The Eternal Kingdom of Swing

Truckin'--that's something hippies do when they get bored. That's the name of a song by the Grateful Dead. That's modern,
By George K. Sweetnam

Truckin'--that's something hippies do when they get bored. That's the name of a song by the Grateful Dead. That's modern, right? Actually, Cora La Redd first introduced a song called "Truckin"' at the Cotton Club in New York in 1935. Likewise, Fats Waller's "Alligator Crawl" preceeded Elton John's "Crocodile Rock" by more than 40 years. Popular music, like the song titles, derives from an old American tradition. Rock 'n roll was born 20 years ago, like me. The national hit charts were born over 40 years ago, like my dad.

1935. The world was still in the grips of the Great Depression. Hitler was turning Germany into a war machine. An unemployed and unhappy America plopped into the seat of a movie theater for escape, and put its ear to the radio to lift its spirits.

A young clarinetist was struggling to earn his band a name. The band played mainstream music with something extra--they blew big band jazz with an insistent get-up-and-dance beat. The band's early audiences came for the jazz, not the dance beat. At first there were problems--in Denver those who came to listen asked for their money back. But in Oakland, California, in late summer, the right audience came. They wanted that beat. They got it and loved it and the band moved on to its big break, playing Hollywood's Palomar Ballroom in a series of concerts broadcast by radio across the country.

The first night at the Palomar started slow. The band knew the engagement was their chance to hit the big time, and they did not want to spoil it with the crazy beat that sent their Denver audience back to the box office. They kept a lid on at first. The audience sat unimpressed. Then the bandleader tossed aside all caution and the band cut loose with a swinging dance tempo and a set of upbeat numbers like the "King Porter Stomp." The young audience got to their feet and went ape. Kids across the country heard the joyful noise on their radios. Benny Goodman had a name. From then on, he would be known as the King of Swing.

In the mid-1930s a new, cheaper, way of making records was developed and the Decca record company sold 78s for 35 cents a piece. Record sales started a climb that, except for a lull in the Second World War, has not stopped yet. A great American tradition started with The Lucky Strike Hit Parade--a national radio show that played the recordings tallying as the nation's biggest hits. The Top 40 was born. The broadcast came on at a time when it was not unusual for 20 million people to listen to a single radio show.

Benny Goodman kept his band's contagious new music around the top of the charts; he swung and America listened. Imagine one foot of one out of every ten Americans wagging up and down to the same tempo when "Stompin' at the Savoy" came at them over the airwaves. Imagine one out of every ten American pulses beating in four-four time. If it had social significance, it would have been a revolution. But it was a prescription for only temporary relief of discomfort brought on by social unrest. It solved nothing, but dancing to a swing band was one hell of a way to spend a Saturday night.

Goodman's was not the only band playing swing, and others sold better, but Goodman was a major figure in kicking off the era of the big bands--an era that finally ended only with the rise of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. The public followed the big bands the way only baseball had been followed before. The bandleaders were among the first superstars in popular music. Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller--the names ring down the decades like the names of ancient dieties.

Goodman himself seems to be deathless. He is 67 years old and will play at Symphony Hall in Boston tomorrow night at 8:30. Tickets are $6, $8, and $10 at the door. He will play with his jazz sextet, who will play without him for the first half of the concert. Benny comes in for the last hour or so. Mayor White has declared tomorrow Benny Goodman Day in Boston, and the old music master will get a key to the city in private ceremonies after the performance.

It may sound like perverse nostalgia to go hear such an old man, but for most What Is To Be Done readers, Goodman is beyond nostalgia. And the word is that Goodman plays with an ageless enthusiasm. The What Is To Be Done swing reporter got it from the source this summer. She heard Goodman play at Carnegie Hall, where he handled his clarinet like a greased weasel. His upbeat has not come down. His aging fans maybe did not get up and dance as legend says they did in the Thirties, but they did clap and stomp in their seats. Swing music never died. It just went out of style. Will Fleetwood Mac make you boogie when you get to be 65?