Dance Floor Democracy: The Social Geography of Memory at the Hollywood Canteen

Duke University Press
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Open from 1942 until 1945, the Hollywood Canteen was the most famous of the patriotic home front nightclubs where civilian hostesses jitterbugged with enlisted men of the Allied Nations. Since the opening night, when the crowds were so thick that Bette Davis had to enter through the bathroom window to give her welcome speech, the storied dance floor where movie stars danced with soldiers has been the subject of much U.S. nostalgia about the "Greatest Generation." Drawing from oral histories with civilian volunteers and military guests who danced at the wartime nightclub, Sherrie Tucker explores how jitterbugging swing culture has come to represent the war in U.S. national memory. Yet her interviewees' varied experiences and recollections belie the possibility of any singular historical narrative. Some recall racism, sexism, and inequality on the nightclub's dance floor and in Los Angeles neighborhoods, dynamics at odds with the U.S. democratic, egalitarian ideals associated with the Hollywood Canteen and the "Good War" in popular culture narratives. For Tucker, swing dancing's torque—bodies sharing weight, velocity, and turning power without guaranteed outcomes—is an apt metaphor for the jostling narratives, different perspectives, unsteady memories, and quotidian acts that comprise social history.
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About the author

Sherrie Tucker is Professor of American Studies at the University of Kansas. She is the author of Swing Shift: "All-Girl" Bands of the 1940s and coeditor of Big Ears: Listening for Gender in Jazz Studies, both also published by Duke University Press.
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Publisher
Duke University Press
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Published on
Sep 22, 2014
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Pages
408
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ISBN
9780822376200
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Language
English
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Genres
History / United States / 20th Century
Social Science / Women's Studies
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Eligible for Family Library

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The forgotten history of the “all-girl” big bands of the World War II era takes center stage in Sherrie Tucker’s Swing Shift. American demand for swing skyrocketed with the onslaught of war as millions—isolated from loved ones—sought diversion, comfort, and social contact through music and dance. Although all-female jazz and dance bands had existed since the 1920s, now hundreds of such groups, both African American and white, barnstormed ballrooms, theaters, dance halls, military installations, and makeshift USO stages on the home front and abroad.
Filled with firsthand accounts of more than a hundred women who performed during this era and complemented by thorough—and eye-opening—archival research, Swing Shift not only offers a history of this significant aspect of American society and culture but also examines how and why whole bands of dedicated and talented women musicians were dropped from—or never inducted into—our national memory. Tucker’s nuanced presentation reveals who these remarkable women were, where and when they began to play music, and how they navigated a sometimes wild and bumpy road—including their experiences with gas and rubber rationing, travel restrictions designed to prioritize transportation for military needs, and Jim Crow laws and other prejudices. She explains how the expanded opportunities brought by the war, along with sudden increased publicity, created the illusion that all female musicians—no matter how experienced or talented—were “Swing Shift Maisies,” 1940s slang for the substitutes for the “real” workers (or musicians) who were away in combat. Comparing the working conditions and public representations of women musicians with figures such as Rosie the Riveter, WACs, USO hostesses, pin-ups, and movie stars, Tucker chronicles the careers of such bands as the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Phil Spitalny’s Hours of Charm, The Darlings of Rhythm, and the Sharon Rogers All-Girl Band.

In jazz circles, players and listeners with “big ears” hear and engage complexity in the moment, as it unfolds. Taking gender as part of the intricate, unpredictable action in jazz culture, this interdisciplinary collection explores the terrain opened up by listening, with big ears, for gender in jazz. Essays range from a reflection on the female boogie-woogie pianists who played at Café Society in New York during the 1930s and 1940s to interpretations of how the jazzman is represented in Dorothy Baker’s novel Young Man with a Horn (1938) and Michael Curtiz’s film adaptation (1950). Taken together, the essays enrich the field of jazz studies by showing how gender dynamics have shaped the production, reception, and criticism of jazz culture.

Scholars of music, ethnomusicology, American studies, literature, anthropology, and cultural studies approach the question of gender in jazz from multiple perspectives. One contributor scrutinizes the tendency of jazz historiography to treat singing as subordinate to the predominantly male domain of instrumental music, while another reflects on her doubly inappropriate position as a female trumpet player and a white jazz musician and scholar. Other essays explore the composer George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept as a critique of mid-twentieth-century discourses of embodiment, madness, and black masculinity; performances of “female hysteria” by Les Diaboliques, a feminist improvising trio; and the BBC radio broadcasts of Ivy Benson and Her Ladies’ Dance Orchestra during the Second World War. By incorporating gender analysis into jazz studies, Big Ears transforms ideas of who counts as a subject of study and even of what counts as jazz.

Contributors: Christina Baade, Jayna Brown, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Monica Hairston, Kristin McGee, Tracy McMullen, Ingrid Monson, Lara Pellegrinelli, Eric Porter, Nichole T. Rustin, Ursel Schlicht, Julie Dawn Smith, Jeffrey Taylor, Sherrie Tucker, João H. Costa Vargas

The forgotten history of the “all-girl” big bands of the World War II era takes center stage in Sherrie Tucker’s Swing Shift. American demand for swing skyrocketed with the onslaught of war as millions—isolated from loved ones—sought diversion, comfort, and social contact through music and dance. Although all-female jazz and dance bands had existed since the 1920s, now hundreds of such groups, both African American and white, barnstormed ballrooms, theaters, dance halls, military installations, and makeshift USO stages on the home front and abroad.
Filled with firsthand accounts of more than a hundred women who performed during this era and complemented by thorough—and eye-opening—archival research, Swing Shift not only offers a history of this significant aspect of American society and culture but also examines how and why whole bands of dedicated and talented women musicians were dropped from—or never inducted into—our national memory. Tucker’s nuanced presentation reveals who these remarkable women were, where and when they began to play music, and how they navigated a sometimes wild and bumpy road—including their experiences with gas and rubber rationing, travel restrictions designed to prioritize transportation for military needs, and Jim Crow laws and other prejudices. She explains how the expanded opportunities brought by the war, along with sudden increased publicity, created the illusion that all female musicians—no matter how experienced or talented—were “Swing Shift Maisies,” 1940s slang for the substitutes for the “real” workers (or musicians) who were away in combat. Comparing the working conditions and public representations of women musicians with figures such as Rosie the Riveter, WACs, USO hostesses, pin-ups, and movie stars, Tucker chronicles the careers of such bands as the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Phil Spitalny’s Hours of Charm, The Darlings of Rhythm, and the Sharon Rogers All-Girl Band.

In jazz circles, players and listeners with “big ears” hear and engage complexity in the moment, as it unfolds. Taking gender as part of the intricate, unpredictable action in jazz culture, this interdisciplinary collection explores the terrain opened up by listening, with big ears, for gender in jazz. Essays range from a reflection on the female boogie-woogie pianists who played at Café Society in New York during the 1930s and 1940s to interpretations of how the jazzman is represented in Dorothy Baker’s novel Young Man with a Horn (1938) and Michael Curtiz’s film adaptation (1950). Taken together, the essays enrich the field of jazz studies by showing how gender dynamics have shaped the production, reception, and criticism of jazz culture.

Scholars of music, ethnomusicology, American studies, literature, anthropology, and cultural studies approach the question of gender in jazz from multiple perspectives. One contributor scrutinizes the tendency of jazz historiography to treat singing as subordinate to the predominantly male domain of instrumental music, while another reflects on her doubly inappropriate position as a female trumpet player and a white jazz musician and scholar. Other essays explore the composer George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept as a critique of mid-twentieth-century discourses of embodiment, madness, and black masculinity; performances of “female hysteria” by Les Diaboliques, a feminist improvising trio; and the BBC radio broadcasts of Ivy Benson and Her Ladies’ Dance Orchestra during the Second World War. By incorporating gender analysis into jazz studies, Big Ears transforms ideas of who counts as a subject of study and even of what counts as jazz.

Contributors: Christina Baade, Jayna Brown, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Monica Hairston, Kristin McGee, Tracy McMullen, Ingrid Monson, Lara Pellegrinelli, Eric Porter, Nichole T. Rustin, Ursel Schlicht, Julie Dawn Smith, Jeffrey Taylor, Sherrie Tucker, João H. Costa Vargas

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