Looking Through a Musical Lens: Music, Identity and Culture in Texas
During the 2010 and 2011 spring semesters we team-taught an upper-elective undergraduate interdisciplinary course at Baylor University entitled "Music and Identity in Texas Culture." As far as we could ascertain, a class of this nature had never been taught on a regular basis at our school, nor at any other Texas university. Our objective in this course was not to teach Texas music strictly as music per se, but rather as a means to understand characteristics of the various identities of the people who settled Texas and to ask whether any collective cultural identity in the state resulted from the merging of ethnicities and nationalities. What we confirmed in the process of teaching the course is that music and identity did, in fact, intertwine in Texas. We also established that many significant events in Texan history are related to and documented by its music. Throughout the semester we explored specific musical traditions drawn from various communities and geographical regions in Texas.2 Presented as case studies, these musical traditions became points of departure for the discussion of social and historical issues, as well as the features found in musical genres and styles, which in turn, exhibited processes articulating identity and cultural meaning in the state. The purpose of this article is two-fold: to illustrate how instructors can design and develop a course on music and identity for any state or geographical region, and to provide an overview of Western Swing as a case study to illustrate historical events and beliefs reinforcing social and cultural identity in Texas.
In attempting to answer the basic question "Why do we need to teach a course such as this one?" we realized that a topic addressing music and culture, or music and identity, seemed appropriate considering that Texans enjoy taking great pride in their identity, their state, and their traditions. As we answered this question, others arose. What are some of the "general assumptions" associated with the various musical traditions cultivated in Texas? Could we refer to meaning, or a series of meanings, in regard to music and identity in Texas? What are the cultural and social factors that may inform the idea of a Texan identity? Is there a single Texas identity? How does music, or the process of making music, communicate the socially imagined idea of Texans identity? Could we answer all these questions satisfactorily? Should we ask other questions and consider other issues before addressing any of these questions? Are these questions relevant? Are we asking too many questions? Similar to other studies in ethnomusicology our course also addressed music and identity as a social phenomenon that is constructed, reinforced, and transmitted through a series of beliefs, ideas, and practices within a dynamic cultural context.
In regard to the construction and reinforcement of social identity, our theoretical approach at first, was inspired by ideas such as Benedict Anderson's "imagined communities," Eric Hobsbawm's "invented traditions," Richard Flores' "memory and the master symbol," and Theodore Fehrenbach's "the Texas mystique."3 While discussing the historical and social invention of Texas, we established that just as the nation gradually became an imagined community with a distinctive philosophy and a core of beliefs, the state of Texas went through a similar process. This new "Texan Community" consisted of a number of smaller communities and settlements of pioneers coming from the continental United States and abroad. Having taken up residence in a large territory—for some, the final frontier—the new inhabitants developed strong sets of ideas in connection to the land (natural resources, ownership), personal freedom, and political independence. In turn, these beliefs became part of the culturally constructed idea of Texan-ness—that which made Texas, Texas—or, in other words, the cultural elements informing the socially imagined "Texas mystique." Hobsbawm's discussion of invented traditions analyzes the degree by which communities have emphasized the celebration and continuation of specific traditions as ways to express their local and regional identity. Following Hobsbawm's ideas, we have seen that in the state of Texas, certain local music festivals and celebrations such as Westfest (West Texas, founded in 1976), the National Polka Festival (Ennis, Texas, founded in 1966), and the Tejano Conjunto Festival (San Antonio, Texas, founded in 1981), to name a few, have crossed regional, national, and international borders and brought diverse groups together, if only for the duration of the festival. Though these "invented traditions" celebrate local and regional identities, the context and content of the festivals suggest a deep appreciation for cultural heritage and a sense of pride in the state. Not only have Texans developed traditions to celebrate aspects of that Texas mystique or degrees of Texan-ness, but they have also emphasized the significance of historical memory. Taking into account Paul Connerton's explanation of how societies remember4 and Richard Flores' idea of the Texas Modern, we also discussed in class that social and cultural identity in Texas is not a static phenomenon, but that it is characterized by a dynamic process, engaging in conversation with individual and collective beliefs, ideas, and traditions. For this reason we will devote a large portion of this article to western swing, the recently and unanimously designated official music of the state by Texas lawmakers. But first we will discuss our conception of the course.
The "Nuts and Bolts"
We designed lectures, presentations, and class discussions without a dedicated text. We wrote a syllabus for the entire semester, but we also created a schedule of topics and readings for approximately three weeks at a time. We selected documentaries, film clips, musical examples, chapters from books, and articles from journals.5 We used a wide variety of source materials. The students read these materials and prepared for class discussion, often with one student designated as discussion leader. In the spring 2011, we included additional discussion sessions to analyze the various issues forming and reinforcing identity, as well as a lecture on critical reading, thinking, and writing. During the session on identity, we discussed the various elements and social theories in order to explain the development and reinforcement—including the process of adaptation, negotiation, preservation, and transmission—of a group's identity. In essence, we established that identity is a collection of experiences and external and internal influences informing our definition of self and our perception of others. Music, at least in our case studies, was closely connected to the realities and experiences of those creating, performing, and cultivating musical traditions as means to express their social and cultural identity. In order to help our students assimilate some of these non-musical concepts, a separate module covered the topic of reading, thinking, and writing critically.6 As part of the class discussion, we assigned reading samples and analyzed them as a class activity.
Schedule of Topics and Methodology
The following outline extracted from the course syllabus illustrates the schedule of topics for the first six weeks of the spring semester of 2011.
Week 1: Introduction
Lecture: Reading, Thinking, and Writing Critically
Lecture: Identity [and Music], Music and Identity
Week 2: The Invention of Texas—Texas as Place
The Texas Mystique
Reading: Fehrenbach:– Introduction
Discussion: Geographical and Historical Issues, Reading: Fehrenbach. Chapters 1 & 2
Discussion: Social and Cultural Issues, Reading: Fehrenbach, Chapters 3 & 4
Week 3: The Invention of Texas—Texas as Space
Discussion: Social and Cultural Issues (cont.), Reading: Fehrenbach, Chapters 5&6
Discussion: Historiography, Memory, Representation, Reading: Flores, Introduction, Chapters 1&2
Remembering The Alamo—cinematographic versions *(Research Proposal Due)
Week 4: Spanish Culture and Music in Texas
Discussion: Spanish Culture—Early Settlements *(Critique Paper Due)
Reading: Abernethy, "The Spanish on the Moral" in The Folklore of Texan Cultures
O'Rourke, The Franciscan Missions in Texas
Discussion: Spanish Culture—Characteristics and Cultural Influence, Readings: De León, The Tejano Community; Casey, Dance Across Texas
Lecture: Hispanic/Tejano Border Culture, DVD: Chulas Fronteras—"Beautiful Borders"
Week 5: Spanish Culture and Music in Texas
Discussion: Regional Identity and Border Music, Reading: Ragland, Chapter 2—"Regional Identity"
Discussion: Lydia Mendoza and Selena Quintanilla, Reading: Koegel, "Crossing Borders" in From Tejano to Tango
Lecture: Selena and Selenidad
Week 6: Anglo Culture and Music in Texas
Discussion: Early Settlements, Readings: Bartlett, "The Basic Mix" in The New Country; Montejano,"The Rivalship of Peace," in Anglos and Mexicans7
Lecture: Fiddling in Texas
Field Trip: Texas Ranger Museum
The main goal of the first three weeks was to provide the geographical, historical, political, and social background for later, more detailed discussions of the various communities that have contributed to the musical scene in Texas. These include Spanish culture and music, Anglo culture and music, German, Czech, and Polish cultures and music, and African-American culture and music. During the first six weeks we discussed chapters in books by Fehrenbach, Flores, Abernathy, O'Rourke, De León, Casey, Ragland, and other authors, in order to assess the impact of key communities in the social and cultural development of the state. Although each week was given a general topic, for individual sessions we focused on specific events, issues, or musical figures, such as: The Franciscan missions in Texas, the Tejano community, Tejano border culture, Lydia Mendoza and Selena Quintanilla, and the rivalry between Anglos and Mexicans (see previous outline). We encouraged the class to approach each reading and discussion with a critical eye and mind.
Rather than taking written tests (and in addition to leading weekly discussions), students wrote three critique papers on readings of their choice. The major research project for the semester was a paper and multimedia presentation on a topic related to music and identity in Texas. For the mid-term exam students prepared an initial powerpoint presentation explaining their research up to that point in the semester. The final exam was a fully developed powerpoint based on their completed projects. Topics over the last two springs have included: "'Remember the Alamo!' Says who and what for?!"; "Bagpipes, Tartans, and Boots, Oh My (A Study of the Scottish Texan's Identity and Music"; "From Humble Beginnings to Great Acclaim: The Transplantation of Classical Music to Texas"; "Church in the Wildwood: An Investigation into the Use of Hymns at Perry United Methodist Church"; "Seryn and Denton: Music and Identity in North Texas"; "African-American Gospel Music in Texas"; "Contemporary-Christian Music in Texas." After we discussed music, ethnicity, and identity with regard to particular groups of Texans, we then turned our attention to musical styles and genres that exemplify our general assumptions. One of those genres was western swing (also known as Texas swing or country jazz). As a hybrid, western swing demonstrated several of the "ethnic" musical aspects we had already discussed, but in its context and purposes it served as a mediator for one particular group of Texans, the displaced rural Anglo population of the 1930s and 40s.
Western Swing as Case Study
As a springboard to engage in conversation, the class read an article8 and analyzed this musical approach in the context of rural Texas during the depression. We observed that western swing illustrated the synthesis we had previously seen as the result of the merging of various musical traditions and communities, including Mexican mariachi music, African-American blues and jazz, Czech and German polkas and waltzes and accordion music, and Anglo fiddle tunes and string instruments. We emphasized the rural basis of western swing to make a strong point about the white share-cropper identity of its audiences and creators. Indeed, Western swing grew out of the ranch and farm dances held in rural Texas, wherein neighbors gathered at one homestead to dance—sometimes for days at a time—to the music of a fiddler, or sometimes a string band consisting of fiddle, guitar, and home-made bass. This music was simply referred to as dance music, and the label "western swing" was not attached to it until the late 1940s in California, in reference to the music made by fiddler Spade Cooley and his large dance bands.
In Texas, the social context for western swing emerged after the end of the Civil War and continued through the depression, a period during which a considerable number of rural Texans did not own the land on which they raised cotton. They leased it from landlords, and much of what they produced went back to the landlords as payment for rent, seed, and equipment, all this keeping them tied to the land very much as actual slaves had been. This system of renting property for farming purposes was called share-cropping. Since blacks and whites found themselves locked into the same economic system, at times, the only difference between the two races was skin color. Wherever it was practiced, sharecropping led to increased feelings of white superiority over blacks. Conversations with western swing musicians revealed that they were not racists and that they acknowledged their debt to African-American peers, but they realized that their audiences were racist and downplayed the connection of their music to jazz. During the depression years of the 1930s agriculture in Texas, as elsewhere, was hard hit and rural folks were forced to move into towns and cities to find jobs. Western swing was born in urban areas, especially Fort Worth, Texas, but it was created for and by displaced rural white Texans. It grew as an extension and expression of their identity and worldview, which continued to be represented even in the new and unstable context of urban life. Western swing pioneers designed a music that was a continuation of the rural dance tradition white Texans had known for years and that helped them adapt to modern city life. These pioneers, all rural white string band musicians, listened to recordings and radio programs that featured Dixieland jazz, swing jazz, and modern Tin Pan Alley songs. From these city influences and their rural beginnings they forged a type of Texas dance music (Texas swing) that was iconic of the past—with its primary nucleus of string instruments—and illustrative of the present—with its swing rhythms, solo choruses, addition of piano and drums, and sometimes inclusion of wind instruments such as trumpet, clarinet, or saxophone.
In terms of repertory, western swing bands continued to play fiddle tunes, but added the more modern styles found in urban popular songs and jazz arrangements, especially swing jazz.9 The inclination of rural Texans of all ethnicities to treat dancing as a main form of recreation was well set in the Texas consciousness, and western swing was first and foremost dance music, thus the predominant 2/4 meter and typical dance rhythms. For the most part, western swing bands avoided the hemiola rhythmic effects favored by Mexican-Texans, Tejanos. From the Mariachi bands, however, western swing musicians did derive the idea of two melody instruments, predominantly fiddles, playing in harmony, often in parallel thirds or sixths. And from the prominent conjunto bands of South Texas and the influx of Czechs, Germans, and Poles directly into Texas, they borrowed the accordion, waltz, and polka. Originally, conjunto musicians had appropriated the accordion, the polka, and the waltz from German immigrants in Northern Mexico. White Texas musicians thus drew directly and indirectly on the music of these immigrants.
White Texans were also strongly influenced by an African-American presence, especially in East Texas, which had been the western-most extension of the Deep South cotton-plantation culture. African-American musicians made Texas an important center for both vocal blues and piano blues, called boogie-woogie. The music was labeled simply dance music, or Texas music.10 The reason for this generic designation is evident in the clearly racist notions of former rural white Texans forced to move to town. For the majority of these white Texans, jazz was clearly an African-American music in which they had little interest. The white dance bands continued the string-band instrumentation favored in rural Texas while performing a more modern repertory to which they always added take-off solo choruses in the fashion of jazz. This hybridized music was performed in dance halls located on the outskirts of towns and cities, not in urban halls or hotel ballrooms, and it held little interest for the white urban population of Texas, which had no contact with the rural, agrarian society.11
Indeed, western swing can be understood as a paradigm of the history and diversified ethnic origins of Texas culture and society as a whole, and it can also serve to illustrate particular areas and populations. Let us explore the approaches to western swing practiced in four geographical areas of Texas. One important and unique area is the northern South-Texas town of San Antonio. San Antonio, one of the major cities of Mexican Texas, still retains a strong Hispanic atmosphere, along with a large Texan-Mexican population. San Antonio also belonged to the Texas German Belt, as it became home to major colonies of German and Czech immigrants beginning in the early nineteenth century. As the location of the famous Alamo, site of one of the bloodiest and most strategic battles of the Texas Revolution against Mexico, San Antonio has also been an important city for Anglo Texans and their culture and music. In several ways, San Antonio was and still is a microcosm of the entire state. Consequently, during the 1930s and 1940s, western swing was a natural fit for San Antonio.
Two bands exemplify how western swing both appropriated and contributed to the identity of San Antonio as a cross-cultural complex. The first band to be discussed, The Tune Wranglers, was formed in 1935. It was established by a group of working cowboys who sang, played guitar, fiddle and bass, and created some of their own tunes. Later in 1935, the Tune Wranglers added a pianist. In 1936, The Tune Wranglers began performing a daily radio program on station WOAI, through which they advertised their dance engagements; and they signed a recording contract with the Bluebird label. Their first recording session took place on February 27 and 28, 1936 at the Texas Hotel in San Antonio, and resulted in the issue of their very successful number, "Texas Sand." Western-swing historian and discographer Cary Ginell described the songs on this first session as "wild, driving and uninhibited, frequently punctuated by exuberant comments by Coward and Brown."12
The Tune Wranglers recorded five more times on the Bluebird label, the last time on October 25, 1938. Between February 1936 and October 1938, the band added steel guitar, accordion, clarinet, and saxophone players; they travelled close to 300,000 miles, and performed in halls and honky-tonks in well over 200 different towns. They started life as a string band comprised of working cowboys who possessed natural musical talent, but little sophistication. Occasionally they became a larger ensemble, incorporating steel guitar, accordion, clarinet and/or saxophone that played a more varied playlist. Over six recording sessions the Tune Wranglers "waxed" fiddle tunes, country numbers, popular songs, blues, jazz tunes, and a few original songs. Yet, the band never lost its identity as a group of real cowboys having an uninhibited good time. In a sense, these musicians walked right out of the Texas trail-drive mentality of a former era, when cowboys took their fiddles and harmonicas to entertain themselves around the campfire after a long day of driving long-horned cattle to railheads further north. Like their imagined predecessors, The Tune Wranglers were feisty, spirited, jolly, and they loved to play and sing, traits that endeared them to audiences in San Antonio and elsewhere in South Texas. The Tune Wranglers was a western-swing band that projected a particular Texan identity: the identity of the South Texas cowboy providing a home-made brand of dance music for himself and his associates. Even when the Tune Wranglers played popular songs and jazz, or Hawaiian numbers, such as their best-selling "Hawaiian Honeymoon," recorded on their last Bluebird session on October 25, 1938, their delivery spoke to their true professions as cowboys and to the spontaneity of unrehearsed jamming for fun.
Whereas the Tune Wranglers represented the Anglo, cowboy identity of San Antonio's hybrid musical scene as described earlier, Adolph Hofner and his various western-swing bands introduced elements of the German and Czech populations of San Antonio and South Texas. Adolph Hofner was born on June 8, 1916, in Moulton, Texas, a small town between the larger metropolitan areas of Houston and San Antonio, to a part-German father and a Czech mother. Czech was his first language, and polka music part of his earliest memories. Adolph's younger brother Emil was born two years later, on August 1, 1918, and eventually the brothers discovered the world of commercial music together.
By 1926 the Hofner family had moved to San Antonio, and Adolph and Emil, both teenagers, began working in San Antonio clubs as a duet; Adolph played standard guitar and sang and Emil (nicknamed "Bash") played steel guitar. When in the early 1930s Adolph heard recordings by Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies, the first western swing band to record, he became convinced that "western music" was the direction that he and his brother should pursue. Adolph even altered his vocal delivery to sound more like his hero, Milton Brown.13
In 1935, the two Hofner brothers joined a local western-swing band, Jimmie Revard and His Oklahoma Playboys. Late in 1938, Adolph and Emil Hofner, along with several musicians from Jimmie Revard's Oklahoma Playboys formed the group Adolph Hofner and His Texans, which recorded for the first time in April 1938, and played for its first dance on May 13, 1939. Adolph Hofner added musicians to his band, including a trap drum player and clarinet/saxophone players. Sometime in 1941, Adolph Hofner moved his band from San Antonio to Hollywood, California, and he changed recording labels from Bluebird to Decca. For the first Decca recording session, held between February 28 and March 1, 1942, Adolph Hofner changed his band's name to Adolph Hofner and His San Antonians and hired J. R. Chatwell, an incredibly brilliant musician, to play the hot-fiddle.14
Hofner had several claims to fame: he hired Chatwell to play fiddle; he was (or claimed to be) the first band leader to incorporate drums into a string band, though this is highly debated in western swing circles; he supposedly was the first to record an old fiddle-tune, "Cotton-Eyed Joe," which he learned from an elderly man in New Braunfels; and he took pride in playing Czech music with a string band, which he claimed had never been done before. Since Czech dance bands both in the homeland and in Texas routinely consisted of winds (clarinets, saxophones, trumpets, trombones, tubas) and percussion, this last claim seems entirely credible. With Adolph Hofner and his various bands we see another clear indication of identity infusing music and music informing identity in a particular Texas location.
Going deeper into South Texas, one encounters the industrial complex comprising the cities of Beaumont, Houston and Port Arthur. Here the Depression was less burdensome because of the work that was available in the thriving oil refineries and shipping industry. The needs of the war-time economy during World War II brought a boom to deep South-Texas business. Because of the relative abundance of jobs and increased population during the 1930s and 40s, Beaumont, Houston and Port Arthur were also rich in dancehalls and clubs, all offering live music played by dance bands. Western-swing fiddler Clyde Brewer remembered this heyday of Texas dance music in the Beaumont-Houston-Port Arthur area:
There were bands all over the place. And, of course, we would work like say
from Houston to Lake Charles, Louisiana, and dancehalls galore, musicians all over the
place. We would play radio programs in Beaumont and then all meet down at the pool
hall between the radio programs and the time to go wherever we were playing. It
wasn't necessarily competition, because, everybody was going to have a good crowd.
Lots of places to play, plenty of halls . . . And out on McCarty Street, which is the old
Highway 90, Beaumont Highway they called it, I don't know how many joints and clubs
were up and down that road; but every one of them had some kind of a band in it,
maybe one piece up to five or six pieces. They all played, some a whole lot better than
others, but basically they were playing what we called Texas music of those days.15
Notice that Clyde Brewer did not refer to this music as western swing or jazz, but rather "Texas music." Clubs, musicians, and audiences were plentiful, and everybody was looking for joy and relief from tension during the Depression and war years. Texas dance music (western swing) blossomed and changed in this part of the state. If San Antonio was a place where different musical identities could thrive side by side in the same western swing band, the Beaumont-Houston-Port Arthur area was a place where disparate musical identities and styles merged into something new and different.
Of central importance to the emergence of western swing bands in this part of South Texas was the fact that former members of Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies hailed from this area and returned to South Texas after Brown's death in 1936 and the subsequent breakup of his band. Chief among these was fiddler Cliff Bruner, who started with the Milton Brown sound and then altered it to fit his own preferences and those of his sidemen. However, there was more to the Beaumont-Houston-Port Arthur dance-band sound than what could be derived from Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies. This part of the state is both South Texas and East Texas, and it resides in close proximity to Western Louisiana, giving Texas musicians access to Cajun music.
South Texas was also a major center for vocal blues, and the eastern part of South Texas, specifically the piney-woods area on the borders of East Texas and West Louisiana, gave birth to a piano jazz style called boogie-woogie. Boogie-woogie was originally created in the lumber and turpentine camps of the piney woods; these were outlying areas far from towns that offered any form of entertainment. Camp owners provided alcoholic beverages and music in shacks called barrel houses, because their floors were built on top of large barrels. Equipped with beat-up pianos, these barrel houses provided the context for self-taught, virtuosic African-American pianists to play twelve-bar blues at a rapid tempo while putting down a ragtime-derived, left-hand ostinato bass patterns consisting of melodic figures (walking bass), or chords (choral bass) and topping this with highly syncopated, independent melody lines played by the right-hand. The two hands were so completely independent of one another, that one player sounded like two.16
For the connection between western swing and Cajun music, blues, boogie-woogie, and jazz two individuals and one band are relevant. The two individuals are fiddler and bandleader Cliff Bruner and pianist and vocalist Aubrey "Moon" Mullican; these two musicians often worked together. Bruner was an astute businessman as well as an excellent band leader and fiddle player, and he successfully booked his band in dancehalls and clubs around Houston. He added players to his band, played a regular radio program on station KXYZ, and began to record. Prior to the band's recording session on September 14, 1938, Bruner hired a new piano player Aubrey "Moon" Mullican. Bruner and Mullican became best friends and business partners; like all best friends and business partners, they fought, separated, and reunited numerous times. When they were together, however, theirs was an unbeatable band.
Aubrey "Moon" Mullican was born in the small rural community of Corrigan, Polk County, Texas on March 29, 1909. The piney woods and its logging industry was part of the child's environment, as were the African-American laborers who worked in the camps and drank their weariness and soreness away in the barrel houses listening to boogie-woogie pianists. Aubrey learned to play elementary blues guitar from an African-American field hand employed by his father. His family was extremely religious and had little use for Aubrey's blues guitar playing, but purchased a pump organ for his sisters on which they could practice in order to play in church. Aubrey turned his guitar blues licks into a boogie-woogie keyboard style, which he began to use to earn a living at the age of fourteen, when he left home.17
Both together and apart, Cliff Bruner and Aubrey "Moon" Mullican enjoyed enormous popularity and success in South Texas. They brought forth a unique approach to western swing with their heavy doses of blues, boogie-woogie, and Cajun music. Historians Douglas B. Greene and Bob Pinson described the new style as "'honky tonk, . . . birthed from western swing the mother, and the rise of the jukebox and the tavern as the father.'"18 Bruner and his Texas Wanderers cut the first western-swing recording of Kokomo Arnold's version of the iconic "Milk Cow Blues" on their first Decca recording session on February 5, 1937. It was Bruner's rendition that became the model for other western swing bands.
Bruner also recorded the Cajun tune "Jole Blon" (also called "Jolie Blon" and "Jolie Blond"). Like "Milk Cow Blues," "Jole Blon" has become a staple with western swing bands. "Jole Blon" (Pretty Blond) is attributed to Cajun fiddler and band leader Harry Choates. With its ¾ meter and moderate tempo, this is clearly a Cajun waltz. Between them Cliff Bruner and Aubrey "Moon" Mullican infused the identity of Cajun music and African-American blues and boogie-woogie into western swing and used western swing to further inform the identity of Southeast Texas as another crossroads of culture and ethnicities.
The original Village Boys,19 our next example, was a Southeast Texas band formed in Houston in the 1940s. It was founded by guitarist and singer Dickie McBride, who had been a charter member of Bruner's Texas Wanderers. Dickie McBride excelled as a singer, and the band featured vocal trios and quartets constituted of instrumentalists doubling as vocalists. However, the instrumental dance-band portion of the original Village Boys was equally impressive. Western-swing journalist Kevin Coffey called The Village Boys "one of the tightest, hottest early western swing bands."20 The lineup for the original Village Boys was heavy on jazz players, which made this western-swing band closer to mainstream jazz, though not in terms of instrumentation. Fiddle player Buddy Ray was a jazz violinist who admired Leroy "Stuff" Smith. The pianists in the group at various times, Mancel Tierney and Millard Kelso, both achieved fame with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, and both were strong improvisers and technicians at the keyboard. The Village Boys' guitarists, Cameron Hill and Jimmy Wyble also eventually joined the Bob Wills band; and Wyble went on to a legendary jazz guitar career with Benny Goodman and with Red Norvo.
Buddy Ray has noted that the band played original jazz arrangements by members of the band, including Ray's own "Tulsa Twist," and re-arrangements of tunes recorded by well-known jazz groups such as the Benny Goodman Sextet, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Louis Armstrong, Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy, and Billy Eckstein, to name a few. In order to please their rural audiences transplanted to the Houston area, they also played and recorded some old fiddle tunes, and honky-tonk songs written by Floyd Tillman and Ted Daffan. Ray insisted, however, that the Village Boys was a jazz band, not a country band.21
The Village Boys introduced yet another musical approach to western swing; that of an urban mainstream jazz-band. In his liner notes for Stompin' at the Honky Tonk, Tony Russell wrote about Houston:
Houston music is a little more "progressive." The rigorous western swing beat is slightly relaxed, and there's a leaning towards the soloist and away from the tight ensembles of Milton Brown and early Wills. It reflected what was happening in Northern and Midwestern jazz of the time, and it's clearly a natural stage in the development of western swing, out of the country string band and towards the cool swing of postwar California.22
Buddy Ray's "Tulsa Twist," which the Village Boys recorded on the Decca label, in Dallas, on May 1, 1941, certainly reflects the modern, urban identity of this band. This recording still appeals to jazz enthusiasts because of its progressive, mainstream sound. Bass player Hezzie Bryant creates a steady, walking 4/4 rather than the 2/4 meter more common to many western swing bands. The harmonic structure of the tune is simple, but provides ample opportunity for improvised elaboration. The recording ends inconclusively on a riff played by the twin fiddles. Dick Jones and Buddy Ray working together on their fiddles play synchronized harmonies that forecast the close unison introductions and tags of bebop greats Charlie "Bird" Parker (alto saxophone) and John Burks "Dizzy" Gillespie (trumpet). Mancel Tierney at the piano does not keep time, but rather is playing complementary figures behind other soloists or playing intricate and unique take-off solo choruses.23 In its totality, this performance bears some resemblance to the bebop jazz that was in its infancy in places such as New York City when this recording was first made. Bands such as the Village Boys spoke to the changing climate and identity of parts of Texas that were moving away from the rural, agricultural model towards the modern urbanization brought to the state by the United States' entry into World War II. Because their sound was more urban and their approach more mainstream jazz, The Village Boys could never compete for the favor of a more rural audience with the likes of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys.
North Texas is problematic in terms of presenting a unique Texan identity; the only identity it radiates is native Anglo Texan. The two largest urban areas in North Texas are Fort Worth and Dallas. Fort Worth began as a Texas Ranger station and on November 14, 1849 was claimed by the United States Department of War and officially renamed Fort Worth. For the majority of westward moving pioneers Fort Worth was the last point of security before embarking into treacherous Comanche country to the west. In September, 1853, the Army evacuated Fort Worth for new forts built farther west, and the settlers in the area moved in and claimed the site. The Texas and Pacific Railway designated Fort Worth as its eastern terminus to Yuma, Arizona, and on July 19, 1876, the track and depot were opened for business. By 1900 other railroads ran through Fort Worth, and the town became a railhead for the shipping of cattle and a center for the meat packing industry. Some Fort Worth establishments in the Historic Stockyard district retain large photographs of longhorn cattle being driven down Main Street in route to the Fort Worth Stockyard and railhead. Thus, Fort Worth's nickname, "Cowtown," is justly deserved.
During World War I, the United States Army established Camp Bowie in Fort Worth. The Texas oil boom brought oil companies to the city, and World War II brought the aviation industry to Fort Worth. Fort Worth is now the home of museums, the Amon Carter Museum and the Kimbell Art Museum, parks, a symphony orchestra, an opera company and ballet company, Texas Christian University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.24
As described here, Fort Worth was a growing commercial center bent on attracting money and companies from other parts of the United States. Rural people were drawn to Fort Worth because the city offered many jobs, and western swing was born in Fort Worth because of the confluence of commerce, industry and refugees from agricultural areas. The two founders of western swing, vocalist Milton Brown and fiddler Bob Wills came out of a seminal band called The Light Crust Doughboys that was sponsored by Burrus Mill and Elevator Company, which made Light Crust Flour. In September 1932, Milton Brown left Burrus Mill and the Light Crust Doughboys, and just two days later he and his new band, The Musical Brownies, played their first program on radio station KTAT. The break was precipitated by Brown's desire to be free of the tyrannical control of the mill's and the band's manager, W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel, who refused to let the Doughboys play for dances and attempted to stifle any musical experimentation in the band. Brown's Musical Brownies was the first western swing band to record and its popularity helped to solidify the western swing band instrumentation of two fiddles, standard guitar, banjo, bass, steel guitar, and piano. He focused on take-off improvised solo choruses. He drew upon blues, pop songs, and jazz for the majority of his repertory, and he completed the Brownies' urbane, modern sound with his own pop vocal style and occasional scat singing.25
In August, 1933, eleven months after Milton Brown left the Doughboys, Bob Wills left for the same reasons. Wills took Doughboys' singer Thomas Elmer Duncan, Brown's replacement, and moved eighty miles south to Waco, where he put together his first Playboys band. When W. Lee O'Daniel attempted to interfere with Wills's success in Waco, Wills moved his band first to Oklahoma City and then to Tulsa, Oklahoma and radio staiton KVOO. Wills built a large ensemble, with complete string and wind components, that could play any type of music, and that was more popular in the Southwest and California than many of the mainstream jazz bands.26 Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys became the best known of all western-swing bands and won a national reputation.
Western swing began in Fort Worth and spread to other parts of North Texas, including Dallas, which had even less of a unique identity. Fort Worth and Dallas hosted numerous western-swing bands, all of which had radio programs and played in the many outlying halls, such as Crystal Springs Fishing Camp and Dance Hall that served the needs of displaced rural Texans. One of these bands will serve as a model for western swing and its identity in North Texas. We have selected Roy Newman and His Boys to represent North Texas because Milton Brown died in 1936 and Bob Wills moved his band to Oklahoma.
Roy Newman, a staff musician for Dallas radio station WRR, formed a string trio in 1931 that he called The Wanderers. In a short time, Roy Newman and His Boys were quite popular in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and offered Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies (discussed above) stiff competition. From its inception, Roy Newman preferred that his band perform blues and jazz tunes. Newman experimented with his band's sound. He tried out various singers until he found one, Earl Brown, whose "smoky baritone voice . . . could easily have been mistaken for that of a black man."27 He also tested the sound of two bass players working simultaneously in order to emphasize the beat. Newman's most important guitarist, Jim Boyd, was one of the first to play an electrically amplified guitar on recordings. But his most innovative addition to the band was clarinetist Holly Horton, a veteran of ragtime bands from the World War I era. Horton was the first woodwind player to work with a string band. On stage Horton was a comedian, and as a player his signature sounds were his flutter-tongue effects and his habit of dropping his jaw as he played so that the clarinet sounded like laughter. Horton was also an excellent improviser. In his description of Horton's clarinet approach, writer Bill Givens compared Horton to Larry Shields of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band from New Orleans and Leon Rappolo of Chicago's New Orleans Rhythm Kings, and he credits Horton with providing "the balance between city and country hot music"28 that Newman desired.
Roy Newman led an exciting, modern, experimental group of musicians, who are still fun to listen to, and must have been extremely entertaining to watch on stage. They derived their approach from that of Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies, and took that style and sound to the next level of modernity and technical proficiency. Newman and his players acquired their musical approach and repertory from recordings and radio programs featuring the hot swing bands of the day. Newman's western swing identity was not rural or agrarian, but rather cosmopolitan and jazz. This evidence seems to imply that the Dallas-Fort Worth/North Texas area was set apart from other parts of the state by its ties to the business and music worlds that transferred to Texas from states further north.
West Texas is the last geographical area of the state that offers its own identity that was encapsulated in western swing. West Texas is still a world apart from the rest of the state, and probably has more livestock in residence than human beings. It is a region in which towns are small and far apart, water is scarce, and vegetation is sparse. West Texas is a place where, as the song says, the "stars at night are big and bright," because there are no trees or city lights to obscure the view. At one time it was home to the war-like Comanche and to the few whites who dared to settle there in hopes of surviving long enough to start ranches. Today, farmers in West Texas drill water wells and irrigate cotton, wheat and other crops, turning the sandy soil green with vegetation. But even now, towns, though larger, are few and far between. Because of its topography and climate West Texas has remained rural even as other parts of the state have industrialized and urbanized. What do residents of West Texas do to entertain themselves in this vast place that still possesses something of the ambience of the frontier? How have they historically passed their leisure time? The answer was, and still is: in West Texas people dance. Western swing flourished in West Texas longer than in any other part of the state because of the importance of dancing to West Texas life.
West Texas was also the main location of the fiddle contests that brought about a unique Texas fiddle style. The lone, independent competition fiddler fighting it out in bow-to-fiddle contest with another fiddler is as iconic to Texas as the cowboy. It can be argued that the Texas fiddle style devised by these musical heroes was one of the primary ingredients in western swing. The Texas fiddle style depends on a unique approach to bowing, fingering, and repetition of the phrases of fiddle tunes. Texas fiddlers produce longer, smoother bow strokes than do fiddlers in the Southeastern United States, which slows down the tempo of the tunes but allows the fiddlers to execute intricate triplets, quintuplets, and sextuplets on the fingerboard. In contests and for dances, Texas fiddlers usually improvise on the two phrases of a standard fiddle tune rather than merely repeating them until the dancers are ready to stop. It was a West Texas fiddler, Alexander Campbell "Eck" Robertson who recorded the first fiddle music on the RCA Victrola label in 1921, thus initiating commercial country music. The lead instruments(s) in any western swing band were and remain the fiddle or fiddles. They are the equivalents of the trumpets in a mainstream jazz band.
In West Texas western-swing, dance musicians had less access to recordings, and they depended less on recording themselves. They did enjoy what radio could bring them, and as elsewhere in Texas most bands had radio programs through which they advertised their upcoming play dates. West Texas western swing bands travelled from live job to live job, often over long distances. It was in the dance halls and the honky-tonks rather than the recording studios that western swing bands in West Texas made their livings. The fiddle tunes and western numbers survived longer in rural West Texas than in other parts of the state, and when commercial music found its way into West Texas it was commercial country music.
One of the long-lived western-swing bands of West Texas was Hoyle Nix and His West Texas Cowboys. Hoyle Nix, a West Texas cotton farmer and rancher had fiddling in his genes; his father and grandfather were competition fiddlers, and Hoyle passed the tradition to his son, Jody. Hoyle started his own band and, in true independent Texas fashion, never played in any other band. Hoyle Nix and His West Texas Cowboys played its first job on November 11, 1946, at a little club called Yale's Inn, in Big Spring, Texas. The West Texas Cowboys developed a dance circuit that took them all over West Texas. They were on the road four or five nights every week, playing dance halls in various West Texas towns. In addition, they had a Saturday noon radio program on station KPET in Lamesa. Nix's greatest influence was Bob Wills. Hoyle's son Jody explained, "He absolutely loved Bob Wills. They were very close friends. He patterned his fiddle playing after Wills; he patterned his band after Wills's band. He just loved that style of music."29 Hoyle Nix and his band recorded a number of times, always on small local labels, such as Talent Records out of Dallas or Queen Records out of Snyder in West Texas. In 1954, Nix built his own dance hall, The Stampede, right outside of Big Spring, Texas. It was a family place where children were welcome. People could bring their own alcohol, the club provided cokes as mixers, but no drunkenness was tolerated.
Hoyle Nix and His West Texas Cowboys represent yet another identifying characteristic of Texas and its people: stubbornly independent, hardworking, family-oriented, capable of making life-long friendships, and experiencing all that life has to offer, good or bad, with a positive attitude and vigor. An expression of this identity can be found in the band's most popular recording, "A Big Ball's in Cowtown," "waxed" at a studio in Dallas in 1949. This number has the flavor of an old-fashioned fiddle tune, and Hoyle Nix's fiddling is reminiscent of the Texas country fiddle style, a set of variations on a simple melody. The form of the song is verse-chorus. Hoyle Nix plays an introduction, sawing away, hoe-down style, after which he sings the first verse. Hoyle's brother Ben joins him in a vocal duet each time the chorus is repeated. Between each of the four verse-chorus vocal segments, Nix improvises variations on the simple tune. Behind the playing and singing is a great deal of hollering and talking, all very much in a Bob Wills' vein.
In the year 2011, the State Legislature and Governor of Texas declared western swing the state's emblematic music.30 Whereas this is great news for those of us who study western swing, in reality, this designation does not reflect the present conception of musical identity as understood by most of the population of the state. Native Texans, those whose families have resided in Texas for multiple generations, still feel a sense of pride in this place called Texas and in its history and music. Newcomers often wonder why Texans are so proud of their state. Once the newcomers' children are exposed to Texas history, which is taught in several grades in Texan schools, or visit the Alamo, or notice the enthusiasm of all native Texans for all things perceived to be Texan, they begin to understand; but only natives understand fully.
In fact, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, Texas has become more like the rest of the nation. The same chain restaurants and department stores that exist nationally, and in some cases internationally, serve the needs of all Texans. Major industries from elsewhere in the United States have moved their headquarters, or at least opened branches in Texas, where the tax structure is especially welcoming to business enterprises. Farming and ranching are highly commercialized and scientifically informed. Agri-business is huge and the family farm or ranch is no longer the lifeblood of Texas agriculture. Much to the surprise of some non-Texans, the citizens of Texas drive cars—large, gas-guzzling cars being the stereotype—rather than ride horses, and cowboys fly helicopters and ride four-wheelers to herd their cattle. Some ideas dear to Texans never change: property rights are still sacred to Texans, land is still a commodity that every Texan wants to own, and guns, or the right to carry arms, are near and dear to the hearts of many Texans.31
Where and how does western swing fit into this modern picture? In reality, the large majority of Texas residents do not know what western swing is. In the 1930s and 40s western swing was the most pervasive and beloved music in Texas, and in neighboring Oklahoma. It was the dance music of displaced rural Texans, and Texas remained rural at least in its thought processes until World War II. Paraphrasing Martin Stokes' analysis of the significance of musical performance as a means by which identities are constructed and mobilized (1997), we would like to suggest that in the concrete case of western swing, the genre was temporarily and socially—hence culturally—meaningful, because it provided a way by which displaced rural white Texans became aware of their own individual and collective identity. This awareness was realized in the context of a new space—an urban space, which also emphasized the boundaries, which separated their identity from that of others. The context in which western swing musicians worked began to change after the end of World War II. With the new system of highways inaugurated by President Dwight Eisenhower, and the end of gasoline and rubber rationing, Texans, like all other Americans, could take to the roads again. When televisions began to invade American homes in the 1950s, Americans, including Texans, no longer had to leave home for their entertainment. Furthermore, nobody with access to a television cared to listen to the radio until radios became mobile and portable, and featured disc jockeys spinning records rather than live shows. Dancing declined as a favored past time of Americans and Texans, and dance bands, including western swing bands gradually became obsolete.
Western swing survived, but it changed. Bands no longer depended on radio shows to advertise their dances; in fact, they no longer depended on dances. Western swing came to be featured at festivals and shows, at which dancing was of secondary importance. Bands began to depend upon the sale of records, then tapes, then compact discs, and now MP3 downloads. No longer tied to radio stations in particular cities in particular parts of the state, bands roamed freely and absorbed influences from all over Texas and beyond. To meet the needs of festival and show audiences, the repertory of the bands became more homogeneous. At present, one can find the same categories of western swing bands that can be found in mainstream jazz: repertory bands that maintain traditional styles and repertories, and crossover bands that combine western swing with rock, or country, or mainstream jazz. The part of the state from which a band operates no longer has an impact on its sound or repertory. In fact, if one "Googles" western swing, a staggering list of bands appears in every part of the Unites States and Canada, and in Europe. Most of the current reissues of western swing recordings are now being made in Europe, by companies such as Bear Family Records in Germany, and Proper Records in England. Western swing musicians are no longer the local heroes of their town or part of the state, keeping up the spirits and contributing to the identities of fans. They are entertainers playing for money.
At the beginning of this essay we asked if it is possible to refer to meaning, or a series of meanings, in regard to music and identity in Texas. Does Texas culture dictate identity and meaning(s) or vice-versa? What are the cultural and social factors that may inform the idea of a Texas identity? In the 1930s and 40s, when Texas was still primarily rural, conservative democratic in its political orientation, conservative evangelical Southern Baptist, and part of the Jim-Crow South in terms of race relations, western swing entertained and gave meaning to a particular group of Texans: rural, displaced, convinced that their supposed superiority over African Americans was God-given. Western swing emerged out of this identity and confirmed it as well. Beginning in the 1960s and continuing until the present day, the culture and, to some extent, the identity of Texans have changed, due to the influx of businesses, people and ideas from other parts of the United States, and the world. Western swing no longer defines Texan-ness. In fact, no particular music does. Western swing does provide a lens into Texas's history and its past identity, as a whole and in its various parts. This genre of music can be and should be used to enrich our understanding of all things Texan. Music is much more than the sound track of our past and our present; it is our past and our present.
Within the context of the class that we offered, western swing helped to establish the appropriate background from which to initiate the dialogue and analysis regarding music and cultural identity, or, as we later found, cultural identities in Texas. Through this class we encouraged our students to think "outside the box" and ask critical questions about all of the music they encounter and study. Beyond the obvious historical and theoretical factors, what does music tell us about human identity and society? Indeed, music is more than ordered, performed sound. It is a musical lens through which one could observe culture and identity. In our particular case, we found that our course was a good model to begin assessing and studying the relationship between music and identity in our own backyard.
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Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London and New York: Verso, 1991.
Bartlett, Richard A. The New Country: A Social History of the American Frontier, 1776-1890. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.
Blank, Les, and Chris Strachwitz. Chulas fronteras and Del mero Corazón: Roots of Tex-Mex Music. El Cerrito, CA: Brazos Films, 1973 (VHS) and 2006 (DVD).
Boyd, Jean A. Dance All Night: Those Other Southwestern Swing Bands, Past and Present. Lubbock, Texas: Texas Tech University Press, 2012.
______. The Jazz of the Southwest: An Oral History of Western Swing. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.
______.We're the Light Crust Doughboys from Burrus Mill: An Oral History. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.
______. "Western Swing, Working-Class Southwestern Jazz of the 1930s and 1940s." In Perspectives on American Music 1900-1950, edited by Michael Saffle, 193‒14. New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 2000.
Brewer, Clyde. Interview by Jean A. Boyd and Tom Prisk, June 22, 2002, Magnolia, Texas. Transcript, Texas Collection, Baylor University.
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1This paper is based on a presentation we gave at the Regional College Music Society Spring 2011 meeting (Little Rock, Arkansas).
2For example, among these various traditions, we studied polka music as cultivated by the Czech, German, and Polish communities; and mariachi, tejano, and norteña music as performed by the Hispanic-Texan community.
5Some of the books from which we included chapters discussed general concepts, for example: the Texas mindset, slavery in Texas, Texas and secession (Fehrenbach, Seven Keys to Texas, vii-113; Buenger, Secession and the Union in Texas, 1-21). Some book chapters and articles were descriptive of specific ethnic and national groups who immigrated to Texas, and mentioned music only peripherally (Abernathy, "The Spanish on the Moral," 27-39; De León, "Spaniards, Mexicans and Americans," 1-22).
6The member lists of professional associations such as the American Musicological Society and the Society for American Music have, of late, included discussions about the problem of a lack of critical thinking and writing skills among our undergraduate students. Most contributors to this discussion agree that the present state of public education in the Unites States—i.e. teaching to evaluative tests—is the primary culprit for this lack of critical skills. This discussion is also ongoing at many universities, including Baylor University.
7Fehrenbach, Seven Keys to Texas; Flores, Remembering the Alamo; Abernathy, ed. and Beaty, music ed., The Folklore of Texan Cultures; O'Rourke, The Franciscan Missions in Texas; De León, The Tejano Community, 1836-1900; Cassey, Dance Across Texas; Blank and Strachwitz, Chulas fronteras and Del mero Corazón; Ragland, Música Norteña; Koegel, "Crossing Borders," Bartlett, The New Country.
10Though western swing musicians interviewed declared that they were not country musicians and were more interested in jazz arrangements, improvisation, and techniques, they did not refer to the music they were playing for dances in the 1930s and 40s (the heyday of western swing) as jazz. See Boyd, The Jazz of the Southwest.
11The main point of this case study and musical model was to help students realize that western swing was part of the social identity of a particular group of Texans. We used a few musical examples to illustrate how the various components of western swing originated in different ethnic groups, but coalesced to meet the needs and worldview of displaced rural white Texans during the depression and World War II.
19Three different bands named The Village Boys existed in the Houston area over a long expanse of time, but most authorities agree that this original version of The Village Boys was the most authentic in its western swing identity, and the least associated with commercial country music.
30On Monday, May 23, 2011, the Texas House of Representatives approved a bill that had already passed in the Texas Senate making Western Swing the "Official Music" of the State of Texas. (Copyright © 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
Jean A. Boyd is a professor of music history and American music studies in the Baylor University School of Music. Her principal research area, western swing has resulted in three books, three articles, and various professional presentations. A new interest is honky-tonk music, which has led to the publication of an online encyclopedia article.
Musicologist and ethnomusicologist Alfredo Colman is a cultural analyst of the academic and traditional musical repertoires of Paraguay and other Latin American countries. His areas of research include the Paraguayan harp and its music, the musical contributions of Paraguayan academic and popular music composer Florentín Giménez (b.1925), and issues on music and identity in Texas.