Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Western swing is ballroom music, a style with a constant beat built around a lead fiddle using a long, smooth bow stroke suitable for two-step dancing. More than the song or the singer, western swing is built on instrumental improvisation, and its strong dance rhythms constitute a significant departure from the listening conventions of traditional country music.

The style had its beginnings in 1931 with a fiddle band that played first over radio station KFJZ, then over WBAP in Fort Worth, Texas, promoting Light Crust flour for the Burrus Mill and Elevator Company. Bob Wills played fiddle, Herman Arnspiger played guitar, and Milton Brown sang, and they called themselves the Light Crust Doughboys. The special talents and distinctive style of this small country band established Fort Worth as the "cradle of western swing" and Bob Wills as a significant musical innovator whose experimentations changed the course, sound, and audience of fiddle music forever.

Initially, band members performed for no fee and worked eight hours a day at the mill, playing just for the chance to be heard and maybe hired for dances in and around Fort Worth. By 1932 they were salaried, and Burrus Mill's general manager, Wilbert Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel, was broadcasting the show in San Antonio, Houston, and Oklahoma, as well as Forth Worth. For the next twenty years, even with a rather constant turnover in musicians, the Light Crust Doughboys remained one of the most popular radio shows in the Southwest and helped launch Pappy O'Daniel as a colorful force in Texas politics.

In late 1932 Milton Brown and his brother Durwood left the Doughboys to form Milton Brown and the Musical Brownies, a very successful band playing in the new western swing style. Until his death in a 1936 automobile accident, Milton Brown helped popularize this new dance music with over 100 recording selections for Victor and Decca.

Bob Wills only stayed with O'Daniel and the Doughboys until 1933. By 1934 he and his band were solidly established in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. For the next twenty-five years they broadcast over radio station KVOO, made numerous regional and national tours, appeared in almost twenty Hollywood movies, and recorded their music in abundance with major record labels. Through all these venues, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys established their diverse and continually changing repertoire and folksy yet sophisticated style as elemental influences on American popular music.

Western swing, like traditional country music, posits "humble folk" as its audience but radically expands the definition by adding dance rhythms and mellow vocalists to express both urban and country musical themes. Milton Brown's best-selling recording was "St. Louis Blues." Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys gave their audiences everything from Bob and John Wills's poignant country creation "Faded Love" to Tommy Duncan's crooning rendition of "Right or Wrong" and "I'll String Along with You."

In the beginning both Wills's and Brown's bands were innovative country string bands relying on the fiddle, guitar, banjo, and bass for their distinctive style. Wills, however, soon defied country music conventions and the fiddle band tradition. By adding saxophones, clarinets, trombones, drums, and even mariachi horns to his orchestra, he created a big band sound that embraced both the brassy jazz of the era and the lively two-step rhythms for dancing on the Southern High Plains. Bob Wills consistently responded to the diverse musical traditions of his native region, radically reshaping them to fit his own special brand of swing orchestra.

As a child, Wills had listened to and admired the blues sung by African Americans who worked the cotton harvest with his family in West Texas. "I slurred my fiddle," he explained, "in order to play the blues." This slurring of the strings is a basic characteristic of western swing string instrumentation. Wills's many experimentations with the amplified steel guitar helped intensify these blues rhythms, and, through his influence, the plaintive whine of amplified steel soon became a standard in the expression of country and western music.

Wills also incorporated regional Hispanic influences into his music. While barbering and playing fiddle in Roy, New Mexico, in the late 1920s, Wills composed a piece he called "Spanish Two-Step." A decade later he rearranged it into what became his most famous song, "San Antonio Rose." The Playboys recorded it as a country instrumental in 1938 and in 1940 as the "New San Antonio Rose," with lyrics performed by Tommy Duncan and mariachi horns added to reinforce the Hispanic spirit of the tune. In 1941 Bing Crosby recorded the song, giving Bob Wills's western swing its first national recognition.

In many ways, western swing music is a manifestation of the cultural forces that came together where the geographical isolation and harsh living conditions of the frontier met the electronic age. People still living in dugouts and sod houses on the Southern High Plains became a part of popular culture through the radio and the jukebox, mingling their musical talents and tastes with new sounds introduced to them through the accessibility of phonographs and the airwaves.

By applying new, innovative techniques to playing the fiddle and all the other basic country string instruments, western swing serves as a significant crucible in the development of popular American music, expanding a regional, rural sound into a dynamic, rhythmic style that forms a continuum through rockabilly, rock and roll, crossover country, and what is now called, specifically because of western swing, country and western music.

Pamela H. Brink Associated Authors and Editors, Inc.

Malone, Bill C. Country Music USA: A Fifty-Year History. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985.

Mason, Michael, ed. The Country Music Book. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1985.

Townsend, Charles. San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976.

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