Why Swing, Why Today?



Swing musician Duke Ellington and Rapper
Tupac Shakur: can both fit the 13th
Generation?
According to Neil Howe and Bill Strauss' analysis of America's 13th Generation (born 1961-1981), the Generation Xers are not exactly the most optimistic or happy group of young adults in American history: "Imagine arriving at a beach at the end of a long summer of wild goings-on," the authors request in the first chapter. "You feel the glare beating down on a barren landscape devoid of secrets or innocence. You look around at the disapproving faces and can't help but sense that, somehow, the entire universe is gearing up to punish you. This is how today's young people feel..."

This generation is marked by parental divorce, skyrocketing incarceration, and a generally bleak view of the future. The reflected anger in Gangsta Rap, Metal, heartbroken Alternative, and other aggressive or bitter popular music today makes perfect sense, but how in the world did Swing, of all things, suddenly become mainstream? Surely clarinet and a drum kit with only four heads can't appeal to an audience who has grown up with Hendrix-style guitar and electronics governing nearly every instrument in a popular band. And though Swing has been dramatically changed to fit modern tastes, the old-fashionedness of it all still exists.

Does Generation X have anything in common with those who lived in the Swing era? Howe and Strauss maintain that they do; they argue, in fact, that this 13th generation in many ways mirrors the "Lost" generation born between 1883 and 1900. "On one side," they write, "take the young Lost Generation...and line up all their barnstormers, jazzmen, admen, newsies, and rumrunners. On the other, take the 13th Generation...and line up their cyberpunks, rappers, Wall Streeters, telemarketers, and inner-city gangsters. Compare the two. What you'll find are enough parallels to persuade you that 13ers aren't alone---and that others have gone down a similar life-cycle path before them."

This "Lost" Generation was born too early to be the youths that embraced Swing from 1935-1945, but certainly set the stage, as they were the ones who most likely produced and enjoyed early jazz up until the late '20s. It's important to remember that the early Jazz which influences today's Squirrel Nut Zippers was no less revolutionary than Swing: as Stowe writes, Swing had its critics, "though not generating as much moral opprobrium as 1920s Jazz had" because of the ultra-moral '20s climate and the radical break from musical tradition that Jazz embodied. If today's Generation X truly does sense some sort of connection with their parallel "trouble generation" from the turn of the century, it's no surprise that the influence of early Hot bands is so prominent in today's definition of popular Swing.

Yet the question remains, why Swing? Generational comparison can only go so far, and in this case an attempt to liken 13ers to the Jitterbuggers of the Swing era misses the mark by being a little bit too early. Isn't there something to tie the Retro movement to Swing other than a familiar and snappy name?

A brief passage from Howe and Strauss opens the door wide for speculation. While discussing the relationships between 13ers and the "G.I." Generation (the authors' term for the Swing Generation that fought World War II), they write that "13ers look upon G.I. seniors as builders of big things that worked well in their heyday, as natural optimists comfortable with progress, as corny parental figures who gave to their own (Boomer) children the kind of Happy Days '50s experience 13ers often wish they had received."

If we take a moment to see the world through the eyes of a 13er, the attractive nature of Swing makes sudden sense. Howe and Strauss' portrait of the 13er world is oppressive and complicated, and, because they come from the first widespread generation of latchkey kids and children of divorced parents, it stands to reason that today's young people might long for a simpler era. And in a retrospective look at American culture, one of the simplest-seeming is the Swing Era. Nostalgia for old music is the only way anyone could listen to Swing (which, as far as being a form of Jazz is concerned, is basically obsolete and dead), but with the 13ers fueling the Retro Swing movement, it's possibly something more than that: it's grasping for an easier time, when decisions were black and white, one's life direction was easy to plan, and the music embodied a fun that was purer than anything today.

Of course, the Swing Era (especially the War Years) was not much simpler than today, more likely not at all. But the fact of the matter is that 13ers didn't live then, and rely on secondary information (namely grandparent's stories, films, and the era's music) to create their impressions of the late '30s and early '40s. To understand the popularity of modern Swing, an analysis of the Swing Era's current image among those who listen to its music is invaluable.

Simplicity in Swing Music


Homecoming: the only scenario that Swing's Wartime artists portrayed.
After attaining such a prominent place in American culture, it was inevitable that Swing would both be musically influenced by the shadow of war that hung over the era, and it was especially sensitive to soldiers and to the families that they left behind. Out of respect for the difficulties which those involved in World War II were experiencing, Sweet and sentimental Swing songs became even more prevalent.

The soldier always returns in Swing lyrics. Consider the wistful sentiments of vocalist Helen Forrest, singing with Harry James' band on "That Soldier of Mine": she's naturally sad to be alone, but is significantly proud of her far-away love. Later in the song, she proclaims the unifying scenario of sentimental War Swing: "I know he'll come back." Separation was just as hard for the soldier himself, but, according to Frank Sinatra and Tommy Dorsey on "Just As Though You Were Here", the distance that tore wartime families apart can only strengthen the love the man feels for the one he left behind. The devotion of men and women in love is incredible in these works, especially to a 13er who almost certainly has experienced or knows someone who has experienced the breakup of parents, and wishes that this kind of love still existed.

Other wartime influences on Swing created an image of the conflict that made service in the army seem simply not so bad. Goodman's "Bugle Call Rag", while a pre-War work, still creates, for a modern audience that doesn't know the song's date, the abstract impression of a setting where being in the military has its rules and bugle-call lineups in the morning, but still has plenty of room for the fun that was Swing. A song with lyrics, such as the Andrews Sisters' "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy", confirms such an impression outright through its lyrics: the captain obligingly drafts a full band to play with the enlisted bugler in the army, a move that makes everyone happy.

What these songs don't mention, and 13ers overlook when listening to such songs and marveling at the simplicity of it all, is that World War II, like any war, was a horrible experience that few people would have gone through, given the choice. Not all war music is deceptively uncomplicated in this manner, for most of the songs from the Civil War are melancholy and depressing to say the least: in "Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier", for instance, there's little chance of Johnny ever returning home, and his sweetheart knows this. And even though it wouldn't have done anyone any good to write Swing charts about life in the trenches or the wistful feeling one gets when his foxhole buddy is shot dead, wartime Swing recordings don't portray the conflict as it actually was to modern audiences: in music, fighting was the right thing to do, not such an unpleasant thing to do at that, and something that one was certain to return home from.

The "Swing Kids" Phenomenon

As I have already mentioned in the soundtrack analysis, "Swing Kids", with its authentic soundtrack, carefully choreographed dancing styles, and historical information solemnly posted before the film's opening and closing credits, seeks to tell a story which might well have occured: the plight of German youth who listened to Swing music despite strict Nazi regulations forbidding the "nigger-kike music." While the film doesn't claim to tell a documented true sotry, it does intend to re-create an atmosphere that actually existed and a situation that must have inevitably developed.

The protagonist, Peter, spends all his free time in 1939 Hamburg happily jitterbugging at the Swing dance hall with his friends by night, practicing his use of American slang, and symbolically urinating on Hitler propaganda posters. Peter and his friends are also under enormous pressure to join the HJ (the compulsory Hitler Youth organization) and contribute to the Nazi cause, but nothing could be more odious to this group of kids: when one of their old Dance Hall buddies named Emile (whom they had always considered the "Original Hepcat")is spotted wearing a brand-new Nazi uniform, one of them sneers that "No one who likes Swing can become a Nazi," and later, "A Hepcat can't be broken."

After stealing a Nazi-confiscated radio, however, Peter and his friend Thomas are forced to join the HJ and construct an elaborate facade: HJs by day, Swing Kids by night. Another Swing Kid named Arvard, who is too crippled to join the HJ, however, berates them for selling out. "It's almost like being a Swing Kid," he angrily mutters, noting their matching uniforms in place of their three-piece suits.


The clear distinctions between good and
evil in "Swing Kids."
Of course, the facade cannot last: the Nazi propaganda machine finally sweeps up Thomas, who begins taking the HJ more and more seriously until he turns in his own father as an enemy of the government. He becomes annoyed with Arvard's anti-Hitler attitude, finally asking Peter, "see what that music's done to Arvard?", referring to the Swing that's led him astray. Arvard, dismayed to see his friends becoming Nazis before his very eyes, cuts his wrists with a broken record and dies, rather than remain in a fascist world. Shortly thereafter, when Thomas nearly threatens to turn Peter in for subversive behavior, Peter responds with an ultimatum: "If you side with the Nazis, we're at war! You and me!"

The once-close friends are destined to have one last meeting, however: that night Peter dons all of his Hepcat clothing and goes out for one last night of Swing. As the band plays a stirring version of "Bei Meir Bist Du Schoen", Peter finds his freedom once more, dancing furiously by himself. But inevitably, Thomas and the HJ invade the club, beat up the band, and throw the Swing Kids into labor camp trucks. After icily saying to Thomas, "it doesn't matter...I know who my friends are," and singing at the top of his lungs as they pull away, Peter resigns himself to his fate, even as Thomas realizes the folly of his choice, calling out "Swing Heil!" to his friend one last time. But it's too late.

"Swing Kids" is a manipulative film to say the least, and it's easy to see how a 13er could get wrapped up in it. On one hand, there is the utter goodness and redeeming force of Swing: the looks of joy on the dancers' faces are enough to indicate that Swing is the ultimate happiness in the lives of German youth. On the other hand are the Nazis, the purest villains of the twentieth century. Swing and fascism are polarized throughout the entire film: as Arvard says, "no one who likes Swing can become a Nazi," and the moment Thomas takes a serious step towards Nazism is the moment that he ceases to be a Hepcat.

The film is guilty of an oversimplification of pre-War Germany, where joining the Nazi party wasn't exactly a black-and-white issue. In the film, either you do or you don't, and if you do, you're evil; a real German youth in 1939, however, would have had much more to think about. It is easy for a viewer today to watch "Swing Kids" and proclaim that he or she would have undoubtedly followed Swing and never sold out to the Nazis, but in reality no one can be so certain. Ironically, a Gestapo agent in the film sums up the faults of "Swing Kids" when referring to Peter's sarcastic and exaggerated obedience to Nazi laws, refusing to touch any of his dinner which came from another country: "How I envy the youth...with them everything is so clear: one way or the other." The statement applies to the youth of the film as well as the youth of today who embrace it.

A Final Note

A final question remains to be asked: Swing disappeared once; does its modern resurgence indicate that it has become a "classic" in American culture and will remain with us just as major works of symphonic music have, or will it exit with the generation that needs the simple happiness they see in it? It's an unanswerable question, but, no matter what happens, "Swing" will always mean something to everybody. Swing musicians themselves couldn't define it; Louis Armstrong vaguely refered to Swing as "my idea of how a tune should go." Swing bands may evolve into new and different entities, and Swing's centennial celebration in 2035 may feature music nothing like what Goodman and Ellington performed, but one thing is certain: as far as Swing is concerned, Americans know, and probably always will know, that it don't mean a thing without it.