What Do I Love About Big Band Music? The Spirit!

Swing Dance at the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library December 2, 2011

During World War II, musicians tried things with harmonies, rhythm, syncopation, and the craftsmanship of music itself. Keeping morale up was critical: the music speaks of hope, of dancing, of forgetting the dangers the world was in. The library has a number of Big Band era and Swing CD’s to check out.

Escapist? Yes, sometimes. Part of the purpose was to forget your cares, much as movies from this era were about love, glamour, and romance. Benny Goodman’s Sing, Sing, Sing has a fast tempo (I DON’T know how Gene Krupa keeps this pace for the full length of the song, which lasts about 7 minutes!) and moves from loud to soft – you think the tune is ending, then it comes back with a vengeance. Then does it again. How can you keep still when you hear to this? Granted, it would be pretty fierce to try to dance to it. Glenn Miller’s In The Mood lends itself much better to dancing, and does some of the same thing with the fake-out ending.

Zan Popp and Ted Mize cut the rug, or at least the tiles!

Romantic? Oh, definitely. Some of the songs speak of loved ones far away, recognizing how hard it was to have a family member or beau in the service. How they can’t wait to be together again. How they miss each other. My grandfather had been an M.P. in Guam, and every time he and Grandma heard I’ll Be Home For Christmas (If Only In My Dreams), they’d look at each other. Smile. Remember. It was something they shared, and it brought back powerful memories.

Patriotic? Absolutely. Bing Crosby’s There’ll Be A Hot Time In The Town of Berlin is a blend of harmonies with the Andrews Sisters, and we know and love them for their Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B. Johnny Mercer’s G.I. Jive has fun with the idea of being in the service, but also speaks of the frustrations of someone who is sent far away. One of my personal favorites is Spike Jones and the City Slickers’ Heil, Heil, Right in the Führer’s Face. Some of these pieces also had propaganda cartoons animated by no less than Walt Disney and the Warner Brothers. Often insulting to our enemies of the time, they were played at American moviehouses as part of the war effort.

The recordings are amazing, and for someone like Glenn Miller, who was killed in the war, they’re the only way we have of enjoying the music. But people still love it, and play it.

The Topeka Big Band played selections from great Swing Music!

If you were here for the Topeka Big Band’s concert on December 2, 2011, you got to hear some of this music live, and see the great dancing that goes with Swing. The USO-style dance was inspired by the efforts of volunteers all over the country during World War II – volunteers who fed, supported, danced with, talked to, and listened to, our nation’s soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines. The “canteen” is part of the exhibit Call of Duty: Kansans and World War II in the Sabatini Gallery. As part of the exhibit, we set up a World War II era living room, with an original 1941 radio (thanks, Sherryl and Larry Longhofer!)  “playing” Swing music. (OK, we cheated: we had a small CD player behind the radio – even though it does still play!) We have some sheet music, too, if you want to learn to play it yourself.

Improving the morale of servicemen and their families was the goal of the USO, a united group of volunteers from many service organizations. Young girls held dances and parties for soldiers, and more mature women served as the senior hostesses. The matrons acted as chaperones for the girls, and also as maternal figures for the soldiers, listening, talking to them, reassuring them, even helping with sewing military insignia onto uniforms, or mending. It is small wonder to me that the emphasis on patriotism and morale building included many musicians traveling to perform for troops overseas.

At left: Charles Sharp fought in the Battle of the Bulge with the Army's 9th Armour Division, 16th Field Artillery.

We were honored to have many veterans in our audience, and visiting the exhibit. At the Swing Dance, we met Charles Sharp, a World War II veteran, who had fought in the Battle of the Bulge in the Army, 9th Armor Division, 16th Field Artillery. Ted Mize, in his Navy uniform, joined us as a host for the dance. Special Collections and Gallery staff dressed in 1940s vintage clothing, and acted as junior hostesses. (I’m not young and hot enough to be a junior hostess anymore, so I was a senior hostess: a chaperone, who protected the reputations of our young girls. I made sure Ted behaved in a gentlemanly fashion – which he did, of course.)

Our thanks to our veterans, who have so bravely served our country.

Sherry Best

Our library has a very cool art gallery, and I get to be in charge of it. I started drawing when I was 4 years old, and never stopped making art. I want to do more than show you art, I want to help you understand it, relate to it, and 'get' it. Art lets us share what it is to be human.

  • Sue Shehan

    I would like to thank each and everyone that put so much thought and work into this great event. I know that it meant a lot to the folks I seen there dancing or just sitting around enjoying the music and probably recalling a lot of memories of that time. The men and women that lived though that time certainly deserve some recognition for all they went though and I think that you all did a fantastic job is giving that to them. All in all, I can’t tell you how great it was to bring my dad, Charles Sharp and let him know that we are proud and grateful for what the men and women did during that time.

    Sincerely
    Sue Shehan