As young workers left farms and ranches for oilfields,
a new music emerged from the raucous roadhouses where they spent
their paychecks. This was Western Swing—the Western half of Country
and Western—and its king was Bob Wills. This new good-time music
found a home in a Southwest institution—the dance hall.
Western Swing was born of a combination of old-time fiddle music and jazz.
The evolution of the dance hall as young people moved to town.
Bob Wills as quintessential American musician: how did he use innovation, adaptation, and experimentation in his music? Which musical traditions and styles influenced him?
Bob Wills’ work with female songwriter (Cindy Walker) as example of his adaptability.
How does Wills’ music continue to influence performers today?
Background and Source Quotes:
The dance hall grew out of ranch parties. When young people moved to town in search of jobs in oil fields and factories, they wanted a place to party. The dance hall was born. The ranch party/house party tradition goes back to the Southern mountains. A fiddler would stand between two rooms and everyone would dance. When the young people moved to town, they still wanted a place to dance so the institution of the dance hall was born. Earliest ones date to 19th century. Example of how rural social institution got adapted to an urban setting, becoming commercialized along the way. Performers were playing music for roughnecks—it was raucous, for audiences who worked hard and played hard. Some of the songs were too raunchy to be played on the radio even today. (Sources: Scholar Dr. Charles Wolfe, 2001; scholar Dr. Guy Bailey, 2001; Ed Ward, “The Fiddler who Put The Swing in Western Swing,” New York Times Online, January 13, 2002)
Bob Wills came out of a fiddling family. When he brought his fiddle to Cain’s Dancing Academy, a Tulsa dance hall, he combined old-time fiddle dance music with the jazz that was sweeping the country. The result was Western Swing.
Uncle John Wills, Bob Wills’ father, was a champion fiddler. Story about him going out by himself in the early morning to play “Faded Love”. It was Bob Wills’ ability to synthesize influences like the Hispanic sound in “Faded Love” and the blues songs of Bessie Smith and combine them in a new way that makes him a quintessentially American artist. (Sources: Scholar Dr. Guy Bailey, 2001; Ed Ward, “The Fiddler Who Put the Swing in Western Swing.”)
Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys were one of many bands traveling the Southwest in the 30s and 40s. What set Wills apart was the ease with which he adapted the different strains of music he heard into a new, danceable sound.
When Bob Wills traveled to New Mexico, he found audiences dancing to a Hispanic beat. His Anglo fiddle tunes weren’t going over with the audiences.
So he incorporated this Hispanic influence into songs like “Spanish Two Step.”
Bob Wills wasn’t afraid to experiment. When he reworked “Spanish Two Step,” the new song which resulted became his biggest hit, “San Antonio Rose.” But Wills was also listening to Bessie Smith and Emmett Miller, and much of his music has a bluesy feel.
Wills’ trademark was his asides to his fellow musicians—these exclamations intended to encourage band members were supposedly borrowed from jazz and blues musicians. Rosetta Wills remembers her father as a free spirit whose influence on American music was unintentional. (Source: Scholar Dr. Guy Bailey, 2001; Scholar Dr. Charles Wolfe, 2001; www.timelessmusic.com; Rosetta Wills, letter to the New York Times February 3, 2002 at NYTimes.com)
Though Bob Wills was a prolific songwriter—more than 500 compositions—he also recorded material by other composers. Cindy Walker wrote songs that became trademark hits. Female country songwriters were severely outnumbered by the males in the 30s and 40s. Female writers like Walker had the opportunity to add a perspective on changing gender roles not otherwise found in the music. Wills’ effective use of Walker’s compositions is another example of his adaptability and ear for a good song. Walker’s “Bubbles in my Beer” is a honky tonk classic. (Source: Scholar Dr.Guy Bailey, 2001; Scholar Dr. Kathleen Hudson, 2001)
When Bob Wills improvised, he mixed blues, jazz and pop tunes. His use of improvisation is shown in his trademark “takeoff” solos; the vocalist would sing a verse, then Wills would point at a musician, expecting him to improvise. He had no patience with solos delivered by rote. He jammed with jazz musicians like Ornette Coleman, playing bebop. His interest in improvisation was natural, coming from a fiddling tradition as well as his exposure to jazz. (Sources: Ed Ward, “The Fiddler Who Put the Swing in Western Swing;” www.rockhall.com; www.southernmusic.net)
This was music for dancing, and Wills got immediate feedback on his experiments from the audiences in the dance halls. These were rowdy places—Cain’s, where Wills got his start, installed springs under the floor, making the dancing even more boisterous. Dance halls evolved as social institutions. Cain’s is still in existence today, though it’s a disco. Dance halls like Gruene’s and Floor’s Country Store in Texas are still in operation and still fill a vital role in the musical life of the Southwest. Dance halls provided a setting for the evolution of a popular good-time music. Wills re-worked material to give audiences what they wanted. He took a sentimental song about a child—“Roly Poly”—and made it into a red-hot dance number with a tricky twin-guitar solo.
Bob Wills even had his own dance hall for a time, but poor management caused him to lose it. To get out of debt he sold his music company and its hits, including “San Antonio Rose.” The man who bought his dance hall was Jack Ruby, who later shot Lee Harvey Oswald. (Source: Scholar Dr. Kathleen Hudson; Scholar Dr. Guy Bailey; Ed Ward, “The Fiddler Who Put the Swing in Western Swing;” www.timelessmusic.com.)
After World War Two, the “western” strand of “country and western” was largely forgotten as country music moved to Nashville and the Nashville Sound became dominant. Though Western Swing never became a national phenomenon, it influenced rock ‘n’ roll and other musical forms and achieved a fusion of African American and Anglo American music. (Source: Ed Ward, “The Fiddler who Put the Swing in Western Swing”)
In 1970, Merle Haggard released his album, A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World. It was a tribute to Bob Wills. Today, Western Swing is alive in the dance halls of the Southwest and the music of groups like Asleep at the Wheel, who acknowledge their continuing debt to Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. (Source: Scholar Dr. Kathleen Hudson; www.timelessmusic.com; www.rockhall.com.)
Merle Haggard: his 1970 tribute album put Bob Wills back in the public eye; he configured his band after Wills’ Texas Playboys.
Asleep at the Wheel: continue to acknowledge Bob Wills’ influence and popularity of Western Swing. They have released two tribute albums so far.
Willie Nelson: can discuss Bob Wills’ influence; he covered Wills’ “Stay a Little Longer”
Cindy Walker: female songwriter; wrote “Bubbles in my Beer;” can discuss how she started working with Wills and dealt with gender issues in music of the time.
Rosetta Wills: Bob’s daughter; she can discuss his use of innovation and spontaneity.
Guy Bailey: scholar; can discuss popularity of dance halls; Spanish influence on Wills.
Charles Wolfe: scholar; can discuss Wills’ influence on Western Swing.
Kathleen Hudson: scholar; can discuss gender roles as reflected in music, evolution of dance hall, and Wills’ influence on music.
Significant Historical Recordings:
“Spanish Two-Step” (September 23,1935, Columbia)
“Wang Wang Blues” (September 23, 1935, Columbia)
“San Antonio Rose” (1938, Columbia)
“Take Me Back to Tulsa” (February 25, 1941, Columbia)
“Deep Water” (October 30, 1947, MGM)
“Faded Love” (1950)
“Cadillac in Model A” (March 9, 1954, MGM)
Bibliography, Discography, Archival:
Lomax Recordings, Bear Family boxed set, Texas Heritage Music Foundation,
Country Music Foundation
Record Labels: Victor, County Records, MGM, Longhorn, Columbia, Decca
www.country.org (Country Music Foundation)
www.rockhall.com (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame)
www.southernmusic.net (Southern Music Network)
Books and Articles:
Kiefer, Kit. “Bob Wills, American Amalgamator,” Goldmine, October 5, 1970 pp 9-14.
Sheldon, Ruth. Bob Wills: Hubbin’ It. Country Music Foundation Press, 1995.
Townshend, Charles. San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills Urbana: Univ. Illinois Press, 1976.
Ward, Ed. “The Fiddler who Put the Swing in Western Swing.” New York Times Online. January 13, 2002.
Wills, Rosetta. The King of Western Swing: Bob Wills Remembered Toronto: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1998
San Antonio Rose. Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys
Bear Family Box Set ASIN B000051XXN December 13, 2000
Disc l #6 “Spanish Two Step" #8 “Wang Wang Blues”
Disc 2 #25 “Right or Wrong”
Disc 4 #9 “San Antonio Rose”
Disc 5 #7 “Corrina, Corrina” #28 “Take Me Back to Tulsa”
Disc 6 #21 “Miss Molly”
Disc 7 #16 “Roly Poly” # 17 “Roly Poly” #20 “Stay a Little Longer”
Disc 9 # 16 “Deep Water”
1935—1973, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys: The Tiffany Transcriptions
Rhino Records ASIN B0000032MM
to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World. Merle Haggard Koch
International ASIN B00000ISL0
Ride with Bob. Asleep at the Wheel Dreamworks ASIN B00000JW0J