Saturday, July 9, 2016

Reading Matters - Lone Star Swing by Duncan McLean

Just back from a week's holiday, and before getting back into the groove with gig and album reviews I thought I'd kick off a new occasional series, 'Reading Matters', in which I'll take the time to reflect on books, magazine articles etc that have caught my eye - mostly music related, I imagine, but we'll see!
Last year I finally got round to landing a copy of this book by an old university mate, Duncan McLean.  Lone Star Swing recounts a journey Duncan took through Texas in 1995.  It’s a funny, affectionate musical travelogue in the footsteps of old-time Western Swing music, and in particular a quest for the spirit of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, the kings of a genre that cross-pollinated jazz, blues, country and mariachi back in the 1930s and 40s.  If you’re interested in American popular music history, or if you’re just intrigued by the cultural curiosities of Texas, both its highways and by-ways, you should hunt down a copy.
The particular focus of this piece though, is a chapter recounting Duncan’s stop in the blistering Spring heat of Presidio, home of a celebrated annual Onion Festival.  Yep, you read that right.  The town of Presidio is a town that not only knows its onions, it’s ready to celebrate the motto “BEHIND EVERY GOOD MEAL IS A TASTY ONION!”
Parking his butt in the shade of a tree, Duncan is able to see inside the open doors of the town’s Lions’ Club Hall, where a dance band is playing the likes of ‘La Cucuracha’, ‘La Bamba’ – and something he recognises as a staple of Western Swing, known in some incarnations as ‘Jessie Polka’.  Caught in its spell, he observes that “Suddenly I started to get very excited, for it struck me that this was as close to Western Swing in the raw as I was ever likely to get.”  More than that, he contemplates the extent to which the key ingredients of Mexican Conjunto music had been stirred into the Western Swing stew.
“You can’t tease out the threads of influence.  All you can say is, they’re all in there somewhere.  Hell, maybe I was over-emphasising the Conjunto influence.  After all, white ranch bands mixed banjos, clarinets, mandolins, and fiddles, and black musicians, in the early days of jazz and blues, featured fiddles alongside guitars alongside trombones alongside mandolins.  I suppose that poor folk played whatever instruments they could get their hands on.  Still, I reckoned I was on to something with the relatively under-appreciated influence of Mexican music on the formation of western swing.  After all, originality springs from a proper appreciation of tradition.  And in a musical sense, proper appreciation amounts more or less to listening, learning, then lifting the bits you like.  I reckon Bob Wills had done just that with Conjunto music.”*

Originality springs from a proper appreciation of tradition . . . more or less to listening, learning, then lifting the bits you like.  That sounds pretty good to me.
The blues is a traditional music form, but what we may describe as blues nowadays will often sound only distantly connected to its early 20th century ancestors.  The blues has contributed to the development of R&B, country, rock’n’roll, soul music, funk, and heavy rock, and in turn been influenced by them.  Sometimes, let’s face it, the results can be pretty lame.  But when it evolves successfully, I reckon it reflects that originality that springs from a proper appreciation of tradition.


*Lone Star Swing by Duncan McLean (1998); London: Vintage, page 165

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