Cultural Crossroads
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Wrong Side of the Mississippi

Western Swing Advertisement Western Swing. It might as well mean the music of many people, Black and White, Hawaiian, Mexican, Czech and Irish. No one is more synonymous with this eclectic music than the "King of Western Swing" -- Bob Wills.

He wanted be a cowboy, but he was a cotton farmer in the poorest and dustiest of times in Texas. His only treasures were the hokum blues, spirituals, work songs and humorous dialogue he learned in the cotton fields, and his fiddle, which he pawned to buy food during the depression in Fort Worth.

Wills and the Light Crust Doughboys, his early incarnation of the Texas Playboys, worked in the Burrus Mill eight hours a day and played a noon-time concert on the radio for five dollars a week. The only money to be made, as Wills saw it, was playing live in crowded dancehalls and putting on a great show that paying customers would return to see.

Implementing all the musical styles he heard as a boy growing up in Texas and instruments which originated from as far away as Africa and Hawaii, Wills created a new sound with heavy rhythm, jazzy horns mocked by steel guitar, and traditional ranch dance fiddle playing.

Western Swing, made accessible on clear channel radio stations in the U.S. and Mexico, and through amplified dance hall performances along an extensive tour route, gained tremendous popularity across the West. Diverse populations traveled the rural roads from field camps and co-op towns to get a glimpse of Wills' superb big Western band and it's larger-than-life leader (as Wills himself had done once, riding his horse across miles of prairie to see his idol, Bessie Smith).

His popularity and charisma allowed him to live his cowboy fantasies on the silver screen. With his post-war, good-time barroom jazz sound influencing the nation, Wills' music caught on in the rigidly segregated South, bringing rural Texas rhythm, along with Dixieland notes, Mexican melodies and happy-go-lucky Czech tunes to Nashville.

Following World War II, Wills' band was invited to play the Grand Ole Opry and somewhat reluctantly accepted. The joke in Texas was that WSM, the popular Nashville radio station behind the Grand Ole Opry, stood for "Wrong Side of the Mississippi."

Upon arrival, the band was informed that drums, an integral part of the rhythm the band made famous, were not allowed in the Opry.

"Pack up boys, were leaving!," or something like that, Wills told the band. Fear of disappointing a packed house made officials rethink their position. They decided to obscure the drummer with curtains.

Drums were largely banned in the South, and the Opry was no exception. Sometimes thought to be immoral, but more often drums were associated with the roots of African and American Indian music. Previous generations of Southern Whites associated drums with their fears of the tribes gathering in the wilderness and slaves communicating with nearby slave communities.

Just as the curtain went up, Wills ordered the band to move the drums from their hiding place to the front of the stage. There was no time for Opry officials to stop the pronounced rhythm and Dixieland jazz once the audience got a look at Bob Wills shuffling on stage, pointing his bow at band members eager to show off their new integrated style.

He would give the crowd the same polite understated effort any day of the week. In his everyday work to bring Western Swing to demanding audiences across the country, Bob Wills changed music and, for many, the perception of race.

-- Mark D. Lacy

NOTE: Bob Wills Day takes place in Turkey, TX on the last Saturday in April.