The term "Western swing" may have been used occasionally before the early 1940s, but after that time the term spread widely because of Spade Cooley's promotional campaign for Venice Pier dances in California. Western swing is a difficult musical genre to define, as it contains elements from many other musical styles, including pop, blues, jazz, Dixieland, traditional folk and fiddle, ragtime, and even occasionally classical. In the 1930s bands performing at dances in the Southwest attempted to emulate big dance band sounds, but primarily with stringed instruments.
Western swing has been defined as a form of (equally hard to define) jazz music. Rudi Blesh in Shining Trumpets: A History of Jazz describes jazz as "spontaneous, improvised though systematic music, composed in the playing," and, indeed, most Western swing musicians excelled at musical improvisation. However, the Spade Cooley orchestra, one of the renowned Western-swing ensembles, always used arrangements and rarely improvised. However, Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys and other great Western-swing bands almost always improvised as they played dances. At recording sessions they usually attempted to play earlier-agreed-upon musical arrangements that had developed from shows and dances.
When used in a musical context, the word "swing" generally implies that a dance band improvises. The word's popular usage grew in the mid-1930s and required a few years of evolution before being applied to Western dance music. The earlier descriptive terms that recording companies used on their Western dance band recording labels were "hot" and "sweet." Hot dance music referred to some improvisation even in recording sessions, while sweet dance music indicated the use of arrangements. For instance, the record label of a Western-swing pioneer such as Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys often described the group as a "hot dance band."
Easier to describe than to define, Western swing is ballroom dance music with a Western flair, played primarily on stringed instruments. However, horns were and are used in many Western-swing bands. Other characteristics are an emphasis on a heavy rhythm sound for dancing, and the aforementioned improvisation. In its early stages of development Western-swing music was played primarily by Texas and Oklahoma musicians under the leadership of Bob Wills, Johnnie Lee Wills, Leon McAuliffe, and others and could more accurately be called Southwestern swing. The genre may have started in Texas, but it gained a voice and grew to maturity in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Bob Wills and Western swing are native to Texas, but the overwhelming influence of W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel and his Hillbilly Boys band drove Bob Wills and his ensemble across the Red River into Oklahoma.
A short definition would be that Western swing is dance music, and Oklahoma was a dancing state. At one time, small dance halls or just places where couples could dance to music played by local bands, were found everywhere across the Sooner State. However, television in the late 1950s slowly killed the dance culture in Oklahoma and across the nation. It also caused many good musicians to change occupations. There were other bands that did not play dances but nevertheless called themselves "Western swing." These were not Western swing but Western-string bands.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Rudi Blesh, Shining Trumpets: A History of Jazz (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946). Guy Logsdon, Mary Rogers, and William Jacobson, Saddle Serenaders (Salt Lake City, Utah: Gibbs Smith Publisher, 1995). William W. Savage, Jr., Singing Cowboys and All That Jazz: A Short History of Popular Music in Oklahoma (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983).
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