If You Were a Hipster in the 1930s, You’d Have Been into Swing

A future two-part episode of The Ongoing History of New Music is called “The More Things Change,” which is a look at how every generation has its complaints about the generations before and after it. This article from The Long and Short touches on the concept of hipsters in bygone days.

As Louis Armstrong once explained on Bing Crosby’s radio show, “Ah, swing, well, we used to call it syncopation – then they called it ragtime, then blues – then jazz. Now, it’s swing. Ha! Ha! White folks, yo’all sho is a mess.”

Swing – much like our recent instalment in Dancing music in the C20 on big band jazz – was a contentious development in the genealogy of jazz. Swing does indeed follow the same categorical evolution as charted by Armstrong, from ragtime to blues into jazz, but where Armstrong – in his genial openmindedness – considers all of these divisions to be fundamentally the same core music, the jazz elite reacted to the runaway popularity of swing with scorn.

Swing changed the direction of popular music. Its boom years of 1935 to 1945 are the high watermark of the general public’s tolerance of jazz, which prior to swing had been messy, noisy, rulebook-shredding stuff, and post-swing returned to restlessly innovative – but less danceable forms – via bebop and its infinite offshoots. These years also saw the recording industry come into its own as a cultural force, although the Great Depression had significantly reined in the industry’s ability to realise its potential as the economic powerhouse it would become.

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Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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