FYI: I’ve made a dodgy 8track with examples of the stuff I’m talking about in this post. I’m not entirely confident with some of my observations as I really don’t know enough about blues music. So please just read this post (and observations) as my ideas and working-through stuff rather than as any sort of authoritative commentary. The discography details are below the post.
I’ve been listening to the latest Confessing the Blues podcast. It’s interesting to read a blues dancing equivalent to the Hey Mr Jesse show, especially when I’m not really all that conversant with American blues dancing culture.
In case you’re curious, blues dancing developed within (or at least in close proximity to) the lindy hop communities. In Herrang, there’s been a Wednesday blues night for ages. At American exchanges blues nights would often follow evening dances or even the late night dances. Australia has a slightly different blues dancing history. I remember workshops as early as 2001 in Melbourne, and then occasional classes or sessions by visiting teachers. By about 2005 there was a sort of staggering blues sub- or developing culture in Melbourne.
It wasn’t til about mid 2006 that Melbourne’s blues nights were running regularly and flourishing. These blues nights were run by the large school in that city and featured classes with a side of social dancing. Interestingly, though, these blues classes were pioneered and eventually pushed through by enthusiastic teachers and dancers who’d been involved in blues events overseas. In contrast to the usual round of lindy hop fare from that organisation, this was much more a grass roots development. I think this has been an important factor in blues dancing’s popularity in that city.
In 2006 MLX ran blues events as part of their late night calendar. In 2009 there were three annual blues ‘exchanges’ or workshop weekends. There are regular blues workshops in Adelaide, Perth, Canberra, Brisbane and Sydney. Moving to Sydney last year, I was struck by the very different local blues dancing culture. Melbourne’s blues scene is firmly rooted in everyday social dancing and socialising. Sydney, in contrast, again with its blues scene organised by the large school, is centred on classes and has no un-class-related blues social events. The large school had, more or less, transplanted a Melbourne product to Sydney. The product, without that broader enthusiasm and firm social setting, has struggled in this particular market.
That’s not to suggest that there isn’t a great deal of interest in blues dancing in Sydney. There is. It is more that the events are managed and prescribed by the school, with the impetus from within a commercialised pedagogic model rather than a sort of groundswell of local popular interest. One of the consequences of this (which we see in one of that organisation’s lindy social night as well) is an emphasis on using spaces which are suitable for classes and not quite right for social dancing. Blues in Melbourne used smaller, more crowded bar-like venues, and I think this emphasis on socialising is very important. Local teachers also used their own small studio spaces for social events, and I think this interest at a non-commercialised, local-interest level was also very important. It simply meant that the lessons and workshop weekends were serving an already existing market, and were meeting an already present demand. In Sydney, the demand is not so significant, and the classes have had to be marketed quite rigorously for their success. There is not the significant word of mouth promotion that was so successful in Melbourne.
It’s been disappointing, as a blues dancer and DJ, to see the local Sydney blues scene struggle. They’ve been struck by difficult venue changes, by interrupted class and social schedules, and perhaps most significantly, they’re also dealing with an organisation which is run from Melbourne, rather than locally. This has seen numerous problems in the lindy hop community, and has – I think – been partially responsible for the stunted growth of the local blues scene.
Blues is an interesting example of the power of localised, groundswell interest and creative and commercial development. In America, and in Melbourne to a more limited extent, house parties and private parties have been important in developing DJs’ and dancers’ skills. More significantly, dance in private spaces has contributed to the development of community of interest and creativity which is not necessarily mediated by larger commercial dance interests. Though blues in Melbourne has definitely been commodified through the class and workshop structure, it still resists with its emphasis on social dancing and socialising.
But of course, my information and experience is almost two years old now. And I don’t have the close connections with blues that I do with lindy hop. Things might not be quite as I’ve described…
On another point, blues in Australia is largely without the interest in historical musical and dance forms that its American counterparts have been exploring in recent years. There are certainly individuals who are very interested in historical blues dance forms, but the predominant teaching and social event themes are not. One exception was a recent visit by an American teacher very interested in historical context. Brought to Australia by Australian teachers, this visiting teacher conducted workshops in a number of Australian cities. Unfortunately, either by coincidence or by design*, the large teaching school ran a large blues event the weekend after this international teacher left. One of the workshop weekends conducted by this teacher coincided with a large lindy exchange which is run by one of the more enthusiastic Australia blues dancers. Interpersonal conflicts and a generally disorganised approach to promotion meant that the visiting teacher did not receive the broader discussion the visit warranted.
In summary, the commercial interests and interpersonal conflicts which characterise the Australian scene were a direct impediment to the introduction and dissemination of this historical aspect of blues dance at that moment. This issue troubles me as a DJ and dancer. As a DJ, I found less interest in historical blues music and music for blues dancing, which was endlessly frustrating. As a dancer, I could not find local classes disseminating this historical content, and on the social floor I found a resistance to or intolerance for my own experimentation with historical steps and movements.
Since then, the broader interest in history and historical dance forms in lindy hop has seen a trickle-down or follow-on effect for blues dancing in Melbourne. This delights me, and yet I am unsure of its broader effects within the local Melbourne scene or national blues scene. I haven’t been to the major blues dancing weekends for a number of reasons, even though I’ve been (most flatteringlly) invited to DJ at them. They tend to cluster in the second half of the year, right in the middle of the marking period of the semester. And my partner isn’t interested in blues dancing at all.
This second point is particularly important to me, and I think, indicative of the national Australian blues scene in general. The Squeeze and I tend to go to exchanges with the thought that we are on holiday together. We both enjoy lindy hop very much. But The Squeeze isn’t interested in blues dancing, and I’d really rather save our travelling money for combined trips. Just because I like to go on holiday with my partner. The Squeeze isn’t the only lindy hopper with no interest in blues whatsoever.
I think that the popularity of lindy exchanges and of of ‘groovy’ or connection-centred lindy hop in America were important factors contributing to the development of blues dancing scenes in that country. The cost of flights and sheer distances between cities in Australia limited the number of annual lindy events for a long time. It was only in about 2005 that traveling for weekend events – let alone social weekends – became very popular and affordable here. The last couple of years in particular have seen social dancing weekends (exchanges) rise signficantly in popularity.
As we move into a culture which prioritises long weekends full of late night dancing and no workshops, however, we are also following America into an interest in historical lindy hop forms. It is as though we missed the broader, saturated interested in groove and connection-centredness. In Melbourne, though, this approach to dance did rise sharply in popularity. But a little later than the US, and with less lasting influence.
My doctoral research suggests that the sudden and more significant penetration of American lindy trends into the Australian scene is almost entirely due to the influence of online media. Youtube, discussion boards and lately Faceplant and (to a much lesser extent) Twitter. Youtube in particular suddenly gave us access to the dancing bodies of America in a way previously prevented by the cost and time of flights. We could actually see what was happening on the dance floors in other countries. The last year in particular has seen a massive increase in dancers’ use of online media for the dissemination of images of dancing bodies.
Faceplant has not only connected dancers internationally, making it simpler to map the networks of inter-local communitas (and this glocal networking is something I wrote about quite extensively in a number of articles as well as my doctoral thesis), it has also connected their online clip-viewing habits. A clilp featuring a particular dancer or dance is suddenly right there in front of dancers on Faceplant, showcased and framed by the ‘friend’ relationship, by the tagging of featured individuals and by clip’s placement in the ‘live’ feed of updated status and posted content.
Faceplant and other online social networking services and tools have not seen dancers necessarily adding more content to the intertubes. But it has seen them suddenly drawing connections between individuals, dance events, and online tools. Podcasts which previously existed only in the menus of discussion boards for some Australian dancers suddenly leapt to the front of their minds when linked from Faceplant. More importantly, individual dancers (and DJs) making contact via Faceplant began sharing their own online resources – lists of links, clips, audio files, music purchasing sites, comments or updates about their experiences at international or national events.
Faceplant has not changed the way dancers interact. But it has suddenly sped up connections between individuals, and tightened the relationships between them as a consequence. As I see it, the most important consequence of Faceplant has been its integration of a range of online tools, particularly YouTube and the hosting of AV content with individual blog-light or tweet-like content of networked friends. Dancers aren’t doing anything new online. They’re just doing it faster.
Though one thing they are doing now that they didn’t do a few years ago, and which has far more lasting importance, is travel. Online contacts and networks do facilitate travel (and the Frankie95 event is the very best example of word-of-mouth promotion via online networks), but it is the actual, face to face interaction with other dancers in other cities that has effected the most substantial changes to Australian lindy hop and blues dancing.
But I’ve rambled off-track a little. What I had meant to say, originally, was that if we had had this depth and breadth of online contact in the early 2000s and late 1990s, blues dancing (via groove and connected-centredness) would have traveled to Australia earlier and been more substantially established here before the American interest in historicism had developed. But it did not, and so we sort of skimmed over the supergroove moment. Local cultural influences held sway, and the teachers who traveled internationally to their preferred destinations (Herrang, Camp Hollywood, wherever) continued to be the guiding influences in their local communities.
What, then, to reiterate, is happening in blues in Australia? I can’t speak with any (convincing) authority on this. I can say that I suspect a greater interest in historicism. But I can’t be sure – I haven’t seen any local Sydney interest in this _at all_. Melbourne remains the largest blues dancing community in the country. I will try to get to some national blues events this coming year and comment further.
So, then, with all this in mind, what exactly am I doing DJing for blues dancers? In the simplest terms, there’s often a shortage of DJs willing to do the late night sets at exchanges, and there’s a shortage of blues DJs in Sydney. I’m no longer quite as willing to do the super late sets, but I have contacts who’ve seen me DJ those later sets, and seen and heard me DJ blues. These contacts are who help me secure gigs. I have no idea how good a blues DJ I am. I don’t think I suck, but I’m fairly certain I’m not the most amazing blues DJ in the universe. At this point, I aim for ‘don’t break it’ and am surprised if I manage anything more.
With that, I’m not sure if my comments about DJing for blues dancers are at all useful or even accurate. But hells, as if that’d stop me filling up the intertubes with _something_ other than pictures of kittehs.
Returning to that Confessing the Blues podcast. In the program someone had written an email asking a series of questions. The presenters answered in detail, with side trips for rants and other digressions. As to be expected and welcomed in any discussion of DJing.
One of the questions was:
What music do you play at a blues dance?
…or something to that effect. You can listen to the podcast for their answer. Mine is as follows.
What exactly makes it into my playlist depends on a number of factors. I don’t pre-plan my set lists. Though I do make short-lists of songs I might play, I develop the actual list as I go, responding to what I see and hear and feel in the room. These factors are shaped by:
- The scene. When I say ‘the scene’, I’m referring to the local community. The sorts of people out dancing regularly; the sorts of music played regularly; the venues used; the class content and teaching styles; the ‘regular’ DJing.
- The crowd. This refers to the people who are actually there at that moment, at that event. This is affected by the context – is this after a class, is it a blues session at a late night at an exchange, is it a set at a blues event, is it a free-floating social event, is it band breaks, is it in a bar, a studio or a hall? These things all determine the type of people at the event, and the ways in which they interact.
- The event itself. Is this a lindy exchange? A blues exchange? A social dance at a blues workshop weekend? After-class at a weekly blues event? After class at a monthly or fortnightly blues event?
In terms of the songs that are already in my ‘maybe’ list – the music that I actually own – I personally:
- like stuff that’s ‘blues structured’;
- like stuff that’s identified as ‘blues’;
- but I also like slow drags and other musical forms which ‘work’ for blues dancing.
I tend to favour historical music, but certainly not exclusively. The ‘blues’ genre is mighty and wide, and still a living, viable music today. I do not stick to one particular historical period – I range from the 20s to the current day.
I look for a particular feel. As an example, in cataloguing my music I distinguish between ‘kissing songs’ and ‘blues songs’. Kissing songs are ballads, or songs that make me want to grab The Squeeze and cuddle him. Or they make me think of nannas having polite slow-dances with their husbands [Moonlight Serenade – Glenn Miller = kissing song example]. Blues songs make me feel like dancing. I’ve heard other DJs talk about tension and release in blues dancing songs. I guess that could mean the difference between a kissing song and a blues dancing song. Kissing songs are polite, blues dancing songs demand your attention. But I don’t think that definition is quite useful for me. I’ve also heard people talking about blues songs having a ‘pulse’, but that doesn’t even begin to work for me, because I’m looking for that rhythmic ‘bounce’ in my lindy hopping music (and dancing).
I’m also sceptical of comments that a piece of music ‘is slow lindy not blues’. I think that there is a range of dances which aren’t necessarily lindy hop (slow or otherwise) but which are also more than a slow-dancing cuddle. When I’m blues dancing, I don’t even bother thinking ‘no lindy hop!’ I think ‘dance!’ If some lindy gets in there, good enough. And, to be frank, I sure as fuck don’t bother classifying each of my movements as ‘lindy hop’ or otherwise. I’m just dancing. Historically, lindy hop and other vernacular dances were all about change and cross-polination. There weren’t terribly many rules about dancing beyond social conventions. Context, the music and mood shape the way I dance. So a shimmy can be either incredibly sexually provocative, it can be slightly silly, or it can be an incredibly macho shake of the shoulders. So I don’t make any rules for what moves or steps I do where. But I look for a different feel in the music when I’m blues dancing.
I think that this is where I have to leave my discussion of how to define blues dancing music. The ways I choose and buy my music might be more useful.
My musical tastes are motivated by my dancing interests and by my musical interests. As a DJ, I’m very interested in historic musical forms, but I gather most of my music almost accidentally when I’m buying music for lindy hopping. Or when I’m ‘going complete’ with an artist (eg the lovely surprise of Herny Red Allen with Victoria Spivey [Moanin’ the Blues by Spivey et al is on the 8track]). As an example, I bought the Mosaic ‘Classic Columbia, Okeh and Vocalion’ Count Basie/Lester Young set. This is, as the title suggests, a complete collection of recordings by a band leader/musician during a particular time period with a particular recoding label(s). Basie is an interesting example. He has his roots in Kansas, and he also has his roots in blues music. This set includes a number of songs that I think of as ‘classic blues’ including I Left My Baby [which is on the 8track]. These songs have been performed in many ways, at many tempos, and in many styles. On this set, the 1939 version of I Left My Baby is 86bpm, and the mood is slower, more introspective, more intense. We’re encouraged to listen to the vocals and the solos by the slower tempo. There’s an intensity that makes you want to move, but to move with meaning. And this song is along side a host of songs that are perfect for lindy hopping. Some of which are, incidentally, blues structured, but with a higher tempo and a different energy and mood.
The distinction between ‘blues’ and ‘lindy hop’ isn’t fixed or definite – one set a song can set the room to lindy hopping another night it can get them bloozing.
I make musical choices when I’m compiling my ‘maybe’ list based on my musical tastes, and on what I would like to dance to. So my sets are subscribing to my tastes and preferences. I’ve tried buying music to suit general trends, but I find I end up with music I don’t especially like and don’t DJ very often. So I don’t do that much.
My sets are, though, guided by the brief I’ve been given by the organiser. I like to talk to them about what they want, or to just have a couple of lines in an email outlining their preferences. I like this when I’m DJing for an unfamiliar lindy hop crowd. I like managers of regular events to give me updates on their preferences as well, particularly when they’re as astute as some I’ve worked with in Melbourne. Canny event managers see when their crowd is changing and developing in its musical and dancing tastes, and asks the DJs to work with that. I’m happy to take that sort of direction. If I don’t like their vision, I don’t do the gig. I’ve been lucky enough to DJ in two cities with relatively healthy social scenes, and with a few different events to choose from. But I also put a lot of effort into developing good relationships with event managers, where I can ask what they’re interested in, and I can make suggestions or speculations.
I choose the songs I’m going to play, ultimately, by what I see going on on the floor – who’s there, how the room feels, and so on.
I tend to keep it below 160bpm. 160 is about where I’ll begin my solid lindy hop. More probably, I’ll sit below 120 with occasional forays up into the 140s. But the tempo will be dictated by feel. So I might add in some slow drag stuff at higher tempos.
There is no basement tempo – I will go low.
What moods am I looking for?
With lindy hop, I tend to look for higher energy music. But this isn’t the case with blues.I tend to range across the energy levels and moods. Some of my favourites include:
- upenergy, ‘beer room party’ music. I think of this as ‘Andy’ music. I remember having a revelation listening and watching Andy DJ – he came in loud and proud and didn’t DJ down into the cuddle zone, mood wise. The crowd was lively and boisterous. I really like this. This energy can be found in soul, early RnB, etc. I am a bit keen on Chicago blues at the moment, and this stuff is really good for that party feel [Hound Dog is my current obsession and example of this style on the 8track.]
- lowenergy, cuddly stuff. This sort of music encourages close connection and often sensuous themes. Stuff that encourages introspection and serious facial expressions. I won’t play this at an after-class event first off. I usually work into this vibe later in the night/set. Unless I’m following from a DJ who was doing this stuff. As a DJ and dancer, I prefer blues events to work with more than just this vibe. I know that this feel was the primary goal of a lot of blues dancers in Australia at first, particularly at late night house parties. But I think I’d die of boredom if this was all I had to work with as a DJ or dancer [I Got It Bad by Oscar Peterson is the example on the 8track.]
- humourous, medium to high energy. This is often vocal-driven. There may be sensual or even sexually explicit lyrics or musical elements, but the sex is subverted or sort of tipped on its side by humour. So you feel silly dancing sexily unless you’re being ironic or otherwise adding layers of meaning to what you’re doing. I put my dirty, salty nannas here [My Handy Man Ain’t Handy No More is the 8track example.]
Generally, I think a song’s a ‘blues dancing song’ when I listen and think ‘this makes me want to dance slowly and it doesn’t make me want to lindy hop.’ I really like to ‘solo blues dance’ (whatever that fucking means), so I like that stuff.
Examples of songs/styles that I play:
- big bands playing blues songs during the 30s, 40s and 50s. eg Basie with Jimmy Rushing singing I Left My Baby;
- – small bands with vocalists singing blues structured blues songs. eg Victoria Spivvey with the Henry Red Allen small groups; Bessie Smith with small bands. These tend to be blues queens accompanied by badass musicians [Moaning the Blues by Spivey et al is the 8track example];
- small bands with or without a singer doing blues structured songs [a Duke Ellington sextet doing Tough Truckin’ is the 8track example];
- Chicago blues, especially as it leads into soul. Big Mama Thornton. Blues structured. Important instrumentation. Can be massive big energy, or less crazy [see Hound Dog on the 8track].
- New Orleans, slow drags and slower walking styles. I really like this style, and I tend to play quite a bit of this. It’s very popular with dancers who are keen on old school lindy hop. I like to play slow drags for the long, sensual/miserable feels. I watch the tempos, and I don’t tend to live here all night during a set. This stuff is important when I’m transitioning. I often find that I’m only one of a few DJs who play ‘old school’ blues sets at an event, so I feel obliged. [St James Infirmary and The Mooche are good examples by Aussie bands on the 8track]
How do I actually combine choose songs when I’m DJing a blues set?
Pretty much the same way I do when I’m DJing a lindy hop set. Except I sit down more. And wear a jumper because I tend to get pretty cold at those super late nights. I like to work a wave, energy wise, and often tempo-wise. But I worry less about working the tempos. The energy is more important. I’m also much, much more careful about transitioning between styles. Mostly because the music I might play is representative of so many different styles. But also because the range of styles means that you have a range of moods and energy types on offer. And you want to really bring the crowd with you, or work with the crowd rather than jolting and jostling them about.
I guess, what I’m saying overall about the way I DJ for blues dancers is:
- slower than lindy hop, but not all slow all the time;
- blues structured or blues identified songs and styles are good;
- emotional range is far broader than with lindy hop (where I tend to DJ the ‘crazy manic happy’ vibe);
- historical forms and songs please me, so I tend to favour them.
Songs I won’t play:
- Trip hop, hip hop, contemporary styles that I think of as ‘dancing alone’. Because I hear this stuff at normal clubs and venues, and I dance ‘normally’ there. Also, those DJs know this stuff and I don’t, and I’d much rather a DJ with those skills and that collection make this stuff sound good than I stuff one into my set as a sort of random tokenism.
- Soul and Funk. I will play blues songs by soul singers, but I prefer not to play what I think of as solid soul or funk. I love that stuff, but it’s not blues. I will and have occasionally dropped in a soul favourite, but often as a sop to popular taste. I don’t mess with funk, I stick to soul. And I prefer earlier soul. Again, ultimately, I don’t have much of this, I don’t know it well, and so I’d really rather not embarrass myself trying to be ‘cool’ with it [the Etta James song is a soul song I do play].
- Songs with male singers and sexist lyrics. I hate that shit. So I don’t play it.
*I would suggest coincidence if it were not for the fact that this strategy has been employed time and again by this organisation. While I suspect that they are simply this clueless and disconnected from the broader national scene, I am also quite sure that they are disinterested in broader community development and good will.
8track set list
Moonlight Serenade Glenn Miller and his Orchestra 84 The Aviator 3:25 [an example of a ‘kissing song’]
I Left My Baby Count Basie and his Orchestra with Lester Young, Jimmy Rushing 86 1939 Classic Columbia, Okeh And Vocalion Lester Young With Count Basie (1936-1940) (Disc 2) 3:13 [an example of a big band with a blues shouter doing a blues structured song which works for blues dancing. Also, a song from a big chronologically ordered set by a particular artist, which also has a lot of great lindy hopping music on it.]
St. James Infirmary The Cairo Club Orchestra 109 2004 Sunday 3:33[An Australian band doing a song which I think of as ‘New Orleans’ and sort of like a slow drag (though not really…well, whatevs). It also has a slightly higher tempo and works for lindy hop]
Hound Dog Big Mama Thornton 76 Very Best Of 2:52 [A Chicago blues queen singing a very famous song. This is an example of what I think of as ‘party music’. Lots of energy, lots of sass]
I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good) Oscar Peterson 55 1962 Night Train 5:09 [Cuddle music in the supergroove vein.]
My Handy Man Ain’t Handy No More Alberta Hunter 76 1978 Amtrak Blues 3:49 [A small group with a female vocalist doing a humourous song that works for blues dancing]
Moaning The Blues Victoria Spivey acc by Henry ‘Red’ Allen, JC Higginbotham, Teddy Hill, Luis Russell 100 1929 Complete Jazz Series 1926 – 1929 3:02 [A ‘classic blues’ song by a blues queen accompanied by some shit hot musicians, some of whom had very high profile careers with big bands which recorded songs we play for lindy hop]
Tough Truckin’ Duke Ellington Sextet 96 1935 The Duke’s Men: Small Groups Vol. 1 (Disc 1) 3:09 [An instrumental song recorded by a small band which works for blues dancing]
The Mooche Michael McQuaid’s Red Hot Rhythmakers 117 2006 Rhythm Of The Day 3:41 [An Australian band doing a song which I think of as New Orleans, though it isn’t (I think it was recorded by Ellington in New York…). The instrumentation feels New Orleans – banjo, reeds, a particular percussive sound. The Ellington 1928 is of course the superior recording, but this version is very popular with dancers in Melbourne and the band itself is also very popular]
Please Please Please James Brown 74 Sex Machine 2:45 [A soul song from the 70s or 60s (I forget which) but which I will and have played for blues dancers… though with my tongue in my cheek]
I’m Gonna Take What He’s Got Etta James 57 1967 The Best Of Etta James 2:35 [A soul track that I do play for dancers, and which works very well.]