An issue has come up over on Wandering and Pondering. I did write a comment there, but it got too long. The post there is responding to a post on Authentic Jazz Dance by Harri Heinila, which has managed to shit off an awful lot of people. I don’t have a whole lot to say about that particular post of Harri’s, mostly because I find the written expression so clunky it obscures his point. I just can’t figure out exactly what he’s trying to say. So I don’t really want to engage with it one way or another. But I do have some things to say (of course I do).
Here is the huge comment I deleted from the Wandering and Pondering page:
If I was marking this essay [Harri's blog post], I’d give the comments: “There are some problems with your written expression, which at times confuse your argument” and “I would recommend closer critical engagement with your own approach to ideas about dance, power, the uses of language and ideology in dance.”
There are some really confusing bits of writing, that I think perhaps might be a product of having English as a second language? And I also suspect that some of the points of conflict (eg the use of the word ‘vernacular’) might be a product of confusion about language use, rather than a real disagreement. From my perspective, I find the use of historical methods problematic: as a feminist cultural media studies person, I want more engagement with ideology, and less emphasis on ‘sources’ and ‘facts’. But then, I’m not a historian.
Having said that, I’ve noticed that the further we get from Frankie the man (ie the more time passes after he passed away), the less critical engagement with his life and work we have, and a more uncritical, adulatory tone we take in describing him and his work. This actually came up in the Frankie Stream discussion session at Herrang, where one of the newer dancers actually said something like (and I paraphrase) “You [the teachers and everyone] say many good things about Frankie, but was he this perfect? What were his faults?”
It was interesting to see that none of the teachers or participants were willing to discuss Frankie’s faults as a dancer or person. You can understand why – we are reluctant to speak ill of the dead, and particularly reluctant to disrespect someone so important to the modern lindy hop scene, who was also a dear friend and respected mentor and teacher. But I think the questioner (and I) were left wondering if perhaps we are losing a wholer picture of the man by taking such an adulatory tone.
Similarly, I think we are doing ourselves a disservice when we take an uncritical approach to the ‘lindy hop revival’ narrative: we should be asking questions like “Who benefits from this revival?” and “What are our limits when it comes to ‘growing the scene’?”
….at any rate, I think that one of the things that Harri makes (and which I think is lost in his writing style), is that the history we tell of the ‘dying out’ and ‘revival’ of lindy hop tends to lack context, critical engagement, and complexity. It’s easy to tell the story like this:
“Jazz stopped being popular, so people stopped lindy hopping. Then in the 1980s some people (mostly white, mostly European, but also American) found the old time dancers and then they revived it.”
This story is very popular for a number of reasons, and I think that Harri approaches a convincing point when he suggests that money is at the heart of this. I don’t think money is actually the reason these stories dominate (though, contrary to public mythology, you can actually make a living from lindy hop, most of us actually don’t). I think that the ‘myth of the rediscovered lindy hop’ actually reinforces and cements existing power structures in modern day lindy hop. And we should be very sceptical of these.
To be blunt, I think that this story is inaccurate: lindy hop did not ‘die out’. At the very least, it changed form a bit (because it was a vernacular dance), and it moved out of the public eye. I haven’t done enough research on this stuff, so I can’t comment on who was doing what dancing where, or what its standard was, or whether it counted as ‘lindy hop’.
I’m actually increasingly suspicious of the mantra that we should ‘grow the scene’ or convert more people to lindy hop at the cost of all else. There is a loud discourse in lindy hop that we should sacrifice all (income, time, relationships, health) to bring more people to lindy hop – to continue the revivalist project. I have an intense dislike of this martyred approach to running events, teaching, or working in the lindy hop scene. It normalises exploitation, it encourages working for free, rather than economic sustainability, and we see the same sorts of people being exploited, while the same sorts of people benefit from this exploitation. This system (and ideology) of ‘sacrifice’ ultimately attributes power and status to the people who take organisational roles in this project.
[A brief interjection: when I run events I am 100% keen on NOT exploiting anyone. I am STRICT about good working conditions, about breaks, about reasonable workloads, about people being paid, about punters paying for things. This shit is part of the music and entertainment industry, not some bloody religious movement. So nobody gets screwed over if I can help it, and I have NO PATIENCE with martyrs.]
If we were to realise that lindy hop didn’t actually die out, and if we were to realise that the world won’t actually explode without lindy hop, then all that revivalist sacrifice and work will be for nothing, and all that power and status will just trickle away. So there are bodies and people with vested interests in maintaining an uncritical support of a revivalist project, and revivalist mythology.
Me, I think that we’d do just fine without lindy hop. I’d be pretty darn sad, but life would go on. I think there are some really big problems with the way power and status work in our various communities, and I think that Harri is quite brave for raising the issue. I do not, however, agree with the core of his arguments, nor do I like his approach.
I think that we should be more critical of adulatory and ‘sacrifice’ narratives about the revival (and Frankie), but we should also be respectful of elders, respectful of each other, and supportive of projects which are, at their heart, about a philosophy of dance which encourages tolerance, mutual respect, peace, and harmony.
I think that one thing the modern day ‘revivalist’ project has brought us (largely through Frankie Manning’s personal example) is an ideology of dance which prioritises: interpersonal connection and respect (‘you are in love with this person for three minutes’); creativity and self-expression, from all dancers (the swing out has built-in improvisation time, and solo dance is a key part of lindy hop); and an open, welcoming social dancing culture, where anyone is welcome, and where peace and goodwill are valued.
At the same time, though, I like to remember that lindy hop itself has a built-in capacity for critical engagement, for resistance, and political commentary. Imitation, impersonation, competition, ‘step stealing’, and so on are all elements of lindy hop that make it a great vehicle for ideological and political resistance. And if we forget that – if we forget the importance of constructive criticism – then we’re forgetting the most powerful part of lindy hop.
[Another addd comment: Yes, the Savoy was a wonderful place for overcoming segregation. But you're fooling yourself if you think that racial tensions, issues of power and privilege and sexism and class weren't a part of that community space as well. We should be deeply, deeply suspicious of bullshit claims that lindy hop dissolves all differences. Because the corollary to that point is that if you are speaking up about wrong doing or about racism or sexism or bullshit in the scene, that idyllic view of the past makes you a trouble maker.
Relatedly, a Swedish friend noted in Herrang that the idea that Herrang is this wonderful, hedonistic place where everyone is happy and wonderful and joined by a love of dance is actually a problem. If Herrang is this wonderful a place, what do you do if something bad actually happens to you? Where do you go if you are assaulted or threatened or bullied? And you're fooling yourself if you think that these things don't go on.
When we insist on this idealised idea of lindy hop, we ignore the difficult stuff, and we make it impossible for people to raise challenging issues. Yes, this is a very happy dance. But we are still humans, and we can do pretty awful things to each other. So we should be actively vigilant and critically engaged, not just telling each other to shoosh up and be happy.]
I’ve recently had a bunch of traffic redirected here, and that means lots of first time visitors dropping in. Nice to see you!
I want to let you know about my comments policy. It’s strict. Here are the rules:
1. If you get all up in my business with aggressive, threatening, or nasty comments, your comment will be deleted. If you need to rant, get your own blog.
2. I have zero tolerance for sexism, racism or other unpleasantness. Your comment will be deleted. Your opinions simply aren’t important.
3. This is a feminist space. That means we’re assuming you’re on board with feminist principles. I am not interested in debating your ideas about feminism. If you use the terms ‘misandry’ or ‘reverse sexism’ or try to argue that a woman is being sexist, your comment will be deleted. If you can’t dig that, you need to leave. If you don’t understand why, you need to read feminism 101.
Why so strict?
Even though my positions on most issues of gender, sex, power and lindy hop are relatively moderate (I’m not a radical feminist, sadly), I regularly receive hateful emails, messages on facebook, and comments on this blog. It’s frightening and unpleasant and it makes me angry. Rather than dwell on the insecurities of men who want to bully women who use their brains, I delete them. I don’t even bother reading them. I will not be bullied out of thinking or speaking or doing. Nor will I hesitate to call the police or report your arse for harassing me.
Nor do I feel any responsibility to let people who disagree with me ‘have their say’. The world is full of forums for anti-feminist and anti-woman talk. This is not one of them. This is an actively feminist space. This is a feminist echo chamber. In this world, the rules are that gender is important, that women have things to say, that their opinions will be given greater value than men’s, and that solo dance is an essential part of lindy hop. I am the boss of this blog, and my word rules.
I’ve talked more about my policies in this post. I will not be entering into any arguments or discussions with you about these policies. If you want a forum to air your ideas, get a blog.
While I’m at it: please note that I will not engage with you on these issues in person, either. If I’m out at a dance, I am there to dance or to DJ. I rarely want to talk politics when I’m lindy hopping. I rarely want to talk about my blog or online talk in general.
If, however, you are a woman who wants to talk about activism in your scene, bring it! I am very interested.
If you are a woman interested in getting into DJing or leading or solo dance, bring that too – I am interested.
Yes, I am privileging women here. That is the deal.
John Hammond with Buck Clayton, Lester Young, Charlie Christian, Benny Goodman and Count Basie (source).
I love these sessions.
Thinking about DJing for swing dancers? Dancing a bit of lindy hop and looking for music? You’ll need some music.
I’ll say this right now: if you want to DJ for swing dancers and you don’t like jazz, then you should not be DJing for swing dancers. It’s not for you. If you’ve got this super cool modern pop song that really swings, stop. Stop right there. You’re not doing something new. Sure, play that action at home, dance to whatever moves your soul. But if you’re a swing DJ, you need to have and play swing music. That’s the bottom line.
Who’s who in the world of swing? I’m going to try to write a series of these posts about the important band leaders, bands, or artists, but knowing me this’ll be the only item that series :D Yolo, right?
You must own Count Basie. Lindy hoppers like Frankie Manning tended to agree: Basie was the best. What made him so good? A great rhythm section (Walter Page: bass; Jo Jones: drums; Freddy Green: guitar; Count Basie: piano).
Great players like Lester Young on sax, and Buck Clayton on trumpet.
Peeps tend to talk about two phases in Basie’s huge recording career: the 1930s and 40s (‘old testament Basie’) and the 50s-60s (‘new testament Basie’). I’d probably add the ‘Moten era’ as a third phase – the earlier stuff Basie recorded with Bennie Moten’s band around about 1929-1932. Songs like Prince Of Wails, Moten Swing, Toby, Small Black. All fabulous. The sort of Basie that appeals to dancers who are into that earlier moment of swing – sort of pre-swing.
We could also talk about his later stuff with his small groups, or his work with Benny Goodman’s small groups, but I think his big band is really where it’s at, especially for a newer DJ or collector.
If you’re just starting your collection, you’ll need to get stuff from the new and old testament phases.
It’s difficult to list specific songs, as there’s just so much fabulous stuff. I’d go with the studio recordings at first, even though there’re some truly magical live recordings. Just because the quality can be kind of off-putting.
Here are some of my favourites, starting with the old testament band.
Honeysuckle Rose – 1937 – 217bpm. This is exciting instrumental stuff. Perhaps a bit challenging for newer dancers, structurally, but it’s so exciting and fun it’ll make them dance anyway. Yes, it’s fast, but yes, it’s fucking fantastic.
Don’t You Miss Your Baby – 1937 – 161bpm. With vocals by Jimmie Rushing, this is a great introduction to Kansas ‘shouters’. It has all the trade-marks of old testament Basie – shouting vocals, blues structure, uptempo fun, lots of energy, a fairly chunky piano (as opposed to the sparser stuff of his new testament), good, solid Freddy Green guitar keeping the beat, and a nice little trumpet part at the beginning. There are quite a few songs in this style from this period – I could just have easily have chosen ‘Sent For You Yesterday’ from 1938 (and I should have – I overplay that song badly). There are also lower tempo songs in a similar stompy blues style, even down into the lowest tempos which are great for blues dancing.
Topsy – 1937 – 196bpm. I think of this as classic old testament Basie Orchestra. There are quite a few songs with just this style and feel: it’s very much pop music, and it’s fuckloads of fun. A chunky, heavy rhythm section (so you know right where the beat is), a fun, dramatic melody, and a nice, energetic tempo. Other songs that are very similar: One O’Clock Jump, Dogging Around, Every Tub, Shorty George, Jumpin’ At The Woodside, and so on and so on. There’re a bunch of songs in this 1937-38 period that are just good, solid lindy hopping songs. The tempos are higher, but fuck, that’s what lindy hop was in those years. This is THE business.
The band’s style changes a little in 1939 and into 1940, with a bit more emphasis on the brass, and you can begin to hear jump blues coming in the future. Songs from this era that are worth looking at include Dickie’s Dream, Lester Leaps In (particularly versions by Basie’s Kansas City Seven – good times!). And then Basie and his rhythm section did some mindblowingly good songs with Benny Goodman’s small groups – songs like Wholly Cats, Benny’s Bugle, Royal Garden Blues, Gone With What Wind, all from 1940. This is my absolute favourite type of music. It tends to be quite fast, and you can hear the earlier moments of Basie’s shift to a lighter, more technically fancy style, probably a result of Goodman’s influence. Or the freedom of a small group so keenly devoted to exploring new and exciting things in swing music.
Tickle-Toe – 1940 – 223bpm. This has a lot in common with that bunch of stuff in the Topsy group, but things are changing a little. More brass, a slightly different edge. But still stamping good stuff, custom-built for lindy hop.
Easy Does It – 1940 – 150bpm. You need this song. You must have it. It’s iconic, and this medium tempo Basie version is perfect. Just perfect. It will make you swing out like Frankie. This is still very much in that earlier Basie style, but it’s definitely a sign of the new testament to come, with more complexity in the melody and arrangements, and a more interesting approach to dynamics beginning to happen.
In 1941 there were more recordings with Goodman’s small groups. This shit blows my mind. I fucking love it. But I don’t DJ it very often. It’s fast, complex, exciting, cerebral. Perfect. It’s like Basie’s blunt hammer is tempered by Goodman’s tightywhiteyness, and both become more interesting for the collaboration.
There are other big band Basie recordings from Basie in 1941/2 which are worth looking at, but kind of samey – 9:20 special, Feather Merchant, Down For Double, Feedin’ The Bean, One O’clock Jump, It’s Sand, Man!, Ay Now, etc etc. Great, but kind of samey.
Undecided Blues – 1941 – 120bpm.
Goin’ To Chicago Blues – 1941 – 94bpm.
Harvard Blues – 1941 – 94bpm.
These are all Jimmy Rushing vehicles, but you HAVE to get them. A sort of dark humour and piss-taking that really characterises the rough edges of these Kansas musicians. Very much the same sort of song, doing classic blues work with the machinery of a top shelf big band. Win.
This blues structure is significant for Basie: a lot of his stuff uses the 6 eights to a phrase structure, which is totes fine for social dancing and funsies, but will give you trouble if you’re looking for competition music. It can also be a bit predictable, which makes your dancing a bit ordinary. But fuck, it pisses all over anything non-swing. This shit is the business. And a good recording of One O’Clock Jump at 181bpm from 1942 is pretty much perfect lindy hop. PERFECT.
It’s worth pausing to look at the late 40s Basie before we get into new testament Basie. We can definitely hear the jump blues influence, rock n roll isn’t too far away, and a lot of this stuff has much in common with people like Louis Jordan and other vocal-driven pop music of the late 40s. Julia Lee is in this family too, and I guess it’s that brand of Kansas blues that really kicked off rock and roll. It’s fantastic. But it tends to be heading away from classic lindy hop territory. I find it great for DJing rock n roll/swing cross over crowds. Also it’s spanking fun.
Open The Door Richard – 1947 – 127bpm. Too many vocals to really rock it for DJing, but totes fun.
The Jungle King – 1947 – 127bpm. Pretty much the same song.
Free Eats – 1947 – 163bpm. Same, but a smear faster.
Swingin’ The Blues – 1947 – 157bpm. This is an interesting one. You can definitely hear new testament Basie, here. This is much more in the pocket (it has a more ‘delayed’, swinging feeling), but it’s still very near this jump blues stuff. I love it because it’s quite odd, structurally, but still good for dancing. I DJ it quite a bit.
Shoutin’ Blues – 1949 – 148bpm. This is a great one. Similarly odd, structurally, but a good, solid, chunky dancing song. You can hear some interesting experiments in dynamics here, as Basie starts digging on the new recording technologies. His playing style has definitely shifted into a more minimalist style – sounds tinkly, but still has a bit of thunder at the edges. And Freddy Green really is rocking the rhythm guitar, here.
Did You Ever See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball – 1949 – 156bpm. This is a lot like that early block from 1947 with the lyrics and pop appeal. It’s an easy-win song that tends to go down well.
You’re My Baby You (vocal or instrumental version) – 1950 – 150bpm. I love this song. It’s got neat Clark Terry lyrics, and you can hear how he would eventually (and quite soon) head into supergroove territory. It feels like a pop song, and the vocals are really much of the focus.
Solid As A Rock – 140bpm – 1950. This is solid favourite. With vocals by the Deep River Boys, it’s a gospel favourite with a swinging big band edge that goes down well with dancers. It’s overplayed, and for my money it doesn’t really stand up to the overplaying the way other songs do. But this is a very useful song to have in your collection: shouting, clapping, a simple beat, a moderate tempo. It’s really a little out of the ‘proper’ lindy hopping realm, so it’s something I’d sprinkle into my set, rather than leaning on. Again, it’s a good song for a rock n roll/lindy hop crossover gig.
There are a few other jump blues songs in this period that really are a bit too far away from lindy hop to really work out. But at the same time, you get Basie doing things that are really, truly wonderful. And definitely heading into the new testament world.
Jive At Five – 1952 – 136bpm. This is really new testament Basie. This is a moderate tempo, it has that characteristic use of dynamics that was Basie taking advantage of a big band using new recording technology, and it has contrasting moments of light and dark (tinkly piano and stompy rhythms; sax solos and sharp trumpets over stompy bass piano parts). This is really, truly, great lindy hopping action. It’s amazing that Basie was doing this 2 years after he did something like Solid As A Rock. It’s just such a completely different type of song.
Ok, now I’m going to do something terrible, and basically write off the 1950s and 1960s as ‘new testament’ as though they were all the same sorts of songs. They weren’t. Basie did all sorts of cool things with big and small bands, including exciting projects like re-recording his 30s hits with this new big band. You get to hear songs like Jumpin’ At The Woodside in stereo, with that stomping intro, but with modern solos and sensibilities. This is where you realise that Basie’s band was just fucking fantastic: experienced, talented professionals doing things that blow your brain. There’s a 1952 version of Every Tub (290bpm) that’s just so great. It makes you want to dance like a fool. But it’s further into the pocket than his 30s stuff, and the solos get weirdo, definitely echoing what was happening in bebop at the time. Excite!
There’s a Basie Verve Mosaic box set that compiles all this 50s stuff. And in it is a song I just adore:
Basie Beat – 1952 – 179bpm. Basie plays organ, there’s a nice little muted trumpet part, and the rhythm is solidly chunky supergroove. It really pounds along with lots of energy, and I just LOVE it. I think of this as new testament Basie at his best: musically complex and sophisticated, but at the same like a big barrel of bricks, pounding out a thumping good rhythm that makes you want to leap to your feet and fucking DANCE. Wow!
In the same year you hear the band redo songs like Goin’ To Chicago with Jimmy Rushing (79bpm) and higher tempo songs like Sent For You Yesterday. The brilliant thing about these songs is that you’re essentially getting the same sort of songs (both the 1930s and 50s versions), but you get a hifi version and a lofi version, a slicker version and a rougher version. So the same song can be used in different ways when you’re DJing, and appeal to different audiences. Yet it’s the same fabulous song.
In the 50s you get some of the songs I think of as ‘revival Frankie’ Basie. Songs Frankie would dance and teach to in the 80s and 90s. Solidly in the pocket, moderate tempos, totally accessible, fantastic dancing.
Down For The Count – 1954 – 115bpm. Yes.
Corner Pocket – 1955 – 137bpm. Feels like almost the same song. Goddess bless stereo sound and a big, fat orchestra on a mission.
Shiny Stockings – 1956 – 126bpm. Frankie’s favourite. Pretty much the same thing. Still fab dancing.
Splanky – 1957 – 125bpm. More of the same. More fab.
Moten Swing – 1959 – 125bpm. I like the live version from Breakfast Dance And Barbecue (you must buy that album). More of the same. Utterly wonderful.
At the same time as all this is going on, you get those nice hi-fi reworkings of the 30s and 40s classics, you get the supergroove stuff, the small group stuff, and you get the wall of sound big band fabulousness that is songs like…
Blues In Hoss’ Flat – 1958 – 144. Structurally simple, pretty much the definition of meat and potatoes. Fucking best dancing fun. BEST. It’s pretty much the epitome of crowd-pleasing safety song.
I think I’ll end this here. There are about three million other little pockets of Basie that I didn’t discuss. The vocal stuff with Joe Williams and Ella Fitzgerald. Williams and Fitzgerald singing a duet on Every Day I Have The Blues in 1956 – it’s like the ideal song. Kind of slow and boring for lindy hop, but pretty much the definition of super powers in collaboration. And I haven’t even touched on the 1970s ‘Satch and Josh’ (Oscar Peterson and Count Basie) recordings. They’re pretty much the definition of supergroove. And quite wow. You should definitely look them up on youtube – live recordings!
But Count Basie had a really long career, and he was really, really good for dancing. You have to have him in your collection if you’re a lindy hopper, and if you don’t have him and you DJ for swing dancers, you should be ashamed of yourself. ASHAMED. You’re also robbing yourself of a valuable DJing tool. Basie had such a long-ranging career, he pretty much has something for everyone, from the pre-swing to the supergroove, the total beginner to the nitpicking old stick dancer.
As a note, you might find this video about Basie’s band useful:
Warning: this post is too long, rambles too much, and is generally quiet confusing. YOLO![/]
I talk and write a lot about ‘favourites’ and ‘safety songs’ in DJing, so I thought it was worth putting together a post about them. I’ll try to add some notes about musical style while I’m at it.
Let’s define some terms. What do I mean by favourites? Basically, we’re talking songs that a particular scene likes a bunch, and plays quite often. But I’d like to refine that definition. There are a body of songs which are favourites internationally, and make for good lindy hopping. There are of course favourites within local scenes, and we could use them to chart the local musical cultures of lindy hop, but that’s not the point of this piece.
Gee, this post isn’t off to a good start, is it. Sorry – later night last night, up dancing. Still dealing with the remnants of jet lag. Which seem to have removed all my inhibitions, raised my volume, and made it really difficult to spin without chucking up. So please excuse the clumsy writing in this post.
So, anyway. Favourites. I’ve written about this before, in my post overplayed awesome, but I want to refine it.
What’s the point of listing favourite songs?
In my city at the moment, new DJs are playing some pretty awful music. It’s not even rock and roll, let alone swing. There’s a lot of really terrible popular music being played at our regular DJed social dancing night. Our only regular social DJed night. So terrible it clears the floor, because people think it’s the ‘going home music’. I do not exaggerate. I don’t understand why they don’t just use the favourites that make lindy hoppers rock out. And yet, I do understand.
Most peeps get into DJing because they have music they want to play. And most of us have music we want to play because we never hear anyone else play it. Most of us figure out after a few months that there’s a really good reason no one plays ‘Take Five’. Those reasons range from the fact that some songs just don’t make for good lindy hop, to more complex cultural and social reasons. If you want to stay on the regular DJing roster, you need to keep your music within the range of your local community’s norms. Otherwise you clear the floor, and you don’t get another gig. Those norms might change, and you might be a part of that change, but you can’t rush things. Not really.
This point is really a bit of a response to the DJ session at Herräng, where some of the guest DJs insisted that you have to play ‘great music’, and to a certain extent, challenge the dancers. I think that you can get away with this approach at larger events, particularly if you are a ‘rock star DJ’. But when you’re playing a weekly gig, every week (or trying to get onto the roster), you need to be a little more circumspect. It’s not so much about the music, as about becoming enculturated, and learning how to work with the organisers, the scene culture, and the event’s vibe. These are all professional skills: knowing how to play for a specific crowd, how to work with organisers to make them happy, and how to compromise.
It is utterly frustrating to have to play poop music when you start DJing. Or rather, to play music you don’t like. But a degree of compromise is important. When I started DJing, Melbourne was fully into supergroove, rnb and neo. It was killing me. Which was why I started DJing. But I couldn’t just come into the scene playing a set full of old scratchies. I had exactly zero DJing skills: I couldn’t work the sound gear, I didn’t know how to work a crowd. I’d practiced using my laptop, and transitioning, but I wasn’t terribly great.
This is the first set I played:
(title bpm artist year album)
Knock Me A Kiss 115 Louis Jordan 1943 Swingers
Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off 120 Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Oscar Peterson, Herb Ellis, Ray Brown, Louie Bellson 1957 Ella And Louis Again [MFSL]
Cow Cow Boogie 120 Jennie Löbel and Swing Kings 2001 He Ain’t Got Rhythm
Splanky 125 Count Basie and his Orchestra 1957 The Complete Atomic Basie
Shoo-Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy 126 Stan Kenton and his Orchestra with June Christy 1945 The Best Of Big Band – Swinging The Blues
Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby? 140 Dinah Washington 1956 The Swingin’ Miss “D”
Moten Swing 138 Oscar Peterson 1962 Night Train
Out South 129 Junior Mance Trio 1962 Happy Time
Good Rockin’ Tonight 155 Jimmy Witherspoon 1963 Jazz Me Blues: the Best of Jimmy Witherspoon
Now Or Never 167 Katharine Whalen 1999 Jazz Squad
Big Fine Daddy 125 Lavay Smith and her Red Hot Skillet Lickers 2000 Everybody’s Talkin’ ‘Bout Miss Thing
Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop 136 Lionel Hampton and his Orchestra 1945 Lionel Hampton Story 3: Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop
For Dancers Only 148 Jimmie Lunceford and his Orchestra 1937 Swingsation – Jimmie Lunceford
C-Jam Blues 143 Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis 1999 Live In Swing City: Swingin’ With Duke
Don’t Falter At The Altar 138 Cab Calloway and his Orchestra Are You Hep To The Jive?
Apollo Jump 143 Lucky Millinder and his Orchestra 1943 Apollo Jump
Shoutin’ Blues 148 Count Basie and his Orchestra 1949 Kansas City Powerhouse
Comes Love 105 Billie Holiday and her Orchestra (Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison, Ben Webster, Jimmy Rowles, Barney Kessel, Joe Mondragon, Alvin Stoller) 1957 Body And Soul
My Handy Man Ain’t Handy No More 76 Alberta Hunter (acc by Doc Cheatham, Vic Dickenson, Fran Wess, Norris Turney, Billy Butler, Gerald Cook, Aaron Bell, Jackie Williams) 1978 Amtrak Blues
Salty Papa Blues 115 Lionel Hampton and his Septet with Dinah Washington 1943 Dinah Washington:the Queen Sings – Disc 1 – Evil Gal Blues
Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee 130 Lionel Hampton and his Orchestra 1949 Lionel Hampton Story 4: Midnight Sun
Drum Boogie 176 Gene Krupa Drums Drums Drums
Looking at this set now, I never play half these songs any more. The tempos are painfully slow, but at the time I was actually pushing the dancers. The average bpm in Melbourne in 2006 was about 120bpm. Kill me now. I was back from Herräng (well, a year or so back), and utterly frustrated with Melbourne music. There were some truly fabulous DJs around (Brian Renehan was really, really great), but they rarely DJed. I just wanted to hear some olden days music.
I remember my strategy with this set was to play a mix: stuff I wanted to hear, stuff dancers already loved, and stuff we could both compromise on.
Looking at the set now, the transitions are actually pretty good – little clumps of musical styles easing into other styles – the bpm transitions are ok (god, it’s so SLOW), and the songs are ok. But that Junior Mance/Oscar Peterson combo. Sheesh. Looking at the set, I actually played 15 minutes over time, which I think mean that dancers liked it. I remember the DJ coordinator was happy. I also remember I was really, really nervous, and that I had Brian come in and help me set up, then give me feedback during the set so I could avoid major fuck ups.
The most important part, though, is that I combined favourites (for the scene at that time) with songs I wanted to hear. So you get that Mance/Peterson combo, but you also get Hampton, Lunceford, Millinder, Basie, and Calloway. There’s old scratch, and there’s hi-fi. There’s supergroove, and there’s solid big band swing.
More importantly, I used songs that I now thing of as ‘safety songs’ – songs that work with any lindy hop crowd, anywhere in the world. ‘C Jam Blues’ by LCJO: ultimate safety song. Basie’s ‘Splanky’. They just don’t get old. They make for great lindy hop, even if they are a little slow. I think that Frankie’s influence is important here: Frankie insisted that big band swing was great for lindy hop, and ‘Splanky’ is an examplar of that later era of Frankie’s dancing: new testament Basie at a slowish tempo, but with lots of juicy musicianship and a feeling of energy or momentum. Perfect for older gentlemen with bung hips and a formidable understanding of music.
Here’s my key point: there’s a difference between a ‘safety song’ and a ‘favourite’. Favourites can be locally specific, and if you don’t DJ or dance in a scene regularly, there’s no way you can know what they are. It’s local knowledge, and where local DJs have the edge on out of towners. But ‘safety songs’ tend to be international favourites: songs with longevity, international appeal, and guaranteed to work with any lindy hopping crowd, anywhere.
There are some provisos here. You can’t really play a set of all pre-1950 music to a crowd who never hear or dance to this stuff. But you can stuff a set with a combination of things like Splanky and C Jam Blues and those old scratchies. The hi-fi stuff will be your ‘safety songs’ that you sprinkle in between the scratchies. Kind of an apology or moment of comfort for dancers.
I think that this is where my approach to DJing differs from the ‘challenge dancers’ approach. My general philosophy is: make it easy for people to have fun (I did a DJ workshop on this, and you can read my notes here.) I’m not interested in challenging people. I want to make it really easy for people to have a good time. As my partner Dave says, “Play songs people like.” Why would you play a set stuffed full with songs nobody on the dance floor likes? We’re social dancing here! Be social! If you do have a mission to shift your scene’s musical tastes, be stealth about it. And then give yourself a good talking to for being such a sanctimonious dick: you are not the goddamn DJing messiah.
I know I had to get a grip on myself after I started DJing. Yes, it was awful to be living in a scene with no big band music in the DJs’ sets. Yes, the scene’s dancing did improve massively when the music improved. But it was utterly arrogant to assume that I could be the person to effect those changes. And when I got over myself, my DJing actually improved.
I think it’s much healthier (for everyone involved, especially the DJ, who needs to get a clue) to approach DJing as a chance to share songs you love with people, and to try to make your sets one part of a bloody good night of dancing and socialising. As a DJ, you are host at the party: you set out the snacks, you welcome people arriving, you replenish the beer, you turn on the air conditioning, and you make sure shy people feel welcome. You want everyone to have a good time. And you want to have a good time doing it.
You don’t tell people what to talk about, you don’t try to match-make, you don’t micromanage individual conversations. You just set up the party and then nudge it every now and then. If peeps want a quiet night of conversation, then that’s what you do. If they want to tear their shirts off and dance on tables, then you go with that. You can’t tell them what to feel, you can only help them feel more feels. The thing about lindy hop, is that the feels you usually feel (and arrive expecting to feel) are happy feels. If you want something more complex, you go blues dancing :D
Geeps, I’ve totally gotten off track there. Favourites!
What’s the point of me listing them? If you’re a beginner DJ, you should get yourself a copy of all these songs, and then learn to DJ with them. One thing that came out of that DJ session at Herräng was the point that the backbone of a good DJ’s work is the music they play. But what makes a DJ unique is how they combine those songs. We’re all drawing on the same pool of music, and nothing is new. But a great DJ puts these songs together in a fun and new way.
I have a personal rule: I don’t play songs I hate. I tried that, and I ended up hating DJing, resenting the dancers, and basically doing the DJing equivalent of a crywank. I was making the dancers happy, I was getting the props, but I wasn’t happy. I only play songs I love. I only play songs that make me want to dance like a fool.
To be sure that I’m actually DJing songs that make for good lindy hop (or charleston or whatever), I work on my own dancing. I take classes, I practice, I continually work to push my own dancing. Because if I can’t dance fast (for example), I have no idea whether a faster song would be great for lindy hop. I also dance with beginner dancers, experienced dancers, great dancers. I also try to DJ for a whole range of dancers as well. Because all these people experience music in different ways, and their abilities, experiences and sheer physical experience of the music will shape their perception of the music. And dancing with them helps me figure out what all that experience and perception is.
And when I DJ, I watch them: I am paying very close attention to what they’re feeling and doing. Which is why I don’t dance during my set: I can’t give the dancers enough attention if I’m all up in my own business on the dance floor. And it was a relief and absolute joy to hear the other Herräng DJs say this, unequivocably: you don’t dance during your set. It was really the case that all these experienced DJs just took it as granted that you can’t DJ well if you’re also dancing. And in my experience, it’s true. The only DJ I’ve seen pull it off well is Falty, and he’s an aberration.
Yeah yeah. FAVOURITES, mate, FAVOURITES.
Here is a sub-set of my list of songs I consider ‘favourites’ and ‘safety songs’. The longer I DJ, the longer this list gets, and this is just a smaller group of that larger list. So please don’t consider it exhaustive. It’s also catering largely to my experiences DJing regularly in Sydney and Melbourne, and within Australia generally, so it’s probably quite locally specific.
(title – artist – bpm – year – album – length – grouping – comments)
Jumpin’ At The Woodside – Count Basie and his Orchestra – 235 – 1939 – The Complete Decca Recordings (disc 02) – 3:10 – 1930s kansas big instrumental – best good fast; ok quality
Quality Shout – Vince Giordano and his Nighthawks Orchestra – 232 – 1993 Quality Shout – 3:03 – hi-fi 1920s big instrumental – good starter excellent charleston
Algiers Stomp – Mills Blue Rhythm Band (Lucky Millinder, Henry ‘Red’ Allen, J.C. Higgenbotham, George Washington, Edgar Hayes) – 219 – 1936 – Mills Blue Rhythm Band: Harlem Heat – 3:08 – 1930s hot big instrumental – upenergy fun
Let’s Get Together – Chick Webb and his Orchestra – 209 – 1934 – Stomping At The Savoy (disc 1): Don’t Be That Way – 3:05 – 1930s big instrumental – best excellent upenergy
Flying Home – Lionel Hampton and his Orchestra – 197 – 1942 – Lionel Hampton Story 2: Flying Home – 3:11 – 1940s big instrumental – best faster
Mr. Ghost Goes To Town – Mills Blue Rhythm Band (Lucky Millinder, Henry ‘Red’ Allen, J.C. Higgenbotham, George Washington, Edgar Hayes) – 192 – 1936 – Mills Blue Rhythm Band: 1933-1936 – 3:24 – 1930s hot big instrumental – upenergy fun
Rockin’ In Rhythm – Take 2 – The Jungle Band with Duke Ellington – 190 – 1931 – The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition: Complete RCA Victor Recordings (disc 05) – 2:53 – 1930s hot big instrumental – best mediumenergy
Who Ya Hunchin’? – Chick Webb and his Orchestra – 186 – 1938 – Stomping At The Savoy (disc 4): Spinnin’ the Web – 2:49 – 1930s big instrumental – upenergy okquality
Roll ‘Em – Benny Goodman and his Orchestra – 180 – 1937 – The King Of Swing – 3:15 – 1930s big instrumental – upenergy
Madame Dynamite Eddie Condon and his Orchestra (Pee Wee Russell, Eddie Condon, Sidney Catlett) – 176 – 1933 – Eddie Condon: Classic Sessions 1927-49 (Volume 2) – 2:56 – 1930s chicago hot small instrumental – upenergy fun
King Porter Stomp – Kansas City Band – 170 – 1997 – KC After Dark – 4:38 – hi-fi kansas big instrumental live – upenergy
Savoy – Lucky Millinder and his Orchestra (Trevor Bacon) – 166 – 1942 – Anthology Of Big Band Swing (Disc 2) – 3:05 – 1940s big male vocal – best upenergy
Till Tom Special – Lionel Hampton and his Orchestra (Ziggy Elman, Toots Mondello, Buff Estes, Jerry Jerome, Budd Johnson, Spencer Odom, Ernest Ashley, Artie Bernstein, Nick Fatool) – 164 – 1940 – The Complete Lionel Hampton Victor Sessions 1937-1941 (Mosaic disc 04) – 3:23 – 1940s big instrumental – excellent upenergy
Sent For You Yesterday Count Basie and his Orchestra (Joe Williams) – 163 – 1960 – The Count Basie Story (Disc 2) – 3:10 – 1960s hi-fi kansas big male – hifi upenergy
Jump Session – Vout, Jam and Jive (Slim Gaillard, Bam Brown, Kenneth Hollon) – 162 – 1938 – Slim and Slam 1938-1939 – 2:36 – 1930s small male vocal live – New York August 17 1938
Stompin’ At The Savoy – Jimmy Dorsey and his Orchestra – 162 – 1936 – Swingsation: Charlie Barnet and Jimmy Dorsey – 3:12 – 1930s big instrumental – mediumenergy
I’se A Muggin’ – Stuff Smith and his Onyx Club Boys (Jonah Jones, Raymond Smith, Bobby Bennett, Mack Walker, John Washington) – 161 – 1936 – Stuff Smith: Complete Jazz Series 1936 – 1939 – 3:14 – 1930s small male vocal – mediumenergy fun NY 11 february 1936
You’re Driving Me Crazy – Big Joe Turner, Jimmy Nottingham, Lawrence Brown, Pete Brown, Seldon Powell, Pete Johnson, Freddie Green, Walter Page, Cliff Leeman – 161 – 1956 – The Boss Of The Blues – 4:14 – 1950s Kansas small male shouter – upenergy great (Moten Swing riff)
Good Queen Bess – Johnny Hodges and his Orchestra (Cootie Williams, Lawrence Brown, Harry Carney, Duke Ellington, Jimmy Blanton, Sonny Greer) – 160 – 1940 – The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition: Complete RCA Victor Recordings (disc 10) – 3:00 – 1940s big instrumental – best great medium okquality
Bearcat Shuffle – Andy Kirk and his Twelve Clouds of Joy (Mary Lou Williams) – 160 – 1936 – The Lady Who Swings the Band – Mary Lou Williams with Any Kirk and his Clouds of Joy – 3:01 – 1930s big instrumental – upenergy
Are You Hep To The Jive? – Cab Calloway and his Orchestra (Chu Berry) – 159 – 1940 – Classic Chu Berry Columbia And Victor Sessions (Mosaic disc 07) – 2:52 – 1940s big male vocal – upenergy fun
Flyin’ Home – Lionel Hampton and his Orchestra (Ziggy Elman, Toots Mondello, Buff Estes, Jerry Jerome, Budd Johnson, Spencer Odom, Ernest Ashley, Artie Bernstein, Nick Fatool) 158 1940 The Complete Lionel Hampton Victor Sessions 1937-1941 (Mosaic disc 04) 2:59 1940s big instrumental excellent mediumenergy slower version
Ballin’ The Jack – Bunk Johnson’s V-Disc Veterans – 156 – 1944 – Bunk And The New Orleans Revival 1942-1945 – 2:45 – 1940s new orleans revival – small female vocal live – mediumenergy
Just Kiddin’ Around – Artie Shaw and his Orchestra (Oran Hot Lips Page, Johnny Guarnieri, Dave Tough) – 155 – 1941 – Self Portrait (Disc 3) – 3:21 – 1940s big instrumental – great upenergy
Jump Through The Window – Roy Eldridge and his Orchestra (Zutty Singleton) – 154 1943 – After You’ve Gone – 2:42 – 1940s big instrumental – upenergy
A Viper’s Moan – Willie Bryant and his Orchestra (Teddy Wilson, Cozy Cole) – 153 – 1935 – Willie Bryant: Chronological Classics 1935-1936 – 3:26 – 1930s big instrumental – upenergy
Shufflin’ And Rollin’ – Buddy Johnson and his Orchestra – 153 – 1952 – Walk ‘Em – 3:12 – 1950s big instrumental – upenergy
The Back Room Romp (A Contrapuntal Stomp) – Rex Stewart and his 52nd Street Stompers (Lawrence Brown, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Duke Ellington, Brick Fleagle, Billy Taylor, Jack Maisel) – 152 – 1937 – The Duke’s Men: Small Groups Vol. 1 (Disc 2) – 2:49 – 1930s small instrumental – best upenergy fun
I Want The Waiter (with the water) – Jimmie Lunceford and his Orchestra – 151 – 1939 – Lunceford Special 1939-40 – 2:44 – 1930s big male vocal – excellent mediumenergy
For Dancers Only Jimmie Lunceford and his Orchestra 148 1937 Swingsation – Jimmie Lunceford 2:41 1940s big instrumental best upenergy favourite
Massachusetts – Maxine Sullivan With Buster Bailey, Milt Hinton, Jerome Richardson, Osie Johnson, Dick Hyman, Wendell Marshall – 147 – 1956 – A Tribute To Andy Razaf – 3:19 – 1950s small female vocal – upenergy great
Knock Me A Kiss – Louis Jordan – 147 – The Very Best Of Louis Jordan – 2:19 – 1940s – small male vocal – medenergy okquality favourite
Jive At Five – Count Basie and his Orchestra – 147 – 1960 – The Count Basie Story (Disc 1) – 3:03 – 1960s hi-fi kansas big instrumental – NT mediumenergy favourite
Cole Slaw – Jesse Stone and His Orchestra – 145 – Original Swingers: Hipsters, Zoots and Wingtips vol 2 – 2:57 – 1940s big male vocal – fun upenergy favourite clap
Blues In Hoss’s Flat – Count Basie and his Orchestra – 144 – 1958 – Chairman Of The Board [Bonus Tracks] – 3:13 – 1950s hi-fi kansas big instrumental – best upenergy
Apollo Jump – Lucky Millinder and his Orchestra – 143 – 1943 – Apollo Jump – 3:27 – 1930s big instrumental – excellent upenergy
C-Jam Blues – Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis – 143 – 1999 – Live In Swing City: Swingin’ With Duke – 3:34 – hi-fi 1930s big instrumental – excellent upenergy favourite
All That Meat And No Potatoes – Fats Waller and His Rhythm (John Hamilton, Gene Sedric, Al Casey, Cedric Wallace, Slick Jones) – 143 – 1941 – The Last Years (1940-1943) (disc 02) – 2:47 – 1940s hot small male vocal – mediumenergy NY 20 Mar 1941
Royal Family – Jonathan Stout and his Campus Five – 142 – 2007 – Moppin’ And Boppin’ – 3:14 – hi-fi small – mediumenergy
Blues My Naughty Sweetie – Sidney Bechet and his Hot Six – 140 – 1951 – The Blue Note Years – 5:44 – 1950s new orleans revival small instrumental – mediumenergy favourite
Shout, Sister, Shout – Lucky Millinder and his Orchestra (Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Buster Bailey) – 140 – 1941 – Apollo Jump – 2:45 – 1940s big female vocal mediumenergy favourite
Solid as a Rock – Count Basie and his Orchestra with The Deep River Boys – 140 1950 – Count Basie and His Orchestra 1950-1951 – 3:04 – 1940s big male vocal – upenergy favourite
Don’t Falter At The Altar – Cab Calloway and his Orchestra – 138 – Are You Hep To The Jive? – 2:44 – 1940s big male vocal – excellent medium tempo dancing
Blues For Smedley – Clark Terry, Ed Thigpen, Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown – 137 – 1964 – Oscar Peterson Trio + One: Clark Terry – 6:57 – 1960s hi-fi small instrumental – mediumenergy
Drinkin’ Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee – Lionel Hampton and his Orchestra with Sonny Parker – 134 – 1949 – Hamp: The Legendary Decca Recordings – 3:24 – 1940s big male vocal – best upenergy clap
[Gettin' Much Lately?] Ain’t Nothin’ To It – Fats Waller, his Rhythm and his Orchestra (John Hamilton, Bob Williams, Herman Autrey, Geoge Wilson, Ray Hogan, Jimmy Powell, Dave McRae, Gene Sedric, Bob Carroll, Al Casey, Cedric Wallace, Slick Jones) – 134 – 1941 – The Last Years (1940-1943) (disc 02) – 3:10 – 1940s hot big male vocal – mediumenergy Hollywood 1 Jul 1941
Easy Does It – Big Eighteen (Billy Butterfield, Buck Clayton, Charlie Shavers, Rex Stewart, Lawrence Brown, Vic Dickenson, Lou McGarity, Dicky Wells, Walt Levinksy, Hymie Schertzer, Sam Donahue, Boomie Richman, Ernie Caceres, Johnny Guarnieri, Barry Galbraith, Milt ) – 129 – 1958 – Echoes of the Swinging Bands – 5:14 – hi-fi big instrumental – mediumenergy
Bli-Blip – Ella Fitzgerald – 128 – 1957 – The Complete Song Books (Disc 07) Duke Ellington Vol. 3 – 3:05 – 1950s hi-fi big female vocal – best mediumenergy favourite
Summit Ridge Drive – Artie Shaw and his Gramercy Five (Billy Butterfield, Johnny Guarnieri, Al Hendrickson, Jud DeNaut, Nick Fatool) – 128 – 1940 – Self Portrait (Disc 2) – 3:21 – 1940s small instrumental – upenergy great
B-Sharp Boston – Duke Ellington and his Orchestra – 126 – 1949 – Duke Ellington and his Orchestra: 1949-1950 – 2:55 – 1940s big instrumental – mediumenergy
Shiny Stockings – Count Basie and his Orchestra – 126 – 1956 – Complete Clef/Verve Count Basie Fifties Studio Recordings (Mosaic disc 06) – 5:17 – 1950s hi-fi kansas big instrumental – mediumenergy
Splanky Count Basie and his Orchestra – 125 – 1957 – The Complete Atomic Basie – 3:36 – 1950s hi-fi big instrumental – NT best mediumenergy
My Baby Just Cares For Me – Nina Simone – 120 – The Great Nina Simone – 3:38 – hi-fi small female vocal – best mediumenergy
As you can see, I cover quite a few styles and eras there. I use these songs in different moments, for different effects. ‘Blues for Smedley’, for example, is solid supergroove. It has a fabulous muted trumpet intro, and it’s lots of fun to dance to. I usually play it later at night, after I’ve pumped the energy up really high, and am giving the dancers a rest, or wanting to build up again after a rest. It’s a chilled out song, that’s a bit more rhythmically complex. But it still trucks along with good energy. It’s a good wee break song too :D But I probably wouldn’t play it in a shorter weekly gig, as it’s just too long, and I don’t like to lean on supergroove. There’s also a massive bass solo in the middle that some newer dancers don’t especially dig. But I play it because that bass solo is actually fantastic. And this is a really good example of really good supergroove.
You might have noticed the terms ‘mediumenergy’ and ‘upenergy’ in there. These are key search terms for me, as I tend to DJ an ‘energy wave’, working the energy in the room up and down waves. This is probably the thing I think most about when I’m DJing: how much energy is there in the room? Are they crazy wild? Are they chilled and calm? Do they need a little emotional rest? I think energy is more important than tempo, particularly when dancers get some stamina and experience.
People generally are only picky about tempo when their teachers have told them tempo is a big deal (or haven’t ever played faster songs in class), or their local DJs don’t ever play a range of tempos. I think we should be able to dance to ALL the tempos, from super slow to super fast. And if peeps can’t dance fast, then their teachers haven’t explained to them that you can dance half time, or can dance a simple rhythm: you don’t have to lay it out in badarse swingouts at 200bpm. You can just chill. A discomfort with higher tempos is a mental block, not a physical one: brand new dancers are generally (in my DJing experience) totally fine with rocking out to 250bpm. They’re all over the place, they get exhausted, but they have fuckloads of fun. Unless someone has told them ‘fast is hard’. I find the pickiest dancers are the more (but not most) experienced, and they can be a total pain in the arse.
I’ve also included my ‘grouping’ tags in this list. You can read more about them in my post Herräng report part 2: organising my music collection for DJing. There are quite a few vocals in there (which are often a good way to work with newer dancers, who aren’t used to instrumentals in big numbers), but I absolutely lean on instrumentals. I know that some DJs consciously combine vocals and instrumental songs, keeping tab on the ratio, but I tend not to. To me, a good trumpet riff is as effective as a vocal line. I mean, we can all sing the melody to ‘Flying Home’, right, and there’s no vocal there. Same goes for the Big Eighteen’s version of ‘Easy Does It’. Worst ear worm song ever. And there’re no vocals.
Other things that make for a good favourite:
Energy. ‘upenergy’ songs are often popular. Because lindy hop is an upenergy dance.
Clapping. I don’t have ‘Lavender Coffin’ in this list, though I should. Lionel Hampton understands about clapping, shouting and a good rolling rhythm line. You can play ‘Lavender Coffin’, ‘Drinkin’ Wine, Spo-dee-o-do’, and ‘Hey Ba-ba-ree-bop’ all in a row, and dancers love it. They’re pretty much all the same song – same tempo, same energy, same simple vocals, clapping, shouting, etc. If you follow that up with ‘Cole Slaw’ (the Jesse Stone version), you’re rocking. But you will find the dancers aren’t ‘going’ anywhere: you’ve just served them up four bowls of potato chips, and they need something different to push them up the tempos or into a new vibe.
I use these songs to build energy, to prepare dancers for higher tempos. I usually follow up with something faster and more exciting. Or I use these songs to follow up a super fast song, or a bombed experiment. Lavender Coffin is my standard follow up to a jam: the high energy capitalises on the energy of the jam, but the lower tempos invite newer or less confident dancers onto the floor. The shouty, extended intro breaks the continuity of the jam, so that you disturb the flow of couples moving into and out of the circle, and break up the vibe so everyone can get onto the floor. And the call and response structure is a clear invitation to dancers:
Do you want to dance?
Every lindy hop set needs some Ella Fitzgerald. She’s one jazz artist most non-dancers know. And she did some fabulous stuff. I actually hate her shouty squawky scatting, so I NEVER play Honeysuckle Rose or her later stuff. ‘Bli Blip’ is a compromise. I actually have a few of her live recordings from the Savoy with Webb’s band after he died in my favourites list (‘St Louis Blues’ from 1939), because that band was shit hot, and she was a great band leader. And her vocals have moved away from that cutesy shit she did when she was younger, and into a more mature, kicking style. I do adore her stuff with Louis Armstrong, but I don’t DJ it that often, as it’s a bit slow.
Fats Waller is massively popular. It’s like he suddenly got huge with dancers when Frida and Skye did that ‘Twenty four robbers’ routine in 2007, and never left them. He makes for great dancing: funny, clever lyrics, great bands, moving from light and tinkly to hardcore shout choruses. Pretty predictable, and there is a bit of dross in his recordings, but there are also a LOT of fantastic songs there. I have about one million Waller songs in my favourites list. His slower stuff is perfect, though, and ‘All that Meat and No Potatoes’ is a guaranteed win. I actually love ‘Shortnin’ Bread’ most of all, but the perennial favourites is ‘Yacht Club Swing’. I play a couple of versions of ‘Fat and Greasy’ a lot at the moment, because it has lots of energy. ‘Moppin’ and Boppin” has a great intro that helps kick of a set, or signal a jump in energy.
If your favourites list doesn’t have a stack of Basie in it, you’re doing it wrong. The old timers said Basie’s band was THE business for lindy hopping. He’s pretty much perfect: a fat, solid rhythm section, simple structures, exciting energy, good musicians. He feels like meat and potato to me: good, solid lindy hopping fun. Not too cerebral, just crazy fun. And then in the 50s, his new testament stuff develops those themes: the rhythm section is still solid, but Basie’s piano is pared back, and even more a melodic contribution. The tempos shift a little, and the band gets further into the pocket (ie it feels ‘more swingy’ and less crazy). The band was phenomenal – there are some recordings of the 1930s/40s hits by the 50s/60s band (the ‘Count Basie Story’ album is a good example) that are just amazing: to hear that band in hi-fi, with so many years of experience launching into ‘Jumpin at the Woodside’, it just makes lindy hoppers wee their pants.
I adore Ellington. He had a strong association with dancers over the years, but he wasn’t a huge hit with lindy hoppers. But I play quite a lot of him, especially the smaller groups (because that’s my favourite music, ever). You have to think carefully about which songs work for which crowds, though, as he does wiggedy wack stuff with phrasing and timing. Choreographing to his songs can be a headache. But these challenges are what make him so much fun, especially for experienced dancers. The modern lindy hop movement has thirty years under its belt – longer than the original swing era – and dancers’ approach to music is consequently more diverse and often more complex. ‘B Sharp Boston’, ‘Back Room Romp’ and ‘Good Queen Bess’ are standards in my collection. Utterly overplayed. I love Ellington.
I don’t have any Tommy Dorsey or Charlie Barnet in this short list, but they’re also up there in my favourites, and I use them a lot. I’ve only included one Bechet song, but I use quite a few of his quite often. This song is a good example of New Orleans Revival stuff, and is massively overplayed everywhere. It’s also a good wee break song :D Nice moderate tempo, a good ‘story’ in the song (it starts simple, then builds in compexity, energy and interest).
Dancers love Jimmie Lunceford. I think of him as being fairly meat and potatoes – like Lionel Hampton, Chick Webb, and Count Basie. If you don’t have him in your collection, you’re doing lindy hop wrong. He does everything from calmer, accessible slower tempos to crazy-fast exciting stuff. Vocals, instrumentals, etc. Just great.
I use quite a lot of Andy Kirk, but have only one of his songs in this list. I love him. I love Mary Lou Williams. This is a great band.
I’m not a massive Chick Webb person. I know, I know, it’s a failing. But I’m also a bit cool on Sidney Bechet. I know, I KNOW! I think I need to buy more Webb so I can really get my head around him. But I don’t like that early Ella stuff much (though it was actually where my interest in jazz began!), and I can’t really get past that with Webb.
Ok, I have to end here. But there are 53 songs in this list of songs. That’s 2 hours of music. If you just played from this list, you’d be playing a cracking set. And this is just an edited down version of my favourites list (which is 170 songs/9 hours long).
As I finish off this post, I worry that I’m coming across as advocating (or establishing) a canon of ‘good dancing music’. I’m wary of this approach, because I think this sets up scary power dynamics and ideas about what constitutes ‘good’ music and good dancing. This list of ‘favourites’/’safety songs’ is very personal. It’s my list, developed through my own DJing and dancing experiences. Yes, I can say ‘you must have Basie in your collection’, and I think to some extent we have developed a musical canon in lindy hop. A canon set down by people like Frankie Manning and Norma Miller.
This is because we are, at heart a recreationist community. We are always looking backwards. But as the DJs said in that session, we can’t live in the past, because we are living now, in the 21st century, and we don’t want to live in the 1930s, because, generally, it was pretty shitty. The interesting, and powerful, thing about lindy hop culture today is that we can at once honour the past, and honour elders, and live now, in the present, with an eye to the future. Our community’s emphasis on pedagogy and (sometimes scary) expansionist ‘grow the scene’ imperative are part of our looking to the future. And I think that one of the strengths of lindy hop is that it is, at its heart, about innovation, change and adaptability. We value stealing steps, we value innovation and creativity, but we also value preservation and historical awareness. So we can at once have a list of ‘favourite songs’, but we can also add to this list.
One of the issues that came up in that DJ session at Herräng was when and how to play and value modern day bands. Some of the DJs really didn’t dig new bands. Some really did. I personally play a lot of music by modern day bands, who’re doing both recreationist and original work. I buy it because I want to support these bands, because these are the bands I hire for dance events, and dancing to live bands is the best. But I’m also trying to wean myself off playing so much modern music, because I think that the original recordings are without peer. I think that there really were moments of genius in the 20s, 30s, and 40s. But I’m not blind to its weaknesses: there were also some truly shithouse bands, and there are some really awful recordings of terrible performances.
So my (full) favourites list is a mix of recordings of jazz and swing from the 1920s to the present day. I DJ from all these eras, and I DJ from a range of styles. The challenge for me at Herräng was keeping to the camp’s mandate of prioritising big band classic swing recordings of the 1930s and 40s. I wanted to play across a broader field of swing and jazz music. But Herräng has a clear and specific goal: to preserve and recreate african american music of the swing and jazz eras. Frankie Manning and other lindy hoppers of the 30s and 40s are the guiding lights for this project. So the big band music of this period is the focus of all this creative work. And this is what makes Herräng special: it has that clear creative goal and preservationist mandate. And I was happy to work with that, because I value those things too. But if this was the only DJing gig I did, I’d get quite frustrated.
Remind me to talk more about the tension between this approach to DJed music at Herräng, the actual live bands they hire, and the musical projects of the teachers and dancers who attend the camp (especially in week 5). While a classic swinging big band might be Frankie’s ideal, the reality of making music today dictates the limits of a smaller band. It’s hard to get 15 people together to do disciplined big band music. We just don’t have the resources (financial, social, knowledge, cultural) to pull it off. So dancers are into making small band music.
There’s a strong NOLA influence there, because many of these dancers are living in NOLA, or working with musicians inspired by NOLA. And as anyone who takes a moment to find out, music in New Orleans today, and in the past, has been far more diverse than just a big lump of Louis Armstrong.
I did feel, at moments, in Herräng, that the dictates to DJs were not quite in accord with the live music I was hearing. Naomi Uyama’s band played music that was very much influenced by NOLA, and not quite as close to classic big band swing as the DJing was expected to be. Mostly because the band itself was made up of musicians who’d lived and/or worked in New Orleans or with NOLA bands. The pick-up bands playing in the wee hours, from about 5am, in the foyer at the Folkets Hus were largely NOLA inspired. And these bands felt the most ‘authentic’ to me – these were dancers picking up instruments and playing music in a casual, informal way.
Some of them were professional musicians as well, but there wasn’t the musician/dancer divide that we saw in the evening gigs: these musicians were dancers; this music was by dancers. And you could just sit and listen or stand and listen, or you could dance. Whereas the evening bands were really presented just for dancing: there was nowhere to sit, you couldn’t bring your drinks into the ballrooms. I felt the pub nights up at Heaven’s Kitchen were just as ‘real': unamplified pick-up bands, where anyone was welcome to join in (well, within reason), and the emphasis in the tents was on talking, socialising, drinking and perhaps listening or singing along. If you didn’t want to listen, you moved to the back of the tent. If you did, you moved closer to the band. There was no dancing.
I know I’ve gotten off-track here, but I think that it’s important to address issues of ‘canon’, ‘authenticity’ and useability in music when we talk about ‘favourites’. I think this tension between ‘good music’ and ‘useable music’ is very interesting. I am fascinated by the way lindy hop culture defines ‘good’ by ‘danceability’. Those moments at the pub nights, and in the foyers in the early mornings, I think I saw an important piece that modern lindy hop culture has been missing: the juke joints and rent parties and jams in late night bars and homes and sheds that complimented the big ballroom gigs in the 20s, 30s, and 40s. These informal places were were musicians refined their crafts, playing music they wanted to play. This creative ‘play’ or extension was a necessary compliment to the big band gigs that paid bills and put food on the table. And we are making a dire mistake when we neglect them in our lindy hop cultures.
I’ve been thinking about the point made in that DJ session at Herräng, that ‘micromanaging’ dancers by spending a lot of time on selecting and combining songs isn’t such a great idea. The follow up suggestion was that a really good collection of music should stand on its own – that you could just press shuffle and it’d make for great music. And the implication (and actual statement) is that you shouldn’t baby dancers – you should encourage them to dance to all sorts of music.
I think this is kind of an interesting approach. I do like the idea of playing all sorts of music (and all sorts of tempos), because it does make better dancers. But I also think that you need to teach students how to dance to all sorts of things, and to skill them up with good basic technique, so they can actually enjoy all these different songs. I’m all for dancing however you like, but I’m also a bit of a fan of good, solid dance skills. To avoid injury if nothing else. So you mightn’t be micromanaging the dancing through music, but you’re still managing the dancing through teaching.
So how do I feel about the idea of ‘micromanaging’ dancers through DJing? It’s an interesting one. On one hand, I agree. Dancers should be ok with handling different types of songs and tempos, randomly. But I don’t hold with argument that bands don’t bother about that stuff, so why should DJs. I think that good band leaders do think about the way they combine songs, and they do think about the way the crowd responds – I’ve seen and heard them. And every good performer understands about working a crowd, and how this can help their financial bottom line.
Personally, I enjoy the challenges of ‘working a crowd’ (or micromanaging through song selection). I find it creative, I find it intellectually exciting, and I find it emotionally and socially satisfying. But part of me is reminded of the avant garde movement’s criticisms of narrative cinema. Perhaps working a crowd is like narrative cinema: it’s too easy for audiences. But I wonder if a non-managing DJ will end up like an avant garde artist: critically acclaimed, but reaching only a tiny handful of people. You can get away with that if you’re a rock star DJ, playing big events and being paid, as these speakers were. Not such a cool option if you have to play the same local gig each week and keep the numbers up so you can pay the bills.
Part of me wants also to think about Laura Mulvey, and her discussion of the male gaze in relation to this point. Is a DJ micromanaging the crowd a product of or vehicle for patriarchy? Is it better to have dancers ‘challenged’ by the music, and so more self-aware, and more critically engaged with music, so better able to engage with patriarchy and dismantle it?
Even I can’t quite come at that point. But I think it’s worth thinking about. Particularly as I spent some time in the Duchamp exhibition at the Stockholm museum of modern art just before I went to Herräng. And the avant garde movement does have its roots in the 1920s. Perhaps we can’t properly be jazz dancers, if we aren’t also properly engaged with the radical artistic movements and thinking of the day? Or perhaps its enough just to be a crazy solo dancer, throwing off the confines of partner dancing narrative structure, with its heteronormativity.
Hm. Even I’ll need a bit of convincing on that one.
In this post I’m going to talk about how I organise my collection for DJing, as the topic came up in the DJ session at Herräng. I’m also going to talk about how I use this organisation and search tools to actually DJ ‘on the fly’, choosing and combining songs for particular effects. In that Herräng session some DJs said they don’t organise their collections at all, some micro-manage their collection, and some are in between. From what I’ve seen, how and whether you organise your collection really depends on your personality, how you think about music and approach DJing, how good your memory is, and how large your collection is.
I use a system that works for me, because I have a really, really bad memory (I need to preview), and because my collection is getting quite big these days. I don’t listen to music during the day when I’m working, so I’m not on top of my music the way someone like Peter Loggins is. He has a phenomenal memory of his music, with a good ear for style and artist, as well as speed and energy. I’m the opposite, so I need a system. But I’m not a crazy micro-manager, because I like to leave something to chance and creative accident.
I have a list of songs in my collection that I’ve actually titled ‘safe and old favourite songs’, and this is in my ‘lindy hop’ folder (I also have a ‘blues’ folder’ and an ‘assorted folder’ – for when I DJ blues and random soul gigs, respectively).
This ‘lindyhop’ folder also includes a smart playlist called ‘lindyhop’, which selects songs by rating, genre, and a couple of other things. This helps me weed out my Fleetwood Mac when I’m DJing. :D
But I often consult my whole collection when I’m DJing, as it gives me access to all my songs when I’m trying to find a particular artist or song I can’t quite remember.
The ‘lindyhop’ folder also includes some hand-picked playlists of songs called ‘<190 should play', '<1954 should play', 'Big Band Favourites', 'hi-fi oldschool', 'new should play list', 'safe and old favourite songs', and 'should play lindy hop'. Two of these are lists of songs that I think I 'should play'. These are songs that have caught my eye recently, and which I'd like to put into a set. They're essentially short lists of my current favourites or things I'm digging. '<190 should play' is a list of my songs under 190bpm, which I don't actually use that often when I'm DJing. '<1954 should play' is a playlist I use a lot in preparing for DJing, and in DJing in the moment - it's a list of my 'old testament' music, which is what I really think most of my lindy hop DJing draws on.
The other important list is the 'hi -fi oldschool' list, which includes all the recordings by modern bands who do recreationist stuff that I own. I'm beginning to think I need a third key list, called something like 'new testament swing' for 1950s big and small bands. But that'd be pretty much just the same as my 'kansas small/big' list :D
At a lower level, I divide my music into a few key groups which use a controlled vocabulary (a term I used in my info management course - I use only a few select terms to identify song/band types). These groups include:
2000s hi-fi small female vocal
2000s hi-fi small female male vocal
2000s hi-fi new orleans small male vocal live
2000s hi-fi new orleans small male vocal
2000s hi-fi new orleans small female vocal
1990s hi-fi small female vocal live
1990s hi-fi small female vocal
1990s hi-fi big female male vocal
...and then similar variations with the decades. The key terms are vocal, small or big, instrumental and hi-fi in these groupings. The years are less important than the hi-fi term - because the modern stuff is almost always hi-fi. You can see how I have some redundancies happening here. But redoing my whole collection's groups would kill me.
Things get more specific when I get to the 1960s.
1960s hi-fi kansas small male shouter vocal
1960s hi-fi kansas big instrumental
1960s hi-fi kansas big instrumental live
1960s hi-fi kansas big female vocal live
And there's a lot of this stuff for the 1950s stuff. This stuff is pretty much my new testament Basie collection, and my Witherspoon/Big Joe Turner stuff. Band size is also important: small, large. And instrumental, vocal, male, female are also important.
You can see that city is important. I use these city terms more when I get into the 40s, 30s and 10s: kansas, new orleans, chicago, new york. I also use the term 'new orleans revival' when I'm talking about people like Bechet in the 30s and 40s, though that's a bit of a redundancy too. These city terms are more about musical style than city of origin - so you get some Louis Armstrong with the new york term attached, even though the man was 100% NOLA.
1940s small western swing male vocal (Bob Wills, anyone?)
1940s small western swing instrumental
1940s small male vocal jump blues (Louis Jordan?)
1940s small male vocal group (that's Cats and the Fiddle Right there)
1940s small male vocal
'1940s small male vocal' is a small group with a male vocalist, recording in the 1940s. It can include Slim and Slam, Milt Hinton, Skeets Tolbert, etc - a very varied group). The '1930s small male vocal' is very similar.
I'm using these terms to aid my searching when I'm DJing, not to help me catalogue my music. So short, simple, useful search terms are important. I'm also pre-selecting for rating (eg that lindy hop folder has only songs I've rated 3 stars or higher - excluding stuff where the quality is shithouse, or songs I haven't sorted through yet, etc etc) and tempo.
It's also very important to know something about the history of jazz - I know that 'kansas male shouter' will give me Jimmy Witherspoon, Big Joe Turner, etc, because I know those blokes were singers from Kansas who sang in that 'shouter' style. I also know the difference between 'chicago' and 'new orleans' is to do with decade as well as style - NOLA musicians who moved to Chicago in the late 20s/early 30s have a particular style. And this is related to musicians like the Chicago high school blokes. I know that if I'm searching for 'instrumental' and 'big', it will mean something different in the 1940s and 1920s - 'big' bands were really big in the later decades (a dozen or more musicians), and not so big earlier on (you'd be looking at around 8-11 musicians rather than 15). The extra terms help me deal with the exceptions to these rules.
I don't think I need to list any more of my groupings - you get the idea. This grouping field in itunes is autocomplete, which makes this work much easier. It also makes it important to use a fixed term order, and a fixed vocabulary.
Beyond this, I also organise my collection by bpm, year, rating (using stars - DJable lindy hop needs 3 stars to get into the list, all the safety songs have 5 stars), using the itunes fields. You can see, here, how I'm painting myself into a corner by using itunes. It means that all this data isn't necessarily stored in the song file in a useable way - I'm quite dependent on itunes to help me manage my collection. And as every librarian knows, it's a bad idea to keep your metadata in just one form, dependent on software that has a limited lifespan. ARGH!
I often use the 'date added' field to help me keep track of my newer music. If I've just bought a bunch of new CDs, I want to be able to access them quickly when I'm DJing. I usually search by key word (eg artist or song title), then manage the results by date added. This will help me find that Ellington song I bought last week, when I have >1000 Ellington tracks in m lindy hop folder.
Song title is often the field I search by term, or the way I narrow down my selection when I’m DJing. For example, I’ll be playing song X, checking out the vibe in the room, and think “Hm, I reckon a bit of Basie would go down well now.” Then I search for Basie in my lindy hop. If I’m looking for a particular Basie track – eg 1950s vocal stuff by Big Joe Turner – I’ll narrow the search by adding ‘vocal’. That’ll give me a list of songs that I’ll then look through manually for the right tempo or song title.
You’ll note that I list female before male in the ‘female male vocal’ listings. This is my small attempt to undo the ingrained gender bias in controlled vocabularies. Data ain’t neutral, yo.
All this search term use and collection management is really about my managing my collection before I start DJing, and in my DJing prep before a set. When I’m actually DJing, I tend to go by nose, responding to what I feel in the room. I do find I have particular habits, and tend to overplay some songs. This is when the search terms and tools help me break habits: instead of playing ‘Sent For you Yesterday’ by Basie in the 50s, I might hunt down something with a similarly high energy and rhythm section, but by a different artist.
I find that DJing on shitty sound systems also affects my DJing habits – I lean on more recent recordings these days because the place I DJ at most has the WORST sound system and acoustics ever. A pretty awful result of this is that I neglect my older music, and have, ultimately, lost interest in DJing because that older stuff is what inspires me most.
Once I’ve found a song, I drag it to my previewing app, and listen to it through the headphones. I find it really important to keep one ear ‘in the room’ while I’m previewing – I want to hear how this new song feels and sounds next to the one in the room. I also need to keep my eyes on the dancers while I’m previewing. I watch how they’re dancing and responding emotionally to the current song that’s actually in the room, and I gauge where they’re likely to go, emotionally, in the next song. If they’re kind of tired, physically, I might keep the energy up in the next song, but drop the tempo a bit. If they’re physically fine, but kind of manic and sort of emotionally battered, i might drop the energy but keep the tempo up.
To do this sort of crowd reading, you need to be able to understand what people are feeling by observing their bodies. This is where I think it takes a fair bit of dancing experience. If you have a degree of empathy, you can judge the emotions people are feeling, whether you’re doing it consciously or not. At a simple level, happy people smile. But happy, excited, engaged dancers ‘in the zone’ also turn their muscles on in a different way – the energy reaches their finger tips, they lift their head at a particular angle, they don’t notice anyone around them except their partner, they laugh or show expression unguardedly, and without inhibition. I like DJing for beginners particularly because they are the most free with their emotions in these moments – they don’t have the physical control to be particular graceful or technically precise, but they’re so new to dancing their responses are utterly honest and quite wonderful. And because they don’t have as much stamina, these moments are fleeting.
Ironically, I’ve found that the most creative sets I’ve done recently have been ones where I’ve forgotten my headphones, and haven’t been able to preview – I take more risks, and use my search tools more efficiently. I also use my memory of songs, and how they feel to actually dance to.
I also make selective use of the silence between songs. Sometimes a little bit of extra silence is a good way to give people’s ears and emotions a break. I actually had a moment in Herräng on the last Friday night at the party (where people are peaking, emotionally, and kind of crazy), where the crowd liked the song I’d played so much that they stopped dancing and looked at me and applauded and shouted and stamped so much that I felt I had to acknowledge them in return. That’s never happened to me before, and I felt a bit embarrassed, but I also felt it was only polite to do a sort of smile/wave, and leave a bit of a pause before I played the next song. People needed time to respond to me, and then they needed the usual time to thank their partner and comment on the dance before they left the floor and found someone else, or re-set before the next dance.
There was also a moment in one night (at the previous week’s Friday night party – again the night where people go nuts) where I had to ‘kill’ a jam. There’s an unofficial policy at Herräng where you don’t let a jam go on too long, because it tends to kill the vibe a bit. You end up with song after song of jam, where dancers just keep going into the circle, bringing the shit. That’s totally fine, but you do end up with most of the room standing about watching, and gradually getting physically colder and slipping down the crazy scale til they figure out they’re tired and go get a drink instead of dancing. So the deal is that you let a jam happen for one song, perhaps two at most, and then you kill it.
Killing a jam is a challenge in an environment like the Friday party at Herräng. That night I was actually really worried about the dancers. They were absolutely insane. This is what it looked like:
There was a sort of soul circle (a really tiny one – like a jam circle) in one part of the room, a lindy jam circle in another part of the room, and the rest of the room was just packed solid. There’d just been a twist competition, and the room was physically shaking, and I noticed that people in the jam were actually getting physically hurt, throwing themselves about. Usually I work to build the energy in the room, but this time I decided it was time to kill things a bit. I just didn’t really know how to do it. The lindy jam had started at a low tempo, so I couldn’t just drop the tempo. I wasn’t sure what to do. So I decided to just use a longer gap between songs, so people had to physically stop dancing for a moment. But the tricky bit was deciding just how long to let the silence run. I didn’t want them to turn on me. It was just a matter of seconds, but I did manage to kill the jam without killing the vibe. And a fair few people suddenly realised they were bleeding (seriously – bleeding) and crazed, so they left the dance floor and things got a bit more sensible.
It was a hard decision, and this really was an example of micro-managing the dancing through DJing, something the speakers in the DJ session had decided was a bit uncool. But I think it was the right decision. I do consciously manipulate the energy and emotions of the dancers in the room when I’m DJing. I aim to build the energy, to warm the room, and to work people into a frenzy. I want to see the crazy, uninhibited dancing, and I want to see the dancers reach that state of ecstasy that just feels SO good. And because I’m right there with them, I get a contact high too. You can make this work by combining songs in the right way. But it also helps if you’re DJing the right night in the event. Friday night at Herräng is pretty much the right time and place to make people crazy. I also like 2am on Saturday night at weekend exchange. People are relaxed enough to just let go and enjoy themselves, but not so tired that they can’t dance for hours.
There’s also critical mass: a crowd of people is easier to work into a frenzy than a smaller group.
This photo was taken at about 5am, and this group of people had been dancing for hours and hours and hours. They were physically ragged, but quite emotionally happy and relaxed. But there was no way I was going to pull of crazed euphoric mass with these guys. There just wasn’t enough of them. And they weren’t in that place, emotionally:
This approach to DJing lindy hop is what makes me a fairly rubbish blues DJ. I just can’t figure out the right emotional patterns in blues. My instinct to push the energy and excitement up is all wrong. Blues dancers want to push the emotional intensity up, and the tempos down. But I just can’t read the crowd right to pull that off. Mostly because I just don’t blues dance enough to know how to recognise the right feels in the crowd. Same goes with balboa – they don’t aim for crazed, uninhibited flailing about either. They like something a bit more cerebral. But buggered if I can figure out how that works. They just look all uptight and bored to me. Because I just don’t know how to read what I’m seeing, because I don’t dance balboa.
I think I need to end this post here, but I’d like to do so with a note to the effect of longer sets on DJing this way. When you’re DJing for an hour or an hour and a half, you have to come in hard and fast, and hit that peak quite quickly. But when you’re DJing for three hours or more, you have to manage people’s stamina. They just can’t stay that high for three hours – they get exhausted. So you have to work a series of peaks and troughs, over the course of the night. And you have a much greater scope to work with, in terms of emotions.
I think I learnt a lot about working with the other emotions in lindy hop when I DJed at Herräng. Those long sets at later hours (3-6am, for example), are where people are physically exhausted, emotionally open, but also interested in feeling things other than frenzy. You can play the musically complex stuff that stretches their brains and partner connection, but the wall of sound new testament Basie stuff seems a bit blunt and simple for people at this moment. I found that this was where I really needed the original 30s and 40s recordings most – where the musicians were best, the arrangements were inspired, and the performances were nuanced. A greater range of feels for the dancers.
Anyways, this is where I’ll end. Hopefully I’ll get onto another post soonish.
Well, it’s 6.30am, and I’ve been awake since 5. My sleep cycle is well and truly borked. Curse you, jet lag. Why is that staying awake while flying around the world in a plane is more disruptive than staying awake dancing, eating, laughing, and talking in irregular patterns over several weeks?
I’m back from two weeks in Herräng (weeks 2 and 3), and a bit of time in Stockholm, and I’m taking a few days before I go back to work. It’d been ten years since I’d been to Herräng, and things had changed a bit. For one, things were more organised, which was a relief. The scale had also leapt: more places to eat, more people, more dance floors, more things to do. I was there to dance and DJ this time, rather than to ‘research’, so I approached each day in a different way.
I have lots of things to talk about, but I can’t quite keep hold of my thoughts, so I’m not sure how coherent this will be. Things I’d like to talk about, in no particular order:
- the ‘how to DJ session’ in the library in week 3;
- the way the insistence that Herräng is about lindy hop, and lindy hop is ‘such a happy dance’ makes it difficult to talk about problems or serious issues within the dance and event;
- the somewhat disturbingly uncritical ‘spread the dance/grow the community’ discourse that dominates and justifies most activities (including a particular brand of cultural imperialism);
- gender politics in the DJing and dancing culture of the camp (and the way critical engagement with this is forestalled by the ‘let’s just have a nice time/hedonism is us’ vibe);
- the sheer joy and wonder of the Frankie Track in week 2;
- teaching practice, and the balance between content and practice;
- the effects of a coherent teaching approach in the Frankie Track versus the usual overall relationship between individual workshops at a dance weekend. I will say this: the Frankie Track was amazeballs because all the classes were linked by a coherent theme and concept: teaching Frankie Manning’s content, teaching classes in the way he taught classes, emphasising his priorities (MUSIC! PARTNERSHIP! SIMPLICITY! RHYTHM!), drawing on the old timers’ approach to learning dance generally…. and MORE;
- the challenges and excitement of the beginners’ half week of tap in week 3;
- the ebb and flow of energy and people and vibe over the course of a week;
- economic factors and the effect of the Herräng Dance Camp’s decades of involvement in this small town’s economy and society;
- the Swing Kids, Swing Teens and the way having children in the camp in week 2 provided social balance to the ‘hedonism’ of the camp, which was largely lost by the end of week 3;
- hierarchies, power, and privilege in the camp;
- the wheeling and dealing and networking and lobbying for work behind the scenes, from teachers, DJs, and organisers;
- labour, work, gender, and knowledge in the Herräng economy;
- mindfulness, computer literacy and online culture in camp (and how this had changed in the ten years since my last visit);
- mindfulness, work, obsessive personalities, and the luxury of time in tap dance;
- the argument that all DJs should learn to play a musical instrument if they want to be ‘good DJs’ (and the associated issues of power, time, labour, gender, and power);
- sex, sexualisation, gender, and scoring a root;
- the significance of Herräng’s place in Europe, and how this affected people’s attitudes to same-sex sex and gender. And how these progressive attitudes were ultimately subsumed or overshadowed by the overwhelming heteronormativity of modern lindy hop;
- food, nutrition, body image, and the importance of the shared table at Herräng: my favourite part;
- defining ‘swing’ music, and Herräng’s emphasis on classic swing era big band jazz, and how this affected DJing styles and set content, and dancers’ responses to music. Relatedly, the tension between modern day dancers’ learning to play music, the accessibility of small NOLA or hot combo style jazz versus the inaccessability of big band jazz for new musicians (ie dancers tend to play in small, hot combos which aren’t what Herräng values, but Herräng does value live music and independent creative projects very highly…. the tension needs a bit of discussion, I think);
As you can see, I have approximately one million things to write and talk about after my time in Herräng. One looming largest in my brains is DJing, as I was a staff DJ in week 2, and one of only 4 women out of 16 staff DJs in the 5 week camp. There were a number of volunteer DJs in the two weeks I was there, but not a whole bunch of them. A higher proportion of them were women than men.
I have a few things to say about how gender, networks of association and labour, and the professional skills required of DJs (primary of which is networking, in this case) work in Herräng, but I don’t really have the brains to articulate them properly here. In sum, though, I was very surprised by how few women DJs there were, after the last couple of years in Australia where women far outnumber men in the higher, most experienced ranks of lindy hop DJs. To the point where for the last MLX I had only one male DJ on the DJ team.
My approach to hiring DJs for events is to look for the most capable, most professional, most skilled, most useful and talented DJs, regardless of gender. They need to be not too over-exposed, and yet still have a degree of popularity with dancers (ie, be ‘in demand’). They might not be quite where they should be, in terms of experience or expanse of music collection, but I’m willing to invest in someone with promise and a good, strong work ethic.
I think that the reason I end up with more women than men, is that I actively seek out DJs, rather than waiting for them to approach me, and I put quite a bit of work into long term development for DJs. My own gender is probably significant too, though I’m often described as ‘intimidating’ by other women. But I’m very yolo about that: life is too short to worry about whether you intimidate other people. And I know other DJs and DJ organisers who are both male and very approachable.
I find that male DJs are more willing to put their hands up for gigs (to approach me for gigs) than women, and that women DJs are more critical of their own DJing, needing more encouragement, and also looking for more critical feedback on their DJing. The latter makes most women much better DJs (because they are open to improving, and open to communicating about their own DJing, and less defensive about their DJing), the former makes women less excellent at developing professional networks and ‘taking risks’ by applying for jobs they might not be ready for. They tend to play it too safe, and be more intimidated by hierarchies. There are male and female exceptions to these things, but very few. Very, very few.
My approach involves long term planning and development, including encouraging newer DJs, providing references and recommendations for new DJs with smaller events (so they can get the experience I need for the bigger events I work for), and keeping my local scene networks healthy – talking to people in different scenes to keep my finger on which DJs are looking and sounding good, and good to work with.
I’m also very keen on providing working conditions which make DJing more accessible for people: friendlier, safer, healthier, clearer (guidelines, etc), equitable pay, an open DJ recruitment process (so people know who to contact and how if they want to DJ, rather than using a quiet system of personal networks), and I am quite aggressive about getting feedback on my own work, and on the DJs’ experiences, so I can keep improving things. I think this transparency is the most important part of encouraging diversity in the DJing team: I am open about my ideas, process, and thinking.
Dargoff was the DJ coordinator for Herräng, and he was just a joy to work with. I don’t know his policies or approach to booking DJs for Herräng, so I can’t comment on them here, but I couldn’t find fault with his work. There are, however, broader systemic issues which make it harder for women to get into these higher profile DJing gigs which require active, fairly aggressive strategies from organisers to overcome. I simply don’t know enough about how Herräng works to be able to comment on this, though. And I don’t even know who organised the DJs in previous years. But I do have some ideas about international DJing culture, and most particularly DJing networks and interpersonal and professional associations which might be useful in this discussion. Again, my lack of experience here makes me reluctant to comment more. I have some ideas, but I just don’t think I know enough to start speculating.
So, when it comes to my experiences DJing at Herräng, I give it a big thumbs up, and I give all my fellow DJs, Dargoff, the huge sound crew, and the event organisers a big huzzah. It was a really great experience, and while challenging in some moments (looong sets are loooong), I would absolutely leap at a chance to do it again. I feel privileged and honoured to be a staff DJ at an event I admire so much, and I learnt SO MUCH about DJing over the two weeks I was there. I also made some new and good friends, and realised I have a lot to learn about the international DJing scene.
I also realised Australia is really isolated from the rest of the lindy hop world. This makes it harder for DJs to crack the higher echelons of DJing, but it has also had effects on our approach to labour and pay and professionalism. Overall, though, I’d say that Australia has quite a few DJs who are not only as good as, but better than some of the DJs I heard in Herräng, and that our lindy hop scene as a whole is something to be proud of. We aren’t a cultural backwater, we’re just a really distant tributary.