Plaintive Anthems

22 January Joel Paterson and the Modern Sounds, Eddie Clendening, Ruby Ann
23 January Hoyle Brothers

“Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades” as the poet rued, not knowing he would be remembered for not being James Dean, and Eddie Clendening and Ruby Ann played their final show in Chicago Friday night —at least for a while—at the always-urbane Ventrella’s Cafe on the North Side. The show itself was terrific—Eddie’s voice is more than remarkable, while the Modern Sounds are perhaps the best dance band in the city—but the occasion was bifurcated by two moods: a joy for Eddie, who’s moving on as part of Million Dollar Quartet’s expedition to Mt. Broadway, but also a sense of, if not melancholy, at least diminishment. Not only for Eddie, but also for Ventrella’s, which for a while in 2009 was maybe the best venue in the city: BYOB, only a nominal cover, ridiculously talented musicians, a dance-friendly crowd, and a passable dance floor. We are in the season of endings, and not yet beginnings, and so maybe it was inevitable that the evening ended forcibly with a martial display by Chicago’s Finest.

The CPD, however, walked away with nothing more than a citation for an unauthorized jukebox, making the evening’s final note in the key of slapstick. My friend the connoisseur of obscure emotional states argued it was the perfect Chicago night: screaming joy mixed with sorrow, ending with farce blended with terror of authority and the historical memory of the Depression. No one who heard it disagreed, though it may not have been heard by many as we did the quickstep out the back door while the badges flashed in front.

The humor at the end of Friday was mirrored by the weather late Saturday: the temperature rose enough to raise hopes of another season with it, hopes not dashed by the brief rainstorm that accompanied it. Saturday night was Friday’s younger brother: the mixtures of humor and pathos were reversed. The occasion was the Hoyles’ final show before their departure to points south—I am reliably informed that the front of Hoyles’ headquarters has a sign, “Gone to Texas,” ready for placement at the proper time. The Hoyles are no strangers to these notes, and they’ve also been the subject of glowing reviews in both the Reader and the Trib lately, so I’m not going to discuss much about their last Chicago show before their expedition to Mt. Austin. But the brief rainstorm last night, towards the end of the last set, brought with it whispers of the next season.

Saturday’s show had other hints and allegations surrounding it, along both directions of time’s arrow. Three younger dancers turned up—it was odd to find out I’m now somewhat of a veteran, after a bit over a year—curious and questioning. And yet at the same time another friend, a veteran in more or less the same sense I am, i.e. not very, asked some questions regarding what I knew of the past of this dance stuff, a history that more or less by chance I know something about. As I watched those younger kids struggle with 6-count turns, it occurred to me that writing that knowledge, however poor it is, might be valuable to someone, sometime.

To tell the story of where we’ve been after all, Lincoln remarks in a speech somewhere, is to tell the story of where we are going. I don’t particularly know where things are going, but I’ll tell what I know in a short capsule history anyway. (It would be great if people could add what they know—people, places, bands.) The genre of the story is itself kind of fascinating. As it’s been told to me by more than one source, the story of swing dance in Chicago, at least since the revival at the end of the last century, has a kind of post-apocalyptic, “and I alone am escaped to tell thee” flavor. It’s also reminiscent of And the Band Played On …, in that it is an epidemiological story, with a “Patient Zero.” There’s a history as well as a mythology about it.

The patient was Howard B., who brought swing back to Chicago for the first time in decades sometime during the mid-90s, probably at least by 1996 and not earlier than 1993. Howard was a doctor who’d transferred from Los Angeles, where he’d been part of the Pasadena Ballroom Association along with Erin Stevens and Steven Mitchell, two dance partners who, after viewing some old films (Hellzapoppin’ and A Day at the Races), were led to down an investigatory trail that eventually wound up at Frankie Manning, a New York City postal worker who’d long since forgotten his dance career. Arriving in Chicago, Howard danced all over town, including the country bar Whiskey River (which later became the celebrated Liquid) where eventually someone asked him just what he was doing. Eventually Howard began teaching a small group of students. These were some of the people now noted as Chicago’s best instructors.

Yet after some period described to me as being either a few months to as much as a year, the group remained small. They practiced together by dancing to old records, apparently in each other’s apartments, but nowhere else. That however changed with the first show by the Chicago band, the Mighty Blue Kings, at MadBar on Damen in the space now known as Cans. At this point mythology begins to turn to history—the Blue Kings formed sometime in 1994, and put out their first record in 1996. For several years thereafter, Howard rented space in a dance studio on Lincoln Avenue in the city, teaching swing once a week, advertising by word of mouth and a small ad placed in the Chicago Reader which read, simply, “Learn to Lindy.” Around this time, a few of the pioneers made the trip to Catalina Island in California, home to a dance camp hosted by Erin Stevens and Steven Mitchell. And then, in the spring of 1998, jean company The Gap released a television commercial.

What happened next is fairly well-known to many, and is a good example of what the writer Malcolm Gladwell, borrowing from epidemiological studies, has called “the tipping point”: a break-out moment when what was underground becomes mainstream. Whiskey River became Liquid, and classes that had once had only a few students were now being taught to dozens, even hundreds at a time. The stories of those who were there at the time all have certain common threads: many were completely absorbed, to the exclusion of everything else. Some others, particularly those who were there at the beginning, were making money, sometimes substantial amounts.

In the history of the Nazi U-Boat war called, afterwards, the Battle of the Atlantic, during World War II, the year or so directly after the entry of the United States into the war was known by the Germans submariners as the “Happy Time,” because it was so easy to torpedo U.S. ships. The United States did not do even elementary things like try to protect their fleet by bunching them up in convoys for safety in numbers, or bother to blackout the lights on the coast. Analogously, the time from the summer of 1998 through, as near as I can make out, sometime in the fall of 2001, was a “happy time” for swing—bands played out everywhere, everyone knew or wanted to know how to dance, and money was, at least for a fortunate few, almost falling from the sky.

It’s difficult to know just why that time ended. Perhaps the “swing fad,” like other such fads before it—disco, anyone?—had simply run its course, like a disease that has just run out of potential victims. Eventually anyone left not already brought down by the illness has developed some resistance to it. Dance is something for young single people, after all: eventually most dancers get steady jobs, marry, have kids—the kinds of things that don’t allow for late nights chasing bands and dance partners. Some people, though, have speculated that there might be some correlation with those jetliners in New York City in the early fall of 2001. It isn’t hard to see some historical rhyme like that: swing dance’s big revival happened during that time of “irrational exuberance” called by some the Roaring ’90s. Maybe in that way the end of swing’s “happy time” merely foreshadowed the economic crash that we are seeing now, the crash held back from its natural arrival by the war and unrelenting Republican military Keynesianism. But all songs, as Keats knew before he could know he was James Dean, come to an end, anthems or not. 

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Please let me know what you think! Also, if you are having trouble with posting a comment, please feel free to email me personally at djmedinah@yahoo.com. Thanks for reading!

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