Last Saturday my youngest son and I traveled up the road to Turkey, Texas, to catch a part of the annual Bob Wills Day celebration.
Bob Wills is credited along with Milton Brown with pioneering Western Swing in the 1930s. To a degree Wills and Brown and others in the genre were just playing popular dance music in the 1930s – a mix of Swing and big band jazz popular at the time, only doing it in the Southwestern U.S. Since they were in Texas and Oklahoma and thereabouts, the audiences and the musicians had experience and expectations for music connected to the area’s folk music and cowboy music, so when the bands played popular music it sounded a little different than it did elsewhere. Sort of a regional accent that grew into a distinct dialect.
Western Swing was a big deal for a while, and not just in the Southwest. Wills spent much of the 1940s living in Hollywood, appearing in and supplying music for popular movies. Nobody really does Western Swing anymore, except as a sort of musical museum piece. Looking around the audience at the afternoon performance of the Texas Playboys, in Turkey, I was younger than most of the crowd by a good twenty years or so. Most of the performers, many of whom had played with Bob Wills in years past, were as old or older than the audience. The demographics don’t look good for the art.
I couldn’t help but feel that Western Swing, if not dead yet, is all but dead. I’m headed to Jazzfest in New Orleans this coming weekend, and some jazz in New Orleans gets performed as museum pieces – dixieland and ragtime the way they did it all those years ago. But jazz is not dead, not dying even. Sure, jazz is no longer the popular music, as it was in the 1930s, but jazz keeps growing and dividing, spawning new music among the dead carcasses of what used to be played.
While Western Swing may be dead as a category of current music, the children of Western Swing are still out there. No one had played drums on the stage of the Grand Ol’ Opry until Bob Wills came to town and refused to let his band play without them. Now drums are part of Country music. Honky tonk, Americana, and some forms of country rock can be counted as descendants of Western Swing.
Old English is a dead language, but no doubt many language innovations that came about in Old English are still with us. Western Swing is like that. The art form is dead, but the innovations of Bob Wills and Milton Brown and their many companions live on.