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Pop Music

Swing evokes memories of elegant era, but it has a dark side


Once, in a time not long ago, there were dances in large, smoky halls with crystal chandeliers. Men wore dress hats then, and elegant suits with polished shoes. Women were lovely, with gloves, fancy handbags and dresses that rustled when they walked.

Bands played long into the night, fast songs that took away the dancers’ breath, and slow ones that sent them into each other’s arms. Couples fell in love on the dance floor, married, raised families and spent the rest of their lives together. It was a time of magic, of dreams that came true, all against the backdrop of music that bewitched and befuddled and made the nights sing.

At least that’s what I imagine when I think of the swing era of the 1930s and ’40s, a time before televisions in every home, when families had dinner together and men opened the door, even for women they didn’t know. Swing is the music of my grandparents and parents, who courted to the sounds of Benny Goodman, drove Fords loaded with chrome and caught “Gone with the Wind” in the theater. It seems that life was gentler then.

My grandmother, if she were alive, would be shocked to learn that the music she loved so much is hip again. There’s a new generation of teens and young adults swinging to the big band sound of grandma’s generation. Dance studios across the country are reporting a rise in requests for swing lessons. Local DJs say they’re playing swing tunes for junior high and high school dances. Area nightclubs are hosting swing nights with free dance lessons and swing music all night long. Even churches are getting into the swing spirit, with lessons and dances that appeal to congregation members of all ages.

While some of today’s hottest swing albums include remakes of classic songs, much of the trend has a 90s twist to it. Today’s most popular swing bands have names that would make Grandma blush. Groups like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Squirrel Nut Zippers. And on the outer, alternative fringe of the movement, the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, who note on their Web page they once used the names “Big Yank” and “Mr. Wiggles” while performing.

The Daddies are quick to point out that though they are a “band that swings,” they’re not a “retro thing.” On the band’s Web page, Daddies’ founder Steve Perry said, “Swing has to be reinvented. We could get involved in a nostalgic type of scene but we don’t want to do that. Use the lyricism of the 1960s, use punk-rock energy, use the stuff that can’t be denied and create a new thing.”

With grunge lyrics

Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’ newest album, Zoot Suit Riot, includes lyrics that would be right at home on a grunge album. The song “Drunk Daddy” begins, “Momma married a big asshole/Whiskey bottles on the floor/He just keeps on watchin’ TV/Stepchild tired of being poor” and “Kitchen smells like rotten garbage/I can’t chew my food, my face is sore/Momma didn’t come home last evening/Neighbors say that she’s a whore.”

It’s a strange combination, the bright, upbeat rhythms of swing with the Daddies’ dark, disturbed lyrics. It’s a match that works, though, one that has brought swing rhythms to life for a generation of punk fans. Zoot Suit Riot has already sold more than a million copies and has been on the Billboard album charts for more than nine months.

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, another of today’s most popular swing bands, gained national attention in the 1996 movie “Swingers.” At a recent Reno, Nev., concert, the group brought out hundreds of young fans, decked out in everything from zoot suits and wingtips to feathers and fedoras. The eight-member group’s latest album has been on the charts for months now. On their current tour they’re playing all the crowd’s favorites, songs like “You and Me and the Bottle Makes 3 Tonight (Baby)” and “Go Daddy-o.”

It’d be hard to listen to this group and stay in your seat, which is why so many concert venues have started to set aside large areas for dancers. Band front-man Scotty Morris said in a recent interview that his group is now well-known enough that they’re getting booked into classic ballrooms, some of which had been closed for years.

The 17-man Brian Setzer Orchestra is another swing band racking up success on the Billboard charts. Their newest album, The Dirty Boogie, is up to No. 14, while the single “Jump Jive An’ Wail,” a remake of the 1950s Louis Prima song, holds the same position on the singles chart.

Setzer, from the 1980s rockabilly group the Stray Cats, admits that the hit song is one he nearly cut from the album. It was saved, at the last minute, by a major TV commercial for Gap that featured the same Prima song and swinging hip dancers. Setzer told MTV that the commercial helped the song and “helped the whole thing happen for me.” Setzer’s band is different from other swing groups because he leads with the electric guitar, “the first time that’s been done.” The Dirty Boogie album features numerous Setzer originals, including one of the Stray Cats’ most popular songs, “Rock this Town.”

The Squirrel Nut Zippers say that they’re named after a peanut-flavored candy manufactured in Massachusetts. The seven-member group, which performed for President Clinton’s 1996 inauguration, was set to open for Tony Bennett and the Count Basie Orchestra at Radio City Music Hall. Their recent album, Perennial Favorites, is full of songs that are just plain fun, especially “Ghost of Stephen Foster” and “Suits are Picking Up the Bill,” an irreverent look at how life changes once a band makes it big.

The primary difference between the Zippers and other swing bands is the presence of Katharine Whalen, one of the group’s founders, a lead singer and banjo player. Close your eyes and Whalen’s voice takes you back to the smoky nightclubs of the 1940s, especially on slow, mournful songs like “Low Down Man” and “My Drag.” Whalen is one of the only women to figure prominently in today’s new swing movement, and the only featured female member of any of the groups mentioned here.

The downside

It’s hard to find a downside to the swing movement. It’s music that brings families together, as grandparents and grandchildren finally have songs they agree on. It’s also helped young adults discover the joy of dancing together again. As Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’ front man Steve Perry said in a recent interview with music critic Jere Chandler, “At hippy shows, people dance around by themselves. At ska shows, they do that little robot dance. Or they mosh. They’re all alienated forms of dance. It’s all about you. With swing, it’s you and your partner. ... There’s a sense of decency and decorum, of manners and style that’s been lacking for awhile in rock and youth culture.”

In spite of all this, there is a problematic undercurrent to the music. The sweet nostalgic glow is darkened by the startling lack of diversity in today’s top bands. Maybe young women or people of color aren’t encouraged throughout school to learn the trumpet, trombone or saxophone. Maybe, with the resurgence of swing, that will start to change.

If it does, though, the movement’s language would need to shift as well. Throughout the songs, men are referred to as “daddies,” while women are “babies.” What would happen to a group like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy if a woman joined? Would Big Bad Voodoo Daddy Baby have the same ring to it? Troubling as well is the inordinate amount of lyric time that the bands devote to the glories of alcohol and drunkenness, with gin and tonics and whiskey being the swing drinks of choice. And don’t forget your cigarettes. As the cool cat on the Setzer album cover suggests, smoking is part of being hip, too.

Nobody knows how long this current swing revival will last, not even the men who are making the music. In the end, that doesn’t matter much to them. The bottom line is that most of them were jiving and wailing long before it was hip and will continue even when the fervor fades. And that love is what has kept swing alive, from the early days when my grandma sang along to her radio, until now.

Robin Taylor writes from Dayton, Nev.

National Catholic Reporter, December 4, 1998