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Wednesday, August 15, 2007
Western Swing - Texas 1928-1944 (double album)

Texas big bands play an incredible mixture of swing and country, creating a sound that was the precursor of Rock 'n Roll. Here are the original liner notes from the double CD:

Western Swing, Texan music born of country, jazz and blues, lies at the root of a major part of Rock'n'Roll and present-day Country Music. Gerard Herzhaft, author of numerous works on country music and the blues — as well as artistic producer of the box set "Country / Nashville-Dallas-Hollywood" —, here presents the world's first an¬thology of a neglected musical form that was nevertheless the major influence in the careers of Bill Haley, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis.
(Patrick Fremeaux, Publisher)

This compilation is a musical journey through the towns of a Texas still pervaded by the frontier mentality. It was here that emerged a specific form of Country Music, strongly influenced by the blues and jazz. Called Western Swing, it would considerably alter the course of American music.


The American South, with its vast plantations, has always been a cultural melting-pot. Peopled by a mixture of British colonists, African slaves, Choctaw and Cherokee Indians, Spaniards etc., it is an area that gave birth to its own music, a music that around the turn of the century spawned various derivatives we today call blues, gospel or country. After the War of Secession, this musical art of the South had assumed a professional mantle in the form of minstrel shows, troupes of travelling entertainers who frequently made up in blackface. By thus miming the blacks, they could more easily resort to the eccentric and even the frankly licentious. The history of Texas is different. This immense territory, discovered by the Spanish, remained a part of Mexico until 1836, when powerful American ranchers installed there mounted a revolt. A Washington-backed militia led by Sam Houston triumphed in a short war against Mexico, culminating in the proclamation of the independent Republic of Texas, which in 1845 was absorbed into the USA as its 28th State. Alongside the mainly Hispanic ranchers, in the late 19th century the Americans created cotton plantations in the wide-open spaces of a rural eastern Texas strongly drawn towards New Orleans. Cheap black labour flocked into the area. Only with the early 20th-century discovery of oil did Europeans begin to arrive, many of them outcasts of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. The consequence: a basic population of Hispanics, plus a sprinkling of Anglo-Saxons, numerous blacks and a substantial Germanic contingent. Add to that the influence of the cowboy culture of the West and the Cajun culture of the Louisiana swamps, and it becomes evident that Texas is a very different entity from the Old South.


While the Appalachian Southeast, the home of Country Music, enforced a strict religious and moral code, Texas was bent on providing uninhibited entertainment for its oil-workers and cowboys in vast dance-halls set up on the fringes of towns like Dallas and San Antonio. When Texan violinist Bob Wills, a musician's son who had grown up on an isolated farm in the company of black share-croppers, decided to become a professional musician, one of his principal models was the influential Emmett Miller, present here in a recording from 1928. Wills was working blackface in a minstrel show when, in 1931, he met guitarist Herman Arnspiger and singer Milton Brown. Together they formed the Aladdin Laddies, and played what would soon be christened "Hot Dance Hillbilly", a style partially influenced by Dixieland jazz and the music of Eddie Lang, Joe Venuti and Jack Teagarden. Soon, Wills and Brown fell out, Wills moving on to form his Texas Playboys and Brown his Musical Brownies. By August 1934, Milton Brown was in San Antonio recording what is generally considered the first Western Swing performance, Talking About You. Bill Boyd and Bob Wills would fairly quickly follow suit.


The success of Hot Dance Hillbilly (the term Western Swing would not be adopted until the 1940s) opened the way to groups such as Jimmie Revard and His Oklahoma Playboys, The Tune Wranglers, Cliff Bruner's Texas Wanderers and The Light Crust Doughboys, the last with pianist Knocky Parker, who had played as a kid with Blind Lemon Jefferson and was now also operating in a duo with young blues-man T-Bone Walker. Indeed, influenced as much by black bluesmen as by white country-music star Jimmie Rodgers, Western Swing outfits were now playing an increasing number of blues, witness Blues In The Bottle, Milk Cow Blues and the Hillbilly Boys' Dirty Hangover Blues. Another Western Swing specialty was smut (something unimaginable in Nashville Country Music): hence Red's Tight Like That, Pussy Pussy Pussy and the Modern Mountaineers' Everybody's Truckin'. Yet this by no means precluded more innocent items such as cowboy ballads, waltzes, polkas and Appalachian old-time dances. Added to which, Hawaiian music, immensely popular throughout the USA, did not fail to exert its influence here as well. Yet a further influence at work was the Mexican frontier music that inspired the Tune Wranglers' ElRancho Grande, the first of a series of recordings that would culminate in the post¬war Tex Mex style. But the overriding quality of Western Swing was indeed swing, with Bob Wills the undisputed master of the art. Drawing upon the best musicians, many of them jazz players, he moulded his Texas Playboys into a tight, irresistibly swinging outfit. Wills' pre-eminence further increased following the death in a road accident of his big rival, Milton Brown, in 1936. The Musical Brownies did carry on for a short time, led by Milton's brother, Durwood Brown, and one of their recordings was the sad, slow Louise Louise Blues.


While Western Swing was principally dance-hall music (The Crystal Springs Ramblers, for instance, were big favourites in Fort Worth), it also enjoyed huge ex¬posure over the Texan airwaves, generally sponsored by flour and agricultural-machinery manufacturers. And it was this virtually daily activity of live performance that meant groups were not free to travel to New York or Chicago to record. Consequently, the re¬cord companies rigged up makeshift studios in Texas hotel rooms, which explains the precarious recording quality of most 1930s Western Swing sides. But it also explains the incredible atmosphere that reigned at these sessions — free-wheeling, heavy-drinking affairs (Bob Wills was a particularly notorious imbiber), with the musicians comfortably installed, and totally relaxed, on their home territory. This unbridled music soon spread beyond its native Texas and Oklahoma. Invading the Southeast, it established Bob Wills as a big star in the Appalachian region, scandalising a Nashville establishment keen to protect both its musicians and the "purity" of their music. Western Swing artists were branded as drunkards and pornographers (which they often were!), and gradually found themselves banned. But all to no avail: by the end of the 1930s, Western Swing was the most popular form of Country Music all the way from El Paso to Nashville. Jazz remained a crucial component of the genre, while certain Western Swing guitarists were themselves among the early innovators of the electric instrument. Listen, for example, to Zeke Campbell on Blue Guitars, Sidney Buller on Blue Steel Blues, and Eldon Shamblin (with Bob Wills) on Twin Guitar Special. Playing an improvised Dobro laid flat across the knees Hawaiian-fashion, and linking it to a car battery, the Western Swing steel-guitarists invented the pedal steel guitar, one of the most sophisticated instruments in contemporary music. This enabled them to explore totally new sounds, witness the work of Leon McAuliffe, Ted Daffan or Noel Boggs. It was also Western Swing that introduced rhythm sections (and more occasionally brass sections) into Country Music, paving the way for big postwar artists from Merle Travis to Willie Nelson.


From Western Swing sprang all major forms of post¬war Country Music such as Honky Tonk, Bluegrass and Country Boogie. Even styles based on a return to tradition refer explicitly to Western Swing, to Texas and to Bob Wills. Furthermore, Cliff Bruner's 1939 Truck Driver's Blues had unleashed a new fashion for truck drivers' songs, still very popular today on all American high¬ways. On this piece (and several others of CD2), the presence will be noted of singer-composer-pianist Moon Mullican, a genuinely two-handed piano player who would be a major influence on 1950s Rock'n'Roll. With Chill Tonic, Pipeliner's Blues, Whatcha Gonna Do?, Draft Board Blues and so many others not included here, early-'40s Western Swing clearly foreshadows the Rock'n'Roll of a decade later. Indeed, Bill Haley would begin his career fronting a Western Swing group, while Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis (a Mullican pupil), Buddy Holly, Wanda Jackson and all the Southern Rock'n'Roll pioneers would find their initial inspiration in Western Swing and Honky Tonk. Rock'n'Roll is often presented as a 1950s fusion of black and white music. In actual fact, that fusion had already occurred in the '30s and '40s, and it is symbolised by Western Swing.


War and ensuing conscription forced many groups to disband, while the spread of juke-box joints was reducing work opportunities. Then, when numerous Texans migrated to California, certain Western Swing bands — notably the one fronted by Bob Wills — followed them, setting up in Hollywood. There, screen westerns and popular entertainment gradually emasculated the music, which, despite Wills' valiant efforts, became little more than another arm of Hollywood show-business. The true "king" of this latterday Western Swing was Spade Cooley, a classically-trained Cherokee violinist who enjoyed immense success before being given a life sentence for beating his wife to death.
While the spirit of Western Swing does linger on in various forms of present-day Country Music, its real heritage lies in the mass of recordings that this compilation — the first of its kind on CD — hopes to help you discover.

Adapted by Don Waterhouse from the French text of Gerard HERZHAFT

Download here:

CD 1:

CD 2:

Update: Corrupt Track 2 from CD 2 available here:
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