Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Book Review: Swing Shift: "All-Girl" Bands of the 1940s

LINK TO: Swing Shift: "All-Girl" Bands of the 1940s By Sherrie Tucker

The history of “all girl” bands of the 1940s highlights the issue of the relationship between art and commerce, or what you might call “the artist’s dilemma” (i.e. I can pursue my artistic vision or I can pursue commercial success). There were substantial financial rewards to be had by musicians. Elsie Blye, for example, found that the wartime demand for musicians made switching from Oklahoma schoolteacher to Hollywood pianist a lucrative option as her salary shot up three hundred percent. Many black women found music paid better than domestic work or sharecropping (Tucker, 55). While artists could make money doing what they loved, they did so at the price of giving up control over the “rules” of work. Then and now, it seems that managers and music entrepreneurs, rather than artists, control what is played, how it is played and under what circumstances it is played in order to maximize profits. Maximizing profits depends on catering to audience expectations and pre-dispositions not only about the music but about the performers. Musical marketing appears to be a “total package” concept, involving the music, the performer, and the values/dreams the music and performance embody for the audience (i.e. does the music allow the audience to vicariously “live the life they have imagined”).

The American public embraced “all girl” bands during the World War II era as a novelty, a temporary expedient in time of war. This is not how the women, many of whom were professional musicians before the swing band shortage of the war years, saw themselves, “We put in the time. We put in the hours. We didn’t consider ourselves a novelty”. Creative artists are generally in the vanguard of social movements, anticipating the changes in society which are about to emerge. White women were joining “all girl” black bands in order to become better musicians and to find a more appreciative audience for the type of music they wanted to play. They were being accepted at considerable risk to the black members of the band out of what you might term artistic solidarity. The artists were anticipating the social changes that were about to come, but as a practical matter had to conform to social conventions. Thus white performers had to be hidden and disguised in order to play with black bands. Similarly, women musicians had to conform to conventional expectations of femininity, often being dressed in elaborately feminine frocks that made playing their instruments more difficult. As a practical matter, individual artists could not do just as they pleased, they had to operate between the freedom of art and the constraints of commerce. Although artists constantly struggle for autonomy, and frequently violate norms and conventions, they can only go so far before risking commercial failure. As has been said of one of the “all girl” bands, the Darlings of Rhythm, “Women who broke too many rules wound up on the cutting-room floor of earthly history”(Tucker, 224).

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