The Swing Era (part one)
How the Jazz Age signalled the Age of Oil
You can listen to this episode of Red White Blues here.
On previous episodes of Red White Blues, we’ve listened to jazz records and I’ve talked about the history surrounding them, trying to illustrate the material world that gave rise to the music as much as the music itself. My intention here has been to try to show that our idea of the United States is highly contingent and relatively new—and also very much constructed from the United States’ own idea about itself. In other words, there is an obscured reality beneath the surface.
And this matters a lot, even if you’re not American, because, in a sense, we’re all American now: its technology is our technology, its food is our food, its politics are our politics, its wars are our wars. We live in the shadow of its global dominance, and even the idea of what it means to be a citizen of somewhere has been thoroughly bound up with American ideas of liberal democracy.
This is absolutely true of Europe since the Second World War: the Marshall Plan, in which the US funded the rebuilding of the post-war ruins, meant that countries receiving American largesse were rebuilt to bind them economically to a US-dominated global economic order. So the worldview of a person whose relationship to the state is based on this post-war American-style capitalist liberal democracy—let’s call them the American citizen-subject—is not confined to the geographical region of the United States.
You may notice too that I’m talking a lot about African Americans, and this isn’t just because jazz is a uniquely Black music. I appreciate that this may be sensitive in light of the unresolved history of racism in the West and the peak in interest since the movement for Black Lives since 2014. But I think that the best way to get beyond the surface of this citizen-subject is to see how it was formed; and in the US, as well as here in the UK, it was formed in large part by constructing a kind of default white non-identity, which was simply the obverse of a racialised—almost always Black—other. Jazz is a uniquely American music because it’s a unique expression of this contradictory otherness, even when white people play it.
So the subject matter here isn’t jazz records or even music, but a double helix made up of these citizen-subjects—both the producers and the consumers. Jazz records functioned as commodities on an emerging consumer market, but they’ve also left traces of the line between belonging and not-belonging, and the centuries-long process of incorporating the other into the fold of American citizenship. So there’s no way to tell this story without talking about Black Americans because American culture, in this sense, very much is Black American culture. And to quote the scholar Kyle Devine, ‘Seeing the world in a piece of plastic … poses special challenges. Its readymade convenience masks a variety of other realities’; in other words, ‘sound reproduction is social reproduction’.
On the latest episode, the first of two parts, we hear records from the early 1930s that paved the way for what we now call 'the Swing Era’. These records set themes that American culture would be forced to struggle with by the end of the decade, and that would come to define the era: issues like race, class and the tension between art and popular culture.
And this era, the Swing Era, was a product of oil, a product of the car, the highway, the suburbs and the teenagers who lived there. From the mid-thirties until the end of the war, it would become what Gunther Schuller describes as ‘that remarkable period in American musical history when jazz was synonymous with America’s popular music’. It would also be the only time that this was true. The age of oil would eat its own children.
You can listen to this and all previous episodes here.