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A Few More Thoughts on Western Swing

By the emails I’ve gotten since my post about Arcade Fire and its antecedents in the Western Swing movement of the early postwar era, I can tell that nothing I’ve put up in this space so far has shocked readers as much as the sight of a cowboy playing a harp—not a harmonica, but an actual 47-string concert harp—in a genre-smashing hillbilly jazz band. Even at the time Spade Cooley created “Miss Molly,” in 1945, surprise was part of the point—the formal and the informal, the rural and the urban, conjoined. Cooley and his band of virtuosi in Hollywood Western wear were drawing on both jazz and classical music to demonstrate their worldliness, essentially making an argument against the validity of “pure” country music. Parity sought—and sabotaged—through parody. Today, Arcade Fire is doing the near opposite, adopting elements of old-time rural music in a cheeky disputation of traditional rock.

Western Swing, being a product of cross-breeding, was not equipped to procreate. Its descendants are, for the most part, indirect, though they are plentiful and include hip-hop artists. I’m serious. Mos Def, Jay Z, and quite a few other rappers have acknowledged debts to Chuck Berry, and Berry loved Western Swing. In fact, his first hit, “Maybelline,” was an adaptation of “Ida Red,” a hit by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. (See the videos below.)

I’m not bringing that fact up to make a case for Western Swing as the mother of all contemporary music. I don’t much care for single-source theories, and one fixed on Western Swing would be particularly silly. Western Swing is worth listening to, more than half a century after it was created, for the pleasure it takes in using whatever it chose to sound however it wanted—influence without anxiety.