January 2, 2005

Swinging the Machine: Modernity, Technology, and African American Culture Between the World Wars.  By Joel Dinerstein.  Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003.  415pp.  Index.  ISBN 1-55849-383-2.  $24.95 (paperback).

Reviewed by Tim Brooks

This academic study is based on a rather simple premise, enunciated by the eminent architect Le Corbusier after he visited New York in 1935.  “Jazz, like the skyscrapers, is an event… representing the forces of today,” he said.  “The Negroes of the USA have breathed into jazz the song, the rhythm and the sound of machines.”  It is certainly possible to hear this in the pulsing rhythms of big band swing, as well as explicitly in the lyrics of many songs.

The rumble of the subway train,

The rattle of the taxi.

The daffodils who entertain,

At Angelo’s and Maxie’s…

(from “Lullaby of Broadway”)


Chug-a chug-a chug-a chug-a, woo-woo,

Chug-a chug-a chug-a chug-a, woo-woo,

Let ‘er rip, let ‘er rip, mister…. engineer

Gotta go, gotta go, far a…. way from here!

(from “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe”)


Swinging the Machine is an immaculately researched, detailed, and thoughtful look at the music and dance of interwar America, from the Ziegfeld Follies to black and white dance bands, the railroad train in music, Busby Berkeley’s films, the lindy hop, New York’s fabled Harvest Moon Ball and the 1939 New York World’s Fair, and how all of these reflected the distinctive sounds of The Machine Age.

While there is no doubt that specific songs were based on the sound of trains, cars and other machinery (composers sometimes say so directly), it is a larger leap to attribute entire musical genres, such as 1920s jazz and 1930s swing, to such forces.  African rhythms did not come from machines, nor did the bawdy-house ragtime of 1890s New Orleans, and both of these had an enormous effect on American music in the twentieth century.  Nor, presumably, did the Irish jig, which seems to have had a lot to do with the evolution of rhythmic melting-pot American music in the 1800s.  Nonetheless Joel Dinerstein weaves a persuasive case that from the 1910s to the 1940s America’s infatuation with, and then questioning of, The Machine Age, with its mix of empowerment and dehumanization, was closely interwoven with the musical and dance trends of the times.

His evidence of this can be fun to read for its imaginativeness, although we sometimes wonder if he’s going a little over the top.  There is a lengthy discussion of Fred Astaire’s dance routine to the song “Slap that Bass” in the 1937 film Shall We Dance?  It is set in a vast, gleaming, stylized representation of the boiler room of a huge ocean liner, where Astaire outdances the chugging pistons and crankshafts of the giant engines.  Dinerstein reads all sorts of meaning into this, including the fact that the jiving black engine-room workers who begin the sequence give way to the white dancer.  He sees in it nothing less than a recreation of the classic John Henry legend in whiteface.

Big bands are seen as reflections of modern industrial corporations, with a CEO (or “musical engineer”) standing in front of orderly rows of identically-dressed workers each of whom at his direction contribute their carefully planned musical parts.  (I wonder what Dinerstein thinks of a symphony orchestra?) Critic Gilbert Seldes is quoted as describing the Paul Whiteman Orchestra as “a mechanically perfect organization” but one that had sacrificed the soul of jazz’s revolution: improvisation and “the element of surprise.”  Similarly, the pioneering Casa Loma Orchestra of the early 1930s is described as “the first band to combine raw speed and technical precision” but also as purveyors of “machine jazz,” and widely admired for its soulless efficiency and military precision.

The machine-music parallels can only go so far and about half way through the book Dinerstein shifts to a more racially-based argument.  Most of what follows is about what whites stole from blacks (“The Corporate Whitefacing of Swing,” “Tap and Aesthetic Racism,” etc.).  There are no collaborations and no cultural cross-currents in Dinerstein’s world, just outright theft.  Every word is examined for levels of racial meaning.  For example the purpose of the opening lines of “Chattanooga Choo Choo” (“Pardon me boy/is that the Chattanooga Choo Choo?/Track 29!/I got to get me a shine”) is clearly to “establish a foundational social narrative at the train station by referring to African Americans in reassuring subservient roles.”  A long section on the 1939 World’s Fair dwells on its discriminatory hiring practices and maintains that it systematically suppressed cultural diversity, despite its celebrated “Negro Week” and long-running black show The Hot Mikado.  The author is particularly incensed by the appropriation of the athletic black dance known as the lindy hop by white jitterbuggers.

Dinerstein is a former “rock critic” turned academic, which may help explain the intellectual self-indulgence on display here.  Despite multitudes of footnotes, and the invocation of numerous erudite commentators on art and culture (Lewis Mumford, Thorstein Veblen, Lewis Erenberg), this is very much a personal commentary and one that ignores as much evidence as it embraces in the service of its thesis.  I understand that it won the ARSC Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research in 2004, which is a mystery since it contains virtually no reference to recordings.  If you want a highly detailed, informative view of an important musical era seen through the prism of a very definite point of view, this book is for you.


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