A History Of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs

Episode 5: Rosetta Tharpe and “This Train”


 Photo of Sister Rosetta Tharpe


Welcome to episode five of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs. Today we're looking at Sister Rosetta Tharpe and "This Train"


As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

Most of Rosetta Tharpe's music is now in the public domain, so there are a lot of compilations available. This one, at three CDs for four pounds, is probably the one to get.

Almost all the information about Rosetta Tharpe's life in this episode comes from Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe by Gayle F Wald, 

For more on Thomas Dorsey, check out The Rise of Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church by Michael W. Harris.

The Spirituals to Swing concerts are currently out of print, and the recording quality is poor enough it's really not worth paying the silly money the CDs go for second hand. But if you want to do that, you can find them here.

And Rosetta Tharpe's performance at Wilbraham Road Railway Station can be found on The American Folk Blues Festival: The British Tours 1963-1966


One of the problems when dealing with the history of rock and roll, as we touched upon the other week in the brief disclaimer episode, is the way it's dominated by men. Indeed, the story of rock and roll is the story of men crowding out women, and white men crowding out black men, and finally of rich white men crowding out poorer white men, until it eventually becomes a dull, conservative genre. Sorry if that's a spoiler, but don't say I didn't warn you when I get to the nineties.
But one black woman is as responsible as anyone for the style of rock and roll, and in particular, for its focus on the guitar.
To find out why, we're going to be making our final trip back to 1938 and Carnegie Hall.
We've talked in earlier episodes about John Hammond's legendary Spirituals to Swing concerts, and at the time I said that I'd talk some more about the ways in which they were important, but also about how they were problematic. (I know that's a word that gets overused these days, but I mean it literally -- they had problems, but weren't all bad. Far from it).
One of the most problematic aspects of them, indeed, is encoded in the name. "From Spirituals to Swing". It gives you a nice, simple, linear narrative -- one that was still being pushed in books I read in the 1980s. You start with the spirituals and you end with swing. It's like those diagrams of the evolution of man, with the crawling monkey on one side and the tall, oddly hairless, white man with his genitals carefully concealed on the other.
The fact is, most of the narrative about "primitive" music -- a narrative that was put forward by very progressive white men like John Hammond or the Lomaxes -- is deeply mistaken. The forms of music made largely by black people could sound less sophisticated in the 1930s, but that wasn't because they were atavistic survivals of more primitive forms, musical coelacanths dredged up from the depths to parade. It was because the people making the music often couldn't afford expensive instruments, and were recorded on cheaper equipment, and all the other myriad ways society makes the lives of black people, and underprivileged people in other ways, just that bit more difficult.
But this was, nonetheless, the narrative that was current in the 1930s. And so the Spirituals to Swing concerts featured a bisexual black woman who basically invented much of what would become rock guitar, an innovator if ever there was one, but portrayed her as somehow less sophisticated than the big band music on the same bill. And they did that because that innovative black woman was playing religious music.
In fact, black gospel music had grown up around the same time as the big bands. Black people had, of course, been singing in churches since their ancestors were forcibly converted to Christianity, but gospel music as we talk about it now was largely the creation of one man -- Thomas Dorsey.
(This is not the same man as the white bandleader Tommy Dorsey who we've mentioned a couple of times earlier).
Dorsey was a blues and jazz musician, who had led the band for Ma Rainey, one of the great early blues singers, and under the name "Georgia Tom" he'd collaborated with Tampa Red on a series of singles. Their song "It's Tight Like That", from 1928, is one of the earliest hokum records, and is largely responsible for a lot of the cliches of the form -- and it sold seven million copies.
[excerpt of "It's Tight Like That"]
That record, in itself, is one of the most important records that has ever been made -- you can trace from that song, through hokum blues, through R&B, and find its influence in basically every record made by a black American, or by anyone who's ever listened to a record made by a black American, since then. If Dorsey had only made that one record, he would have been one of the most important figures in music history.
But some time around 1930, he also started writing a whole new style of music. It combined the themes, and some of the melody, of traditional Christian hymns, with the feel of the blues and jazz music he'd been playing. It's rare that you can talk about a single person inventing a whole field of music, but gospel music as we know it basically *was* invented by Thomas Dorsey. 
Other people had performed gospel music before, of course, but the style was very different from anything we now think of as gospel. Dorsey was the one who pulled all the popular music idioms into it and made it into something that powered and inspired all the popular music since.
He did this because he was so torn between his faith and his work as a blues musician that he had multiple breakdowns -- at one point finding himself on stage with Ma Rainey and completely unable to move his fingers to play the piano. While he continued parallel careers for a while, eventually he settled on making religious music. And the songs he wrote include some of the most well-known songs of all time, like "Peace in the Valley" and "Take My Hand, Precious Lord".
That's a song he wrote in 1932, after his wife died in childbirth and his newborn son died a couple of days later. He was feeling a grief that most of us could never imagine, a pain that must have been more unbearable than anything anyone should have to suffer, and the pain came out in beauty like this:
[excerpt of Rosetta Tharpe singing "Take My Hand, Precious Lord"]
That's not "primitive" music. That's not music that is unsophisticated. That's not some form of folk art. That's one man, a man who personally revolutionised music multiple times over, writing about his own personal grief and creating something that stands as great art without having to be patronised or given special consideration.
And the person singing on that recording is Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who, like Dorsey, is someone who doesn't need to be given special treatment or be thought of as good considering her disadvantages or any of that patronising nonsense. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was one of the great singers of her generation, and one of the great guitar players of all time. And she was making music that was as modern and cutting-edge as anything else made in the 1930s and 40s. She wasn't making music that was a remnant of something that would evolve into swing, no matter what John Hammond thought, she was making important music, and music that would in the long run be seen as far more important than most of the swing bands.
Obviously, one should not judge Hammond too harshly. He was from another time. A primitive.
Sister Rosetta was brought up in, and spent her life singing for, the Church of God in Christ. As many of my listeners are in Europe, as I am myself, it's probably worth explaining what this church is, because while it does have branches outside the US, that's where it's based, and that's where most of its membership is.
The Church of God in Christ is a Pentecostal church, and it's the largest Pentacostal church in the US, and the fifth-largest church full stop. I mention that it's a Pentacostal church, because that's something you need to understand to understand Rosetta Tharpe. Pentacostals believe in something slightly different to what most other Christian denominations believe. 
Before I go any further, I should point out that I am *not* an expert in theology by any means, and that what I'm going to say may well be a mischaracterisation. If you're a Pentacostal and disagree with my characterisation of your religion here, I apologise, and if you let me know I'll at least update the show notes. No disrespect is intended.
While most Christians believe that humanity is always tainted by original sin, Pentacostals believe that it is possible for some people, if they truly believe -- if they're "born again" to use a term that's a little more widespread than just Pentacostalism -- to become truly holy. Those people will have all their past sins forgiven, and will then be sinless on Earth. To do this, you have to be "baptised in the Holy Ghost". This is different from normal baptism, what Pentacostals call "water baptism" -- though most Pentacostals think you should be water baptised anyway, as a precursor to the main event. Rather, this is the Holy Spirit descending from Heaven and entering you, filling you with joy and a sense of sanctity. This can often cause speaking in tongues and other strange behaviours, as people are enthused (a word which, in the original Greek, actually meant a god entering into you), and once this has happened you have the tendency to sin removed from you altogether. 
This is all based on the Acts of the Apostles, specifically Acts 2:4, which describes how at the Pentecost (which is the seventh Sunday after Easter), "All were filled with the Holy Spirit. They began to express themselves in foreign tongues and make bold proclamation as the Spirit prompted them".
Unlike many Protestant denominations, which adhere to Calvinist beliefs that nobody can know if they're going to Heaven or Hell, and that only God can ever know this, and that nothing you do can make a difference to your chances, most Pentacostals believe that you can definitely tell whether you're going to Heaven. You're going to Heaven once you're sanctified by the Holy Spirit, and that's an end of it.
At least, it's an end of it so long as you continue with what's called "outward holiness", and so you have to dress conservatively, to avoid swearing, to avoid drinking or gambling or smoking, or dancing suggestively, or wearing makeup. If you do that, once the spirit's entered into you, you're going to remain holy and free from temptation. If you don't do that, well, then the Devil might get you after all.
This is a very real fear for many Pentacostals, who have a belief in a literal heaven and hell. And it's a fear that has inspired a *lot* of the most important musicians in rock and roll. But Pentacostalism isn't just about fear and living right, it's also about that feeling of elation and exhiliration when the holy spirit enters you. And music helps bring that feeling about. 
It's no surprise that a lot of the early rock and rollers went to Pentacostal churches -- at many of them, especially in the South of the US, there's a culture of absolutely wild, unrestrained, passionate music and dancing, to get people into the mood to have the spirit enter them. And Sister Rosetta Tharpe is probably the greatest performer to come out of those churches.
But while most of the performers we'll be looking at started playing secular music, Sister Rosetta never did, or at least very rarely. But she was, nonetheless, an example of something that we'll see a lot in the history of rock -- the pull between the spiritual and the worldly. 
From the very start of her career, Sister Rosetta was slightly different from the other gospel performers. While she lived in Chicago at the same time as Thomas Dorsey and Mahalia Jackson, she isn't generally considered part of the gospel scene that they were at the centre of -- because she was travelling round the country playing at revival meetings, rather than staying in one place. When her first marriage -- to a fellow evangelist, who apparently abused her -- broke up, she moved on to New York, and there she started playing to audiences that were very different from the churches she was used to.
Where people like Mahalia were playing church music for church people, Rosetta Tharpe was taking the gospel to the sinners. Throughout her career, she played in nightclubs and theatres, playing for any audience that would have her, and playing music that got them excited and dancing, even as she was singing about holiness.
She started playing the Cotton Club in 1938. The Cotton Club was the most famous club in New York, though in 1938 it was on its last days of relevance. It had been located in Harlem until 1936, but after riots in Harlem, it had moved to a more respectable area, and was now on Broadway.
In the twenties and early thirties, the Cotton Club had been responsible for the success of both Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, though only Calloway was still playing there regularly by the time Rosetta Tharpe started performing there. It was still, though, the place to be seen -- at least if you were white. The Cotton Club was strictly segregated -- only black people on stage, but only white people in the audience. The black performers were there to be leered at, in the case of the showgirls, or to play up to black stereotypes. Even Duke Ellington, possibly the most sophisticated musician ever to come out of the United States, had been presented as a "jungle musician". The name itself -- the Cotton Club -- was trading on associations with slavery and cotton picking, and the feel of the new venue could probably be summed up by the fact that it had, on its walls, pictures of famous white bandleaders in blackface.
So it's not surprising that the performances that Sister Rosetta did at the Cotton Club were very different from the ones she'd been doing when she was travelling the country with her mother performing to church crowds. She was still playing the same music, of course -- in fact, over her career, she mostly stuck to the same quite small repertoire, rerecording the same material in new arrangements and with new emphases as she grew as an artist -- but now she was doing it as part of a parody of the very kind of church service she had grown up in and devoted her life to, with dancers pretending to be "Holy Rollers", mocking her religion even as her music itself was still devoted to it.
Originally, she was only taken on at the Cotton Club as a sort of trial, on a two-week engagement -- and apparently she thought the manager was joking when she was offered five hundred dollars a week, not believing she could be making that much money -- and her role was simply to be one of many acts who'd come on and do a song or two between the bigger acts who were given star billing. But she soon became a hit, and she soon got signed to Decca to make records.
Her first record was, of course, a song by Thomas Dorsey, originally titled "Hide Me in Thy Bosom" but given the newer title "Rock Me" by Tharpe. Her arrangement largely stuck to Dorsey's original, with one important exception -- where he had written "singing", Tharpe sang "swinging".
[excerpt of "Rock Me"]
Many people also claimed to hear a double entendre in the lyrics to "Rock Me", and to think the song was about more worldly matters than Dorsey had intended. Whether Tharpe thought that or not, it almost certainly factored into the decision to make it her first single.
When she was booked to perform at the Spirituals to Swing concerts, she performed both that song and "That's All", backed by Albert Ammons, one of the boogie woogie players who also appeared on the bill, and in the recording of that we can hear, rather better than in the studio recording, the raw power of Tharpe's performance.
[excerpt of "That's All" from Carnegie Hall]
The sound quality of these recordings isn't great, of course, but you can clearly hear the enthusiasm in that performance.
Tharpe's performances at the Cotton Club drew a great deal of attention, and Time magazine even did a feature on her, and how she “Swings Same Songs in Church and Night Club.” When the Cotton Club shut down she moved on to the Cafe Society, a venue booked by John Hammond, which was an integrated club and which fit her rather better.
While she was working there, she came to the attention of Lucky Millinder, the big band leader. Different people have different ideas as to how the two started working together -- Mo Gale, Millinder's manager, was also Chick Webb's manager, and claimed that it was his idea and that he'd seen Tharpe as being an Ella Fitzgerald to Millinder's Chick Webb, but Bill Doggett, the piano player with Millinder's band, said that it was Millinder's idea, not Gale's, to get Tharpe on board.
Either way, the combination worked well enough at first, as Tharpe got to sing the same songs she'd been performing earlier -- her gospel repertoire -- but with a big band backing her. She'd also switched to playing an electric guitar rather than an acoustic, and the effect on her guitar playing was extraordinary -- where before she'd had to be a busy accompanist, constantly playing new notes due to the lack of sustain from an acoustic guitar, now she was able to play single-note lead lines and rely on the orchestra to provide the chordal pad.
Her remake of "Rock Me" with Millinder's band, from 1941, shows just how much her artistry had improved in just three years:
[excerpt of 1941 "Rock Me"]
With that record, she more or less invented the guitar style that T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, and others would adapt for themselves. That's just how you play electric blues now, but it wasn't how anyone played before Rosetta Tharpe.
Soon after she joined Millinder's band they moved to a residency at the Savoy Ballroom, and became one of the most popular bands for dancers in New York -- regulars there included a young man known as Detroit Red, who later changed his name to Malcolm X.  The Savoy Ballroom was closed down not long after -- allegedly for prostitution, but more likely because it allowed white women to dance with black men, and the city of New York wouldn't allow that -- although as Malcolm X said, it wasn't as if they were dragging the white women in there.
However, Millinder's band was an odd fit for Rosetta Tharpe, and she was increasingly forced to sing secular numbers along with the gospel music she loved. There were plenty of good things about the band, of course -- she became lifelong friends with its young trumpet player, Dizzy Gillespie, for example, and she enjoyed a tour where they were on the same bill as a young vocal group, The Four Ink Spots, but she was a little bit uncomfortable singing songs like "Tall Skinny Papa", which wasn't particularly gospel-like
[excerpt "Tall Skinny Papa"]
And it's not particularly likely that she was keen on the follow-up, although she didn't sing on that one.
[excerpt "Big Fat Mama"]
So eventually, she quit the Millinder band, without giving notice, and went back to performing entirely solo, at least at first. 
This was in the middle of the musicians' union strike, but when that ended, Tharpe was back in the studio, and in September 1944 she began one of the two most important musical collaborations of her career, when she recorded "Strange Things Happening Every Day", with Sam Price on piano.
Sam Price did *not* get along with Tharpe. He insisted on her playing with a capo, because she was playing in an open tuning and wasn't playing in a normal jazz key. He didn't like the idea of combining gospel music with his boogie woogie style (eventually he was persuaded by Tharpe's mother, a gospel star in her own right who was by all accounts a fearsome and intimidating presence, that this was OK), and when the result became a massive hit, he resented that he got a flat fee.
But nonetheless, "Strange Things Happening Every Day" marks out the start of yet another new style for Tharpe -- and it's yet another song often credited as "the first rock and roll record".
[Excerpt "Strange Things Happening Every Day"]
Shortly after this, Tharpe started working with another gospel singer, Marie Knight. Her partnership with Marie Knight may have been a partnership in more than one sense. Knight denied the relationship to the end of her days -- and it's entirely understandable that she would, given that she was a gospel singer who was devoted to a particularly conservative church, and whose career also depended on that church -- but their relationship was regarded as an open secret within the gospel music community, which had a rather more relaxed attitude to homosexuality and bisexuality than the rest of the church. Some of Tharpe's friends have described her as a secret lesbian, but given her multiple marriages to men it seems more likely that she was bi -- although of course we will never know for sure.
Either way, Tharpe and Knight were a successful double act for many years, with their voices combining perfectly to provide a gospel vocal sound that was unlike anything ever recorded. They stopped working together in 1950, but remained close enough that Knight was in charge of Tharpe's funeral in 1973,
The two of them toured together -- and Tharpe toured later on her own -- in their own bus, which was driven by a white man. This gave them a number of advantages in a deeply segregated and racist country. It was considered acceptable for them to go into some public places where they otherwise wouldn't have been allowed, because they were with a white man -- if a black woman was with a white man, it was just assumed that she was sleeping with him, and unlike a white woman sleeping with a black man, this was considered absolutely acceptable, a sexual double-standard that dated back to slavery. If they needed food and the restaurant in a town was whites-only, they could send the white driver in to get them takeout. And if it came to it, if there was no hotel in town that would take black people, they could sleep on the bus.
And segregation was so accepted at the time by so many people that even when Tharpe toured with a white vocal group, the Jordanaires (who would later find more fame backing up some country singer named Elvis something) they just thought her having her own bus was cool, and didn't even make the connection to how necessary it was for her.
While Tharpe and Knight made many great records together, probably Tharpe's most important recording was a solo B-side to one of their singles, a 1947 remake of a song she'd first recorded in 1938, "This Train", again featuring Sam Price on piano:
[excerpt "This Train"]
That's a song that sets out the theology of the Pentacostal church as well as you'll ever hear it. This train is a *clean* train. You want to ride it you better get redeemed. No tobacco chewers or cigar smokers. No crap shooters. If you want to be bound for glory, you need to act holy.
There was no-one bigger than Tharpe in her genre. She is probably the first person to ever play rock and roll guitar in stadiums -- and not only that, she played rock and roll guitar in a stadium *at her wedding* -- her third wedding, to be precise, which took place at Griffith Stadium, the home of the Washington Senators and the Homestead Grays. Twenty thousand people came to see her get married and perform a gospel show afterwards, concluding with fireworks that first exploded in the shape of Tharpe playing her guitar before taking on other shapes like two hearts pierced with Cupid's arrow. Even Tharpe's half-sister had to pay for her ticket to the show. Apparently Tharpe signed the contract for her wedding seven months earlier, and then went out to find herself a husband.
Rosetta Tharpe's popularity started to wane in the 1950s, at least in her home country, but she retained a following in Europe. There's fascinating footage of her in 1964 filmed by Granada TV, playing at the abandoned Wilbraham Road railway station in Manchester. If you live in Manchester, as I do, that piece of track, which is now part of the Fallowfield cycle loop was the place where some of the greats of black American music were filmed for what may have been the greatest blues TV programme of all time -- along with Tharpe, there was Muddy Waters, Otis Span, Reverend Gary Davis, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, all performing in the open air in Manchester in front of an extremely earnest audience of young white British people. Fittingly for an open-air show in Manchester, Tharpe opened her short set with "Didn't It Rain"
[Didn't It Rain TV performance excerpt]
By that time, Tharpe had become primarily known as a blues musician, even though she was still doing the same thing she'd always been doing, simply because music had moved on and recategorised her. But she'd had an influence on blues, R&B, and rock and roll music that most people didn't even realise. "This Train" was not written by Tharpe, exactly -- it dates back to the 1920s -- but it was definitely her version, and her rewrite, that inspired one of the most important blues records of all time:
[Excerpt of "My Babe"]
Indeed, only a few months after Rosetta Tharpe's UK performances, Gerry and the Pacemakers, one of the biggest bands of the new Merseybeat sound, who'd had three number one records that year in the UK, were recording their own version of "My Babe". Gerry and the Pacemakers were, in most respects, as far as you could imagine from gospel music, and yet the connection is there, closer than you'd think.
Rosetta Tharpe died in 1973, and never really got the recognition she deserved. She was only inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame last year. But if you've ever liked rock guitar, you've got her to thank. Shout, Sister, Shout!
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Episode 3: Ida Red


 Photo of Bob Wills in a cowboy hat

Welcome to episode three of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs. Today we're looking at Bob Wills and "Ida Red".


As always, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.

I mention a PhD thesis on the history of the backbeat in the episode. Here's a link to it.

Bob Wills' music is now in the public domain, so there are many different compilations available, of different levels of quality. This is an expensive but exhaustive one, while this is a cheap one which seems to have most of the important hits on it.

The definitive book on Bob Wills, San Antonio Rose, is available here, though it's a bit pricey.

And for all the episodes on pre-1954 music, one invaluable source is the book "Before Elvis" by Larry Birnbaum.


In the episode I talk about two tracks as being "by Django Reinhardt", but the clips I play happen to be ones featuring violin solos. Those solos are, of course, by Reinhardt's longtime collaborator Stephane Grapelli. I assume most people will know this, but just in case.


"Rock and Roll? Why, man, that's the same kind of music we've been playin' since 1928! ... We didn't call it rock and roll back when we introduced it as our style back in 1928, and we don't call it rock and roll the way we play it now. But it's just basic rhythm and has gone by a lot of different names in my time. It's the same, whether you just follow a drum beat like in Africa or surround it with a lot of instruments. The rhythm's what's important."
Bob Wills said that in 1957, and it brings up an interesting question. What's in a name?
Genre names are a strange thing, aren't they? In particular, did you ever notice how many of them had the word "and" in them? Rock and roll, rhythm and blues, country and western? There's sort of a reason for that.
Rock and roll is a special case, but the other two were names that were coined by Billboard, and they weren't originally meant to be descriptors of a single genre, but of collections of genres -- they were titles for its different charts. Rhythm and blues is a name that was used to replace the earlier name, of "race" records, because that was thought a bit demeaning. It was for the chart of "music made by black people", basically, whatever music those black people were making, so they could be making "rhythm" records, or they could be making "blues" records.
Only once you give a collection of things a name, the way people's minds work, they start thinking that because those things share a name they're the same kind of thing. And people start thinking about "rhythm and blues" records as being a particular kind of thing. And then they start making "rhythm and blues" records, and suddenly it is a thing.
The same thing goes for country and western. That was, again, two different genres. Country music was the music made by white people who lived in the rural areas, of the Eastern US basically -- people like the Carter Family, for example.
[Excerpt of “Keep on the Sunny Side” by the Carter Family]
We'll hear more about the Carter family in the future, but that's what country music was. Not country and western, just country. And that was the music made in Appalachia, especially Kentucky and Tennessee, and especially especially Nashville.
Western music was a bit different. That was the music being made in Texas, Oklahoma, and California, and it tended to use similar instrumentation to country music -- violins and guitars and so on -- but it had different subject matter -- lots of songs about cowboys and outlaws and so on -- and at the time we're talking about, the thirties and forties, it was a little bit slicker than country music.
This is odd in retrospect, because not many years later the Western musicians influenced people like Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, and Merle Haggard, who made very gritty, raw, unpolished music compared to the country music coming out of Nashville, but the thirties and forties were the heyday of singing cowboy films, with people like Gene Autrey and Roy Rogers becoming massive, massive stars, and so there was a lot of Hollywoodisation of the music, lots of crooning and orchestras and so on.
Western music was big, big business -- and so was swing music. And so it's perhaps not surprising that there was a new genre that emerged around that time. Western swing.
Western swing is, to simplify it ridiculously, swing music made in the West of the USA. But it's music that was made in the west -- largely in places like California --by the same kinds of people who in the east were making country music, and with a lot of the same influences.
It took the rhythms of swing music, but played them with the same instrumentation as the country musicians were using, so you'd get hot jazz style performances, but they'd be played on fiddle, banjo, guitar, and stand-up bass. There were a few other instruments that you'd usually get included as well -- the steel guitar, for example. Western swing usually also included a drum kit, which was one of the big ways it differed from country music as it was then. The drum kit was, in the early decades of the twentieth century, primarily a jazz instrument, and it was only because Western swing was a hybrid of jazz and Western music that it got included in those bands -- and for a long time drum kits were banned from country music shows like the Grand Ole Opry, and when they did finally relent and let Western swing bands play there, they made the drummers hide behind a curtain.
They would also include other instruments that weren't normally included in country or Western music at the time, like the piano. Less often, you'd have a saxophone or a trumpet, but basically the typical Western swing lineup would be a guitar, a steel guitar, a violin or two, a piano, a bass, and drums.
Again, as we saw in the episode about "Flying Home", where we talked about *non*-Western swing, you can see the rock band lineup starting to form. It was a gradual process though.
Take Bob Wills, the musician whose drummer had to hide behind a curtain.
Wills originally performed as a blackface comedian -- sadly, blackface performances were very, very common in the US in the 1930s (but then, they were common in the UK well into my lifetime. I'm not judging the US in particular here), but he soon became more well known as a fiddle player and occasional singer.
In 1929 Wills, the singer Milton Brown, and guitarist Herman Arnspiger, got together to perform a song at a Christmas dance party. They soon added Brown's brother Derwood on guitar and fiddle player John Dunnam, and became the Light Crust Doughboys.
[clip of the Light Crust Doughboys singing their theme]
That might seem like a strange name for a band, and it would be if that had been the name they chose themselves, but it wasn't. Their name was originally The Aladdin Laddies, as they got sponsored by the Aladdin Lamp Company to perform on WBAP radio under that name, but when that sponsorship fell through, they performed for a while as the Wills Fiddle Band, before they found a new sponsor -- Pappy O'Daniel.
You may know that name, as the name of the governor of Mississippi in the film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?", and that was... not an *entirely* inaccurate portrayal, though the character in that film definitely wasn't the real man. The real Pappy O'Daniel didn't actually become governor of Mississippi, but he did become the governor of Texas, in the 1940s.
But in the late 1920s and early thirties he was the head of advertising for Burrus Mill and Elevator Company, who made "Light Crust Flour", and he started to sponsor the show.
The band became immensely successful, but they were not particularly well paid -- in fact, O'Daniel insisted that everyone in the band would have to actually work a day job at the mill as well. Bob Wills was a truck driver as well as being a fiddle player, and the others had different jobs in the factory.
Pappy O'Daniel at first didn't like this hillbilly music being played on the radio show he was paying for -- in fact he wanted to cancel the show after two weeks. But Wills invited him down to the radio station to be involved in the broadcasts, and O'Daniel became the show's MC, as well as being the band's manager and the writer of their original material. O'Daniel even got his own theme song, "Pass the Biscuits, Pappy".
[insert Hillbilly Boys playing "Pass the Biscuits, Pappy"]
That's not the Light Crust Doughboys playing the song -- that's the Hillbilly Boys, another band Pappy O'Daniel hired a few years later, when Burrus Mill fired him and he formed his own company, Hillbilly Flour -- but that's the song that the Light Crust Doughboys used to play for O'Daniel, and the singer on that recording, Leon Huff, sang with the Doughboys from 1934 onwards. So you get the idea.
In 1932, the Light Crust Doughboys made their first recording, though they did so under the name the Fort Worth Doughboys -- Pappy O'Daniel didn't approve of them doing anything which might take them out of his control, so they didn't use the same name. This is "Nancy"
[insert clip of "Nancy"]
Now the music the Light Crust Doughboys were playing wasn't yet what we'd call Western Swing but they were definitely as influenced by jazz music as they were by Western music. In fact, the original lineup of the Light Crust Doughboys can be seen as the prototypical example of the singer-guitarist creative tension in rock music, except here it was a tension between the singer and the fiddle player. Milton Brown was, by all accounts, wanting to experiment more with a jazz style, while Bob Wills wanted to stick with a more traditional hillbilly string band sound. That creative tension led them to create a totally new form of music.
To see this, we're going to look forward a little bit to 1936, to a slightly different lineup of the band. Take a listen to this, for example -- "Dinah".
[insert section of Light Crust Doughboys playing "Dinah"]
And this -- "Limehouse Blues".
[insert section of Light Crust Doughboys playing "Limehouse Blues"]
And now listen to this -- Django Reinhardt playing "Dinah"
[insert section of Reinhardt playing "Dinah"]
And Reinhardt playing "Limehouse Blues"
[Reinhardt playing "Limehouse Blues"]
Those recordings were made a few years after the Light Crust Doughboys versions, but you can see the similarities. The Light Crust Doughboys were doing the same things as Stephane Grapelli and Django Reinhardt, years before them, even though we would now think of the Light Crust Doughboys as being "a country band", while Grapelli and Reinhardt are absolutely in the jazz category.
Now, I said that that's a different lineup of the Light Crust Doughboys, and it is. A version of the Light Crust Doughboys continues today, and one member, Smoky Montgomery, who joined the band in 1935, continued with them until his death in 2001. Smoky Montgomery's on those tracks you just heard, but Bob Wills and Milton Brown weren't. They both left, because Pappy O'Daniel was apparently not a very good person to work for.
In particular, O'Daniel wouldn't let the Doughboys play any venues where alcohol was served, or play dances generally. O'Daniel was only paying the band members $15 a week, and they could get $40 a night playing gigs, and so Brown left in 1932 to form his own band, the Musical Brownies.
The Musical Brownies are now largely forgotten, but they're considered the first band ever to play proper Western Swing, and they introduced a lot of things that defined the genre. In particular, they introduced electric steel guitar to the Western music genre, with the great steel player Bob Dunn.
For a while, the Musical Brownies were massively popular, but sadly Brown died in a car crash in 1936.
Bob Wills stayed in the Doughboys for a while longer, as the band's leader, as O'Daniel gave him a raise to $38 a week. And he continued to make the kind of music he'd made when Brown was in the band -- both Brown and Wills clearly recognised that what they'd come up with together was something better and more interesting than just jazz or just Western.
Wills recruited a new singer, Tommy Duncan, but in 1933 Wills was fired by O'Daniel, partly because of rows over Wills wanting his brother in the band, and partly because Wills' drinking was already starting to affect his professionalism. He formed his own band and took Duncan and bass player Kermit Whalen with him. The Doughboys' steel guitar player, Leon McAuliffe, soon followed, and they became Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. They advertised themselves as "formerly the Light Crust Doughboys" -- although that wasn't entirely true, as they weren't the whole band, though they were the core of it -- and Pappy O'Daniel sued them, unsuccessfully.
And the Texas Playboys then became the first Western Swing band to add a drum kit, and become a more obviously rhythm-oriented band.
The Texas Playboys were the first massively, massively successful Western swing band, and their style was one that involved taking elements from everywhere and putting them together. They had the drums and horns that a jazz band would have, the guitars and fiddles that country or Western bands would have, the steel guitar that a Hawaiian band would have, and that meant they could play all of those styles of music if they wanted to. And they did. They mixed jazz, and Western, and blues, and pop, and came up with something different from all of them.
This was music for dancing, and as music for dancing it had a lot of aspects that would later make their way into rock and roll. In particular it had that backbeat we talked about in episode two, although here it was swung less -- when you listen to them play with a heavy backbeat but with the fiddle as the main instrument, you can hear the influence of polka music, which was a big influence on all the Western swing musicians, and through them on rock and roll. Polka music is performed in 2/4 time, and there's a very, *very* strong connection between the polka beat and the backbeat.
(I won't go into that too much more here -- I already talked about the backbeat quite a bit in episode two -- but while researching these episodes I found a hugely informative but very detailed look at the development of the rock backbeat -- someone's PhD thesis from twenty years ago, four hundred pages just on that topic, which I'll link on the webpage if you want a much more detailed explanation)
Now by looking at the lineup of the Texas Playboys, we can see how the rock band lineup evolved. In 1938 the Texas Playboys had a singer, two guitars (one doubling on fiddle), three fiddlers, a banjo player, steel guitar, bass, drums, piano, trumpet, trombone, and two saxes. A *huge* band, and one at least as swing as it was Western. But around that time, Wills started to use electric guitars -- electric guitars only really became "a thing" in 1938 musically, and a lot of people started using them at the same time, like Benny Goodman's band as we heard about in the first episode. Wills' band was one of the first to use them, and Western musicians generally were more likely to use them, as they were already using amplified *steel* guitars.
We talked in episode two about how the big bands died between 1942 and 1944, and Wills was able to make his band considerably smaller with the aid of amplification, so by 1944 he'd got rid of most of his horn section apart from a single trumpet, having his electric guitars play what would previously have been horn lines.
So by 1944 the band would consist of two fiddles, two basses, two electric guitars, steel guitar, drums, and a trumpet. A smaller band, an electrified band, and one which, other than the fiddles and the trumpet, was much closer to the kind of lineups that you would get in the 50s and 60s. A smaller, tighter, band.
Now, Wills' band quickly became the most popular band in its genre, and he became widely known as "the king of Western Swing", but Wills' music was more than just swing. He was pulling together elements from country, from the blues, from jazz, from anything that could make him popular.
And, sadly, that would sometimes include plagiarism.
Now, the question of black influence on white music is a fraught one, and one that will come up a lot in the course of this history. And a lot of the time people will get things wrong. There were, of course, white people who made their living by taking black people's music and watering it down. There were also, though, plenty of more complicated examples, and examples of mutual influence.
There was a constant bouncing of ideas back and forth between country, western, blues, jazz, swing... all of these genres were coded as belonging to one or other race, but all of them had musicians who were listening to one another. This is not to say that racism was not a factor in who was successful -- of course it was, and this episode is, after all, about someone who started out as a blackface performer, race was a massive factor, and sadly still is -- but the general culture among musicians at the time was that good musicians of whatever genre respected good musicians of any other genre, and there were songs that everyone, or almost everyone, played, in their own styles, simply because a good song was a good song and at that time there wasn't the same tight association of performer and song that there is now -- you'd sometimes have five or six people in the charts with hit versions of the same song. You'd have a country version and a blues version and a swing version of a song, not because anyone was stealing anyone else's music, but because it was just accepted that everyone would record a hit song in their own style.
And certainly, in the case of Bob Wills, he was admired by -- and admired -- musicians across racial boundaries. The white jazz guitarist Les Paul -- of whom we'll almost certainly be hearing more -- used to tell a story. Paul was so amazed by Bob Wills' music that in 1938 he travelled from Waukesha Wisconsin, where he was visiting his mother, to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to hear Wills' band play, after his mother made him listen to Bob Wills on the radio. Paul was himself a famous guitarist at the time, and he got drawn on stage to jam with the band.
And then, in an interval, a black man in the audience -- presumably this must have been an integrated audience, which would have been *very* unusual in 1938 in Oklahoma, but this is how Les Paul told the story, and other parts of it check out so we should probably take his word for it absent better evidence -- came up and asked for Les Paul's autograph. He told Paul that he played guitar, and Paul said for the young man to show him what he could do. The young man did, and Paul said “Jesus, you *are* good. You want to come up and sit in with us?”
And he did -- that was the first time that Les Paul met his friend Charlie Christian, shortly before Christian got the offer from Benny Goodman. Hanging out and jamming at a Bob Wills gig.
So we can, for the most part, safely put Bob Wills into the mutual respect and influence category. He was someone who had the respect of his peers, and was part of a chain of influences crossing racial and stylistic boundaries.
It gets more difficult when you get to someone like Pat Boone, a few years later, who would record soundalike versions of black musicians' hits specifically to sell to people who wouldn't buy music by black people and act as a spoiler for their records. That's ethically very, very dodgy, plus Boone was a terrible musician.
But what I think we can all agree on is that just outright stealing a black musician's song, crediting it to a white musician, and making it a massive hit is just wrong. And sadly that happened with Bob Wills' band at least once.
Now, Leon McAuliffe, the Texas Playboys' steel guitar player, is the credited composer of "Steel Guitar Rag", which is the instrumental which really made the steel guitar a permanent fixture in country and western music. Without this instrumental, country music would be totally different.
[insert a section of "Steel Guitar Rag" by Bob Wills]
That's from 1936. Now, in 1927, the guitarist Sylvester Weaver made a pioneering recording, which is now often called the first recorded country blues, the first recorded blues instrumental, and the first slide guitar recording (as I've said before, there is never a first, but Weaver's recording is definitely important). That track is called "Guitar Rag" and... well...
[insert "Guitar Rag" by Sylvester Weaver].
Leon McAuliffe always claimed he'd never heard Sylvester Weaver's song, and came up with Steel Guitar Rag independently. Do you believe him?
So, the Texas Playboys were not averse to a bit of plagiarism. But the song we're going to talk about for the rest of the episode is one that would end up plagiarised itself, very famously.
"Ida Red" is an old folk song, first recorded in 1924. In fact, structurally it's a hokum song. As is often the case with this kind of song, it's part of a massive family tree of other songs -- there are blues and country songs with the same melody, songs with different melodies but mentions of Ida Red, songs which contain different lines from the song... many folk songs aren't so much songs in themselves as they are labels you can put on a whole family. There's no one song "Ida Red", there's a whole bunch of songs which are, to a greater or lesser extent, Ida Red. "Ida Red" is just a name you can slap on that family, something you can point to.
Most versions of "Ida Red" had the same chorus -- "Ida Red, Ida Red, I'm plum fool about Ida Red" -- but different lyrics, often joking improvised ones. Here's the first version of "Ida Red" to be recorded -- oddly, this version doesn't even have the chorus, but it does have the chorus melody played on the fiddle. This is Fiddlin' Powers and Family, singing about Ida Red who weighs three hundred and forty pounds, in 1924:
[insert Fiddlin Powers version of "Ida Red"]
Wills' version is very differently structured. It has totally different lyrics -- it has the familiar chorus, but the verses are totally different and have nothing to do with the character of Ida Red -- "Light's in the parlour, fire's in the grate/Clock on the mantle says it's a'gettin' late/Curtains on the window, snowy white/The parlour's pleasant on Sunday night"
[insert Bob Wills version of "Ida Red"]
Those lyrics -- and all the other lyrics in Wills' version except the chorus, were taken from an 1878 parlour song called "Sunday Night" by George Frederick Root, a Civil War era songwriter who is now best known as the writer of the melody we now know as "Jesus Loves the Little Children". They're cut down to fit into the fast-patter do-si-do style of the song, but they're still definitely the same lyrics as Root's.
"Ida Red" was one of many massive hits for Wills and the Texas Playboys, who continued to be hugely successful through the 1940s, at one point becoming a bigger live draw than Benny Goodman or Tommy Dorsey, although the band's success started to decline when Tommy Duncan quit in 1948 over Wills' drinking -- Wills would often miss shows because of his binge drinking, and Duncan was the one who had to deal with the angry fans. Wills replaced Duncan with various other singers, but never found anyone who would have the same success with him.
Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys had a couple of hits in the very early 1950s -- one of them, indeed, was a sequel to Ida Red -- "Ida Red Likes The Boogie", a novelty boogie song of the type we discussed last week. (And think back to what I said then about the boogie fad persisting much longer than it should have. "Ida Red Likes The Boogie" was recorded in 1949 and went top ten in 1950, yet those boogie novelty songs I talked about last week were from 1940).
[insert "Ida Red Likes The Boogie"]
But even as his kind of music was getting more into fashion under the name rock and roll, Wills himself became less popular. The band were still a popular live attraction through most of the 1950s, but they never again reached the heights of the 30s and 40s, and Wills' deteriorating health and the band's lack of success made them split up in 1965.
But before they'd split, Wills' music had had a lasting influence on rock and roll, and not just on the people you might expect. Remember how I talked about plagiarism? Well, in 1955, a musician went into Chess studios with a slight rewrite of "Ida Red" that he called "Ida May". Leonard Chess persuaded him to change the name because otherwise it would be too obvious where he stole the tune... and we will talk about "Maybellene" by Chuck Berry in a few weeks' time.
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