|Treasures of The Texas Collection
Beyond the Beginnings of Western Swing
MUSIC: “Opus 1,” performed by Leon McAuliffe’s Cimarron Boys
I’m Robert Darden, and I’m your host for this edition of Treasures of the Texas Collection.
You may know that tune – that’s Sy Oliver’s “Opus 1,” and – according to our guest, Dr. Jean Boyd, it was created for the Tommy Dorsey Band back in the 1940s. Dr. Boyd is here to help us understand the significance of this recording and others, and to guide us beyond the beginnings of western swing. Welcome!
Thank you. I am happy to be here.
Why did you select this particular recording to open this show on western swing?
That was Leon McAuliffe’s Cimarron Boys out of Tulsa, and this was their cover of Sy Oliver’s “Opus 1.” Leon McAuliffe was the most famous of Bob Wills’ steel guitar players; he was the “Leon” of Bob’s frequent chant, “Take it away, Leon.” After serving in the military during World War II, McAuliffe returned to Tulsa and put together his own band. The arrangement we just heard was the creation of McAuliffe and his outstanding fiddle player, Bobby Bruce. They waxed their version of “Opus 1” in the late 1940s or early 1950s. I chose this recording to begin the show in order to illustrate that western swing possesses many faces and sounds, and that it is always changing.
So how do we begin to understand this complex topic?
Many bands made the change from country string band to swing band. The term “western swing” was attached to the genre in the 1940s to identify the music played by the California-based band of fiddler Spade Cooley. In Texas and Oklahoma in the 1930s and 40s people referred to this string-band music as “dance music,” because its primary function was to provide music for dancing. Every Texas swing band had a radio show, but the show was a means to advertise upcoming dances. Many, but not all, bands recorded 78 rpm discs. Nonetheless, all made their livings by playing for dances. And this music, like the dancing it accompanied, was pervasive throughout the Southwest!
Was it popular with everyone in the Southwest?
No, it was popular with the rural folk, farmers and ranchers, who were forced to leave their land and move to town in search of jobs during the Depression and dust bowl years. The music facilitated the transplantation of these rural folks into urban areas and even other states by giving them something familiar to hold onto in uncertain and strange places and times.
Since dancing was the main form of entertainment during the Depression and World War II years numerous bands must have been necessary to meet the need!
That’s right. Most of the dance bands in the Southwest did not win national recognition, as did Bob Wills, but in their own communities they were culture heroes. Bands developed musical personalities based upon their local musical surroundings and their prominent players. For example, bands that operated in Southeast Texas, including Houston, Beaumont, and Port Arthur, all port cities, thrived in a crossroads culture of many ethnicities and races and myriad dance halls and clubs. Many of these bands were infused with blues, boogie-woogie, Dixieland jazz, and Cajun music.
Other bands in Southeast Texas brought a mainstream jazz orientation to their dance music by playing their own arrangements of numbers popularized by Goodman, Ellington, Armstrong, Andy Kirk and his Clouds of Joy, and others.
What seems not to have been especially important to dance bands that populated Southeast Texas was the tradition of fiddle tunes and western music that informed southwestern swing bands in other parts of Texas and Oklahoma.
Do we have an example of this Southeast Texas swing dance music?
MUSIC: “Tulsa Twist,” Twin fiddle opening, piano chorus, fiddle chorus, twin fiddle tag
That was a “HOT” band! Who was that?
That was a band out of Houston, Dickie McBride and the Village Boys. The title of the tune is “Tulsa Twist,” and it was written by the outstanding fiddle player for this band, Buddy Ray, and recorded in Dallas on May 1, 1941. I interviewed Buddy Ray in the early 1990s for my first book, and he raved about the mainstream jazz nature of this band. He told me that the Village Boys band was too jazzy for rural audiences, and not jazz at all to mainstream jazz enthusiasts, who insisted that string bands could not and did not play jazz. He also told me that the Village Boys were denied admittance to the Houston local musicians’ union because their instrumentation made them “hillbilly” performers.
“Tulsa Twist” is a tune that bears a greater resemblance to a mainstream jazz arrangement or a popular song than to a fiddle tune or country song. In the solo choruses of this entirely instrumental number, players move away from the main melody. The Village Boys was just one of the many western swing bands, each unique, that worked the many clubs and dance halls of the Houston-Beaumont-Port Arthur area.
What about San Antonio? I suspect there were – and are – a lot of musical influences in the Alamo City.
Oh yes. In San Antonio, bands reflected the cowboy tradition and the presence of Czech-German immigrants. The Tune Wranglers, created by real working cowboy Buster Coward and his cowboy musician friends, was quite popular around the San Antonio area, and they played fiddle tunes, cowboy numbers, and everything else that became popular among western swing bands. This band was not especially polished, but its members and its audiences all had a really good time.
Probably the best known and longest lived of the San Antonio bands belonged to the Hofner brothers, Adolph and Emil. These two grew up in a home in which Czech was their first language, and polka music their first musical genre. They recorded in Texas and Los Angeles and kept going after many western swing bands had shut down. Their recordings included rags and blues, popular songs, and, of course, polkas.
Can we hear something by Adolph Hofner?
Sure, this tune, “Alamo Rag,” is by Emil Hofner, and his steel guitar plays the entire tune as the introduction. “Alamo Rag” is not an example of ragtime form, but its tricky syncopations are rag-like. In form, “Alamo Rag” is more like a popular song. When the fabulous J. R. Chatwell takes a solo fiddle chorus, he deviates quite far from the original tune due to his difficult turns, triplets and eighth-note runs.
MUSIC: “Alamo Rag,” steel guitar opening and Chatwell’s fiddle chorus
Was there a focal point of western swing development?
Yes, that would be North Texas where the Doughboys and Milton Brown’s Musical Brownies got started. For bands in North Texas that were transforming from string to swing bands, Milton Brown’s Brownies was an important model. But Milton Brown hired a fiddle player, Cecil Brower, from a Fort Worth band called the Southern Melody Boys that could easily have been a model for Brown’s band. The Southern Melody Boys never recorded, so we will never know for sure. But Brown did record and influenced numerous bands in the North Texas area.
I want to use one of the many North-Texas bands, Roy Newman and his Boys to demonstrate this point. Roy Newman got his start as a staff musician on Dallas radio station WRR. In 1931, he formed a string trio for that station which he named the Wanderers. Newman enlarged this band by adding a second fiddle player, and most importantly, by adding Holly Horton, who was the first wind player (clarinet/saxophone) to work with a string band. When the Wanderers broke up, Newman kept Horton and incorporated another local dance band, Jim Boyd’s Rhythm Aces, and Roy Newman and his Boys was born. Roy Newman moved beyond his model, Milton Brown, in terms of instrumentation and repertory. Newman and his band performed and recorded their own versions of contemporary swing jazz tunes and popular songs. Let’s take time for some music.
MUSIC: “Rhythm is our Business,” Roy Newman and his Boys, opening and Holly Horton’s chorus
That doesn’t sound country at all.
No, indeed it does not. That tune was “Rhythm is Our Business,” which was written by the great Jimmy Lunceford who released his band’s version just months before Roy Newman and his Boys recorded it in a Fort Worth studio on September 27, 1935. “Rhythm Is Our Business” is a 32-bar number that references all of the instruments in a dance band and what each does. It is a modern-sounding tune that features standard jazz chords and Holly Horton’s adventurous solo chorus.
So what you are saying is that North Texas swing bands were more directed toward popular songs and mainstream jazz arrangements. They probably also played blues, correct?
Yes and Yes. Western swing bands such as Roy Newman and his Boys and the Village Boys helped to move audiences into the modern era and into the urban context by playing modern, urban music with the iconic country string band.
What contribution did our own Central Texas area make to western swing?
I am glad you asked that question. In the 1930s and 40s, Waco and surrounding area were hotbeds of dance-band activity. Clubs and dance halls were everywhere, and on weekends they were full of dancing couples and live bands, western swing bands. Through my research and listening, I have come to the conclusion that western-swing bands in Central Texas were guided by the rural mindset of their audiences, rather than by the influence of better-known bands. This resulted in Central Texas swing bands showing less interest in the complexity of form, melody and harmony, and some of the virtuosity of players that worked in North and South Texas bands.
MUSIC: Lone Star Playboys, “Banjo Boogie,” Opening, first fiddle chorus, electric mandolin chorus
What a delightful little boogie-woogie number.
Yes, it was. That was a Waco-based group called The Lone Star Playboys, and they cut this recording at the Jim Beck Studios in Dallas in 1947. This tune is a simple 12-bar blues with a boogie-woogie bass line, which is essentially then boogie-woogie.
When I compare this recording to those of Leon McAuliffe, The Village Boys, or Newman and his Boys, I notice that the Lone Star Playboys play a simpler and more straightforward style of western swing. I am convinced that this was not from lack of talent, but from a desire to please audiences.
We have one part of Texas yet to visit, don’t we?
Yes, West Texas. Surprisingly, western swing survived longer in the vast and sometimes empty expanse of West Texas than anywhere else. Probably western swing bands in West Texas were more numerous than we might think; however, since recording was not important to western swing bands in West Texas, we know only about those that did record. Bob Wills headquartered in Amarillo for a time, so his influence was quite strong in West Texas. Also, West Texas was home to many fiddling contests, where fiddle tunes were widely played; thus, fiddle tunes retained a position in the repertory of western swing bands in West Texas, as did the cowboy number and country music in general.
One of the leading figures in West Texas swing, and a good personal friend of Bob Wills, was Hoyle Nix, whose West Texas Cowboys worked out of Big Spring, Texas. Hoyle Nix was a great contest fiddler, who always incorporated fiddle tunes into his playlist. Hoyle’s West Texas Playboys also played all of the Bob Wills standards. Hoyle Nix is credited with writing a tune that remains a staple among current western swing bands, “A Big Ball’s in Cowtown.” Let’s listen to this recording.
MUSIC: Hoyle Nix and his West Texas Playboys, “A Big Ball’s in Cow Town,” Vocal and first fiddle chorus
This tune was recorded on the Talent Label probably in 1949. With all of its melodic repetition, this uncomplicated tune is like a two-strain fiddle tune.
That was fun! From a geographical standpoint, where do we go next?
We go next to Oklahoma, that other “birth place” of western swing. Honestly, it could be argued that had western swing not emerged first in Texas, it certainly would have been created in Oklahoma. The economies and cultures of Texas and Oklahoma were quite similar; the economic basis of both states was cattle ranching, and the main recreation for the populations of both states was dancing. The arrival of Bob Wills and his Playboys in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1933 hastened rather than instigated the transformation of Oklahoma’s string bands into swing bands.
We have already discussed the most progressive of the Oklahoma western swing bands, Leon McAuliffe’s Cimarron Boys. One of the most popular bands in Oklahoma was led by Bob Wills’ younger brother, Johnnie Lee Wills. Johnnie Lee, though less of a showman than Bob, created his own unique band sound, with a tightly together group of excellent musicians.
Do we have an example Johnnie Lee Wills and his Boys?
Yes. This is their cover of Kokomo Arnold’s “Milk Cow Blues,” which has become a standard among western swing bands.
MUSIC: “Milk Cow Blues”
Clearly, western swing was amazingly popular and pervasive in the Southwest in the Depression and World War II years.
Yes, and it has waned, made a comeback, and is now popular and somewhat pervasive again. But that is a discussion for another show.
Oh, I hope so! Thank you, Dr. Jean Boyd. I’m Robert Darden, Associate Professor of Journalism, PR & New Media at Baylor University … and thank you for joining us for another edition of Treasures of the Texas Collection. The Texas Collection has one of the nation’s the largest collection of Texas-related documents, books, letters, photographs, memoirs, and more. Go to baylor.edu/lib/texas/
Treasures of the Texas Collection has been made possible by generous grants from The Wardlaw Fellowship Fund for Texas Studies and by Community Bank and Trust of Waco. This has been a production of
KWBU 103.3 FM – public radio for Central Texas.
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