reproduced also in vaudeville houses across the country. When in the middle of the 1920s recording engineers developed microphones to replace recording horns, a new softer “crooning” performance became possible and stylish on records and over the radio.

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V for Victory

A slogan devised in 1941 by the British propaganda offices as a rallying cry for the citizens of European countries which had been occupied by German troops during World War II. It was represented by three distinctive symbols: the capital letter V of the Roman alphabet; three dots and a dash (… -), the signal for the letter V in Morse telegraphic code, known and used internationally; and the opening bar of the first movement of Beethoven Fifth Symphony, which resembles the Morse signal rhythmically.

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V for Victory

V for Victory

A slogan devised in 1941 by the British propaganda offices as a rallying cry for the citizens of European countries which had been occupied by German troops during World War II.

It was represented by three distinctive symbols: the capital letter V of the Roman alphabet; three dots and a dash (…-), the signal for the letter V in Morse telegraphic code, known and used internationally; and the opening bar of the first movement of Beethoven Fifth Symphony, which resembles the Morse signal rhythmically.

It was hoped that the slogan and its symbols would serve as a signal to arouse the populations of the conquered nations to revolt against the Germans, but the latter vitiated this movement by adopting the idea and using it as their own, asserting that a “V for Victory” meant victory in the war for Germany.

In isolated uprisings against the German armies of occupation, however, V’s would be found scrawled on walls, or on risk of death a peasant might tap out three dots and a dash on a table-top. In the U.S. the letter V and the Morse signal supplied a popular design for costume jewelry and printed fabrics and was once used in a whiskey advertisement.

Next Page: The Dominance of the Big Five Hollywood Studios

Radio Music and Wartime Dance Halls

Radio Music and Wartime Dance Halls

A boom in social dancing began during the second decade of the twentieth century, along with the first recognition of music called jazz. Nat Shapiro quotes Variety as estimating that in the mid-1920s there were 60,000 dance bands playing on the dance floors of jazz age America.

Beginning in 1920, radio broadcasting brought recorded and live music into homes, posing an economic challenge to pianos and combining with the Depression in 1929 to decimate record and phonograph sales. The music that America absorbed through these media came mostly from New York, from Tin Pan Alley publishing houses and from the flourishing Broadway stage, reproduced also in vaudeville houses across the country. When in the middle of the 1920s recording engineers developed microphones to replace recording horns, a new softer “crooning” performance became possible and stylish on records and over the radio.

Al Jolson’s songs on screen in 1927 opened another medium. When the Depression crippled the New York musical theater, Hollywood studios became the patrons of much of professional songwriting, for the movies that were the country’s largest entertainment indulgence during the 1930s. The record industry struggled back late in the decade, dominated by the big swing bands and their vocalists. As the war overtook the United States, a significant economic struggle surfaced in musical entertainment. The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers ( ASCAP) had been formed in 1914 to collect performance royalties for the owners of song copyrights.

By 1939 it held monopoly power over popular music performance, and a contract dispute with radio broadcasters led to the formation of Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI) as a rival guild. Following a ten-month interval in 1941 during which no ASCAP music could be played on the radio, causing a boom in classical, folk, and public domain music generally, ASCAP entered into a new broadcast contract, but BMI continued and grew.

BMI, growing out of the dispute where its rival stood for established interests, came to represent popular music from outside the New York-Hollywood establishment, and local markets compared with the network emphasis of ASCAP. An institution had appeared to reflect the regional, rural, and minority interests in the music world that would gain great audience support after the war.

The history of popular music suggests that it is very unlikely that musical entertainment can induce new behavior, or even introduce new ideas to the audience it must court in order to sell itself. Though popular music has been blamed in the past for undermining community standards or otherwise damaging society, it is a new phenomenon for popular music to have the pervasive presence that prosperity and the portable radio and tape deck have given it lately, and for such conspicuous economic power to be vested in a youth audience. The history of popular music that is now happening cannot be fully schematized and managed by the patterns of earlier popular music. Its development has always been contingent, surprising, and even discontinuous except when we rationalize it with hindsight, and it is continuing that unpredictable development now.

As the United States pulled out of the Depression, a more vigorous style of band music began to be widely heard. Reviving fortunes far the record industry – in particular Decca’s introduction of a cheap (35-cent) record – played a part, but radio was preeminently responsible. One crucial element, however, was new: the beginnings of a youth audience.

When band leader Benny Goodman won popular acdairn in Los Angeles and thus inaugurated the “swing” era in July 1935, his audience were in their teens and early twenties. Let’s Dance, the show on which Goodman’s band appeared, was broadcast too Iate for the younger audience on the East Coast, but feli right into the mid-evening listening slot of the young West Coast audience, who turned out in force to hear the band live.

Goodman’s hugely popular music was not new. It operated on principles borrowed from the Fletcher Henderson band of the Iate twenties and early thirties. Swing took the form of simplified melodies, using riffs, or short, rhythmically interesting melodic fragments: a propulsive, even meter, cali and response between brass and wind sections; and a swinging relationship between rhythm and melody.

Always eager students, the average Americans turn to the idealistic Englishman H. G. Wells for a popular historical outline. Edwin E. Slosson ‘s Creative Chemistry, Paul deKruif’s Microbe Hunters, Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy, Harry Overstreet’s About Ourselves, Lewis Mum ford ‘s Technics and Civilization, and the pseudoanthropological writings of Freud, Adler, and Jung take the place of Benjamin Franklin’s humanist and Biblical backgrounds. For his economic and political theory the American depends too greatly upon the daily press and the radio. The actual drama of modern life has become so thrilling that the arts pale by comparison. In 1939 a radio drama telling of the invasion of this world by people from Mars appeared to be so real that many could not distinguish it from actual reports of armies in Europe about to destroy civilization.

Swing echoed the familiar pattem: a challenge to the status quo, based on approaches and techniques derived from black music; partial absorption into the white mainstream; conflict with the cultural establishment; eventual compromise. In the case of swing, the conflict took the form not of moral or esthetic condemnation but of a turning by some bands to classically-derived techniques and traditions.

This process was clearest in the music of Glenn Miller, whose band led the popularity polls in the early 1940s. Miller’s trademark was the sonority of his wind section, achieved by using saxophones topped by a clarinet. The discipline and precision needed to realize his sound were equally important, whether the effect was romantic, up-tempo or even improvised. As a result of these processes, the music did not threaten the mainstream; but for all that, when Glenn Miller’s music is compared with that of Paul Whiteman, we can see just how far the black influence on white America had advanced.

Like ragtime and jazz before it, swing was first and foremost a music for dancing; and once again that dancing – “jitterbugging” – was derived from black America. it was also much closer to black America. Taken to extremes (as they often were) the physical demands of such dancing confirmed the more youthful fans as the principal consumers.

Radio music in the home, while still the main source of family entertainment, did not satisfy the social and physical requirements of the new dance craze. By the forties, wartime dance halls, throbbing with life as no fantasy nightspot of the Depression had done, became focal points of activity. The reviving record industry, through its newoutlet, the jukebox, also encouraged the consumptian of music outside the home. Records and jukeboxes were gradually increasing the familiarity of both whites and blacks with each other’s bands, but the mainstream was still not ready to accept black music on its own terms.

Perhaps only Duke Ellington was able to “cross over” without sacrificing the essential nature of his music to commercialism. Dances were stili largely segregated. Most were for whites only, and featured white bands. it was rare for a white band to play for a black dance – but then, few white bands could have satisfied the black dancers. In the bands themselves, efforts to increase integration had not made much progress.

An important gesture was Goodman’s inclusion in his band of black musicians Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton, on the prompting of impresario John Hammond. Nevertheless, too many black musicians had been exposed to the trauma of racial insult while performing with white bands for this to kindle any enthusiasm.

Next Page: V for Victory

Bing Crosby’s Sweet Music for Poor America

Bing Crosby's Sweet Music for Poor America

Bing Crosby was the King of Crooners and one of the best examples of great singing! His voice is still heard everyday around the world. At the opening of the twentieth century the decisive influence of the ragtime pianists fell on white audiences tiring of the minstrel show and willing to pay to hear black performers. At the same time the American band was being heard everywhere, promoted by John Philip Sousa, the most successful musician of his time, and testifying among other things to pugnacious nationalism. Both phenomena would modulate into dance bands playing vigorous dance music.

Burgeoning displays of sheet music in neighborhood stores, often music calling itself rag, attracted a diverse public, much of which never heard the concerts of the creators of ragtime. Modest as well as prosperous homes had a keyboard, either a piano or the less expensive reed organ: the industry built 107,000 harmoniums a year in 1900, and 177,000 pianos.

By 1909, the figure was 364,000 pianos. Piano music was available beyond the proportion of the population that could play: by 1925, more than half the pianos produced were automatics, using player rolls for current hits Such instruments, giving out more and better sound than the evolving phonograph had yet mastered, tuned the audience more closely than ever before to the latest fad in music.

A boom in social dancing began during the second decade of the twentieth century, along with the first recognition of music called jazz. Nat Shapiro quotes Variety as estimating that in the mid-1920s there were 60,000 dance bands playing on the dance floors of jazz age America. Beginning in 1920, radio broadcasting brought recorded and live music into homes, posing an economic challenge to pianos and combining with the Depression in 1929 to decimate record and phonograph sales.

The music that America absorbed through these media came mostly from New York, from Tin Pan Alley publishing houses and from the flourishing Broadway stage, reproduced also in vaudeville houses across the country. When in the middle of the 1920s recording engineers developed microphones to replace recording horns, a new softer “crooning” performance became possible and stylish on records and over the radio.

The improvement in the quality of broadcast sound that followed the introduction of the electric microphone in the mid- 1920s led to a corresponding rise in the quality of radio receivers. It became possible to discern greater delicacies of instrumental sound and of the singing voice, particularly in the middle range.

Songwriters and bandleaders took account of this. It was no longer necessary to limit the size of a band to instruments that could be picked up by the acoustic recording horn, so there was a steady increase in the size of ensembles. Bigger bands, a greater fondness for subtle shades and a higher quality in the middle range meant just one thing: “sweet” music.

Technical changes also had their effect on popular vocal style. The days of declamatory singers such as Al Jolson were all but gone. A whole range of voices previously ruled out for lack of dynamics could now be heard on the air, while the greater clarity of the sung texts increased the importance of lyricists. The microphone’s ability to show up not only every flaw in phrasing and enunciation but also each potentially displeasing vocal nuance produced a breed of singers with impeccable diction and with bland, featureless voices.

The first singer to respond in full to the microphone’s challenge, and to reap its benefits, was one who usually disclaimed having done either: Bing Crosby. So at ease was Crosby with the new technology that he sounded as if he had been “overheard” by it. Bing Crosby was, without doubt, the most popular and influential media star of the first half of the 20th century. Crosby’s relaxed, intimate style further enhanced the process by which an individual listener could make a private experience out of an ever more widely available musical event.

The key elements in this were the characteristic personal timbre – the “grain” – of his voice, his tendency to “talk” a song (coupled with excellent breath control), and his ability to derive effective drama by under-dramatization. He recorded an estimated 17,000 songs, most for Decca records, who luck it was to hold his recording contract from 1934 -55. Yet many of Bing’s most enjoyable performances were done on radio, and were relatively unavailable to the general public until now.

The creation of a mass audience by the networked programs provided the first major opportunity for the manipulation of public taste. In this scheme of things, sweet music had two functions. The first was to create revenue, both for the music industry through its copyright organization, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), and for the companies who sponsored the programs.

ASCAP had developed an effective system of ensuring that the music of those it represented (Tin Pan Alley) dominated the airwaves. Marketing these songs as standardized products, so they did not attract the critical atlention of high-culture opinion-makers, assured large profits. Radio allowed Bing to be intimate, and give a subtle delivery of a song as if he were singing it “just for you.” It allowed for witty repartee with the cast and guests, too, and Bing’s sly wordplay and perfect timing with an offhand line is usually overlooked as one of his stellar traits.

The second function was less obvious. The peddling of sweet music to anation whose daily life was often bitter was more than a mere encouragement to escapism. It suited commercial interests for people to soothe the rough edges of their lives with music rather than use it to sharpen their complaints. The music’s synchronized control reinfarced a shaken sense of order by echoing and embodying that order in its full but conventional harmonies and regular, mechanical rhythm.

One day, it suggested, if everyone was compliant, life could be as “full” as these sounds. Nevertheless, jazz had brought changes in same of the ways that life was perceived. The rhythmic emancipation of ragtime and jazz was built into almost all of the music which followed them, even music that reached a much wider audience than jazz itself. It was most apparent when a number broke into a jazzy section.

Then the music’s clothing was being shed, and its structural framework revealed. The essential element in the framework was rhythm, in which neither the regular near the offbeat was dominant; what was important was the suggestion of interplay between the two. Black music itself was developing this to a sophisticated level, but even in “sweet” music it was sufficient to suggest that there were all kinds of altematives to regular rhythm.

Road to Singapore brought together Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour in a riotously funny picture, and brought forth a number of even funnier sequels. This Road to was directed by Victor Schertzinger for Paramount in 1940.

When the war ended, the entertainment industry responded to the ready money of a new public, more urbanized, but less in touch with Broadway sophistication, and with expanding young families preparing to be the next generation of popular music consumers — raised with unprecedented pocket money and leisure time and with an unsuspected susceptibility to the energies of rock and roll they would first hear in 1954.

Carl Belz describes the recording industry in the years after the war as dividing its market in the interest of stability and consequently producing for the general market dull, or at least highly controlled and predictable, music. Small independent record companies sold to the country and Western and rhythm and blues markets, while the major companies guided the music of the largest pop market down a narrow channel, with a slow succession of new songs and much repetitive recording by competing stars.

Rock and roll, which the industry learned to ride to a staggering new sales volume, also jarred that industry into new patterns: new companies, new small-group recording economics, new audience definitions, and new relationships to radio broadcasting. Some of the story can be told in terms of technical innovations. Television as the surging home entertainment medium turned radio stations toward the disc jockey format of record programming. New sizes, speeds, and materials for the records themselves may have had wide implications.

Belz makes an interesting analysis of the cultural meaning of the shift from 78 to 45 rpm records, as streamlining the experience of recorded music toward casualness, especially for young audiences, while their parents bought the more substantial 33 longplaying records that emerged at the same time in the early 1950s. The later movement of rock and its audience into long-playing records reflects the triumphing cultural and economic power of the same young generation, along with a growing seriousness and self-confidence of the makers of rock music.

Next Page: Radio Music and Wartime Dance Halls

Wall Street Crash in 1929

Wall Street Crash in 1929

In the autumn of 1929 came the catastrophe which so few had anticipated but which in retrospect seems inevitable–prices broke on the New York Stock Exchange, dragging down with them in their fall, first the economy of the United States itself, subsequently that of Europe and the rest of the world. Financial losses of such magnitude had never before been known in the history of capitalist society, and the ensuing depression was also unprecedented in scope.

There had always been business crises; economists had come to take them as normal and even to chart a certain regularity in their occurrence. But this one dwarfed all its predecessors: no previous depression had remotely approached it in length, in depth, and in the universality of impact. Small wonder that countless people were led to speculate whether the final collapse of capitalism itself, so long predicted by the Marxists, was not at last in sight.

On October 24, “Black Thursday,” nearly thirteen million dollars worth of stocks were sold in panic, and in the next three weeks the general industrial index of the New York Stock Exchange fell by more than half. Nevertheless, it was by no means clear at first, how severe the depression was going to be. Previous crises had originated in the United States–this was not the great novelty.

What was unprecedented was the extent of European economic dependence on America which the crash of 1929 revealed. This dependence varied greatly from country to country. Central Europe was involved first, as American financiers began to call in their short-term loans in Germany and Austria. Throughout 1930 these withdrawals of capital continued, until in May, 1931, the Austrian Creditanstalt suspended payments entirely. Thereafter, panic swept the Central European exchanges as bank after bank closed down and one industry after another began to reduce production and lay off workers.

Meantime the crisis had reached Great Britain. In September, 1931, the country went off the gold standard, to be followed two years later by the United States and nearly all the other financial powers of the world. The great exception was France: with a balanced economy and relative selfsufficiency, the French held off the crisis longer than anyone else–not until 1932 did its effects become really severe. But late involvement did not help the country in the long run: for France was the slowest and the least successful of the major powers in pulling itself out of the Depression, which left a wound in French society that was far from healed when the Second World War broke out.

The fall in production and the fall in prices everywhere reached unprecedented depths. In Germany–which was hit worst of all–production had fallen by 39 per cent, at the bottom of the Depression in 1932, and prices by only slightly less. In France, which was stubbornly holding to the gold standard, the price level in 1935 was just over half what it had been in 1930. But of all the manifestations of the Depression, unemployment was most grievous and most clearly left its mark on the whole era.

In this respect, France was the least seriously affected: the number of those out of work never rose above 850,000. But here as in Italy and in the agricultural nations in general, there was much semiemployment and concealed unemployment in the countryside. In Britain, the jobless numbered nearly three million–between a fifth and a quarter of the whole labor force. And in Germany unemployment mounted to the horrifying total of six million; trade-union executives estimated that more than two-fifths of their members were out of work entirely and another fifth employed only part time. With roughly half the population in desperation and want, it was no wonder that the Germans turned to the extremist leadership that they had so narrowly avoided in the crisis of 1923.

Elsewhere social unrest never reached such grave proportions, but throughout Europe governments and peoples felt themselves on the edge of a precipice, as the turbulent and questioning mood of the immediate postwar years returned with redoubled intensity. As had occurred during the war, a crisis situation evoked state intervention in the economy on a massive scale. Governments found themselves forced to resort to all sorts of measures of which the conservative disapproved.

These measure gradually came to follow a common pattern: most countries turned inward, trying to save their own economies without reference to, or regards for, their neighbors, through raising tariffs and setting up schemes for currency pooling and block buying abroad; they sought to relieve the sufferings of the unemployed through extended subsistence payments, on the model of the British dole, and to provide new jobs through vast programs of public works and, eventually, through rearmament.

Most of these measures were mere palliatives, however, undertaken in skeptical and hesitant fashion, and only after years of delay had robbed them of maximum effect. Furthermore, a number of them were of doubtful merit. The turn toward economic nationalism probably did as much harm as good–constricting the volume of world trade and still further reducing Europe’s share in it. In Europe, as in the United States, the only policy that brought much lasting benefit was direct provision of new employment by the government. Even this was far less effective in its original form of public works than in its subsequent guise of war production.

On both sides of the Atlantic, only rearmament proved a sufficiently powerful antidote to the Great Depression. It is sobering to note that the great power which was the most successful in pulling itself out of the slump–Nazi Germany–was also the one which plunged most whole-heartedly into preparation for war. Thus, by the mid- 1930’s, the economic and social struggles of the decade were blending imperceptibly into the origins of the Second World War itself.

Next Page: Bing Crosby’s Sweet Music for Poor America