Going back to Tulsa with Bob Wills
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I grew up listening to country music. Back then Hank Williams, Sr. had many tracks still on the juke boxes and many of the singers, years after his death, were performing music deeply indebted to him.
Western Swing wasn’t something I heard when I was kid. I never knowingly heard it until one evening when I caught a few minutes on some PBS TV show. While I enjoyed it music wasn’t something I was buying so I didn’t give my pleasure a second thought.
Western Swing doesn’t remind me of the redneck music I enjoyed as a kid and eventually learned to enjoy again as an adult.
When “swing” was the thing, in the 1930s, young people from coast to coast were dancing in urban ballrooms to the music of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Sammy Kaye, and a long list of other popular dance bands of the era. Country cousins of these youngsters were doing the same, but not in ballrooms and not to the “uptown” bands whose names most readily come to mind when the era of swing music is recalled. It was something described as “hot fiddling” when it first began to stir in the Southwest—something that was not as gentile as the string-band sounds of the Eastern Appalachians.
It was “Spade” Cooley who, in the early 1940’s, coined the term ‘Western Swing’. Before that, the music had been called everything from ‘Hillbilly’ (a definite misnomer) to ‘Texas Swing’ (more correct).
‘String Bands’ fathered the music which we now call Western Swing. It originated in the Texas and Oklahoma lower Great Plains area. These early String Bands often consisted of just a Mandolin, Banjo, a standard 6-string Guitar, and a 4-string “tenor guitar” (a Baritone Ukulele - still popular in the Southwest and in Mexico). By and large, the music (in a European style) consisted of just instrumental “breakdowns” because vocalists could not be heard clearly above the noise (microphones were not yet in wide use).
When I started buying compact discs I asked a friend who shared many of my tastes - ranging from Duke Ellington to Louis Prima which musicians he thought I might enjoy but hadn’t gotten around to.
He suggested I give Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys a listen.
A bandleader, fiddler, singer, and songwriter, James Robert Wills is the most famous exponent of the popular musical amalgam now known as western swing, which synthesized ragtime, traditional fiddling, New Orleans jazz, blues, Mexican songs, and big band swing. Wills blended it all into a swinging dance music that was wildly popular in the Southwest and on the West Coast from the 1930s into the 1950s.
Bob’s cheerful, nasal voice could be heard in nearly every song, as he threw hollers like ‘Play it, boys!,’ ‘Ahh, now!,’ ‘That’s what I said!,’ and any imaginable thought that might (or might not) pertain to the words of the song at hand.
A friend of mine doesn’t listen to Wills because of those oddball asides but I’ve always found them part of the charm.
I’ve read that Bob Wills considered himself a jazz musician. Others have said he couldn’t play jazz. Nomenclature isn’t an axe I ever care to grind.
The Texas Playboys’ music swings as much as any of the famous traditional big bands of the 30s and 40s. And might appeal to you even if you don’t enjoy honky-tonk or countrypolitan.
For years all I owned were the ten WWII radio transcription discs known as the Tiffany Transcriptions. I’d always meant to buy more but never was sure what to add. When I saw that Proper Records had released one of their amazingly cheap, always well-produced four CD box sets, Take Me Back to Tulsa, my choice was made for me. 109 track for about $20. One of the great things about the English reissue producers is that they do a fine job still sell a box for little more than the price of a mainline pop album.