Swing Shift:

Swing Shift: "All-Girl" Bands of the 1940s

by Sherrie Tucker

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The forgotten history of the “all-girl” big bands of the World War II era takes center stage in Sherrie Tucker’s Swing Shift. American demand for swing skyrocketed with the onslaught of war as millions—isolated from loved ones—sought diversion, comfort, and social contact through music and dance. Although all-female jazz and dance bands had existed since the 1920s, now hundreds of such groups, both African American and white, barnstormed ballrooms, theaters, dance halls, military installations, and makeshift USO stages on the home front and abroad.
Filled with firsthand accounts of more than a hundred women who performed during this era and complemented by thorough—and eye-opening—archival research, Swing Shift not only offers a history of this significant aspect of American society and culture but also examines how and why whole bands of dedicated and talented women musicians were dropped from—or never inducted into—our national memory. Tucker’s nuanced presentation reveals who these remarkable women were, where and when they began to play music, and how they navigated a sometimes wild and bumpy road—including their experiences with gas and rubber rationing, travel restrictions designed to prioritize transportation for military needs, and Jim Crow laws and other prejudices. She explains how the expanded opportunities brought by the war, along with sudden increased publicity, created the illusion that all female musicians—no matter how experienced or talented—were “Swing Shift Maisies,” 1940s slang for the substitutes for the “real” workers (or musicians) who were away in combat. Comparing the working conditions and public representations of women musicians with figures such as Rosie the Riveter, WACs, USO hostesses, pin-ups, and movie stars, Tucker chronicles the careers of such bands as the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Phil Spitalny’s Hours of Charm, The Darlings of Rhythm, and the Sharon Rogers All-Girl Band.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822380900
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 06/06/2000
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 424
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Sherrie Tucker is Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. A longtime jazz fan, she has conducted oral histories for the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Program, writes a column called “Jazzwomen Jam” for Jazz Now Magazine, and was formerly a jazz radio announcer in San Francisco.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Working the Swing Shift:
Effects of World War II on All-Girl Bands

To every musician war is a personal puzzle.
Will I lose my job? Shall I sell my horn? How long will it last?
Will it end my career?
— Carl Cons, "The Effect War Is Having on Music World"

In these times of national emergency, many of the star instrumentalists of the big name bands are being drafted. Instead of replacing them with what may be mediocre talent, why not let some of the great girl musicians of the country take their places?
—Viola Smith, "Give Girl Musicians a Break!"

World War II did not invent all-girl bands, but it certainly gave them a new set of changes to play. It would be preposterous to suggest that the changes on the U.S. home front were anywhere near as drastic as those in any country on whose soil battles were fought. Yet it is also true that, in the early 1940s, Americans did not know that the United States would not be a battle site, or that the country's primary role in the war would be that of megaproducer of goods, or that fewer than I percent of the 50 million people (mostly civilians) who would be killed during the war would be U.S. citizens. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the threat of the world war abroad loomed large and local. Civilians volunteered as plane spotters and air raid wardens. Blackouts were common in coastal areas. The government relocated and incarcerated 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry (anyone with at least one Japanese greatgrandparent) despite a lack of evidence that Japanese Americans weredisloyal to the United States. War mobilization on the home front included radically accelerated patriotism, civilian defense, war bond drives, the government shaping of popular culture and opinion through the Office of War Information, the conscription of soldiers, and the buildup of military training camps and defense industries.

    Like other home-front workers and travelers, the women who played in the all-girl bands that barnstormed the nation's ballrooms, theaters, and military installations encountered radically transformed labor and road conditions. Travel on the home front was characterized by extremes of both unprecedented restrictions and unprecedented mobility. At the same time that pleasure driving was banned and gas and tires were rationed, 12 million people left home for military service, and 15 million other Americans moved for other reasons, such as work or opportunities to pursue dreams not possible during the Great Depression of the 1930s. All-girl bands on the road coped with the new travel difficulties and benefited from the spending power, social needs, and restless energy of the millions of dislocated soldiers and workers.

    Audience composition changed. Venues changed. Even everyday terms like woman, worker, and musician took on new meanings, resulting in new opportunities and obstacles for all-girl bands. A sense of this cacophony can be sampled in such swing industry periodicals of the era as Down Beat. In a single issue, one can find a cartoon or a joke depicting women musicians as more sexual than musical, editorial debates over whether women could (or should) play jazz, and want ads encouraging women union musicians who could sight-read and improvise to send in a photograph for the consideration of all-girl bandleaders. Articles tracing the travels and praising the skills of women musicians rest uneasily next to updates on their drafted union brothers. Letters from soldiers raving about an all-girl band that visited their camp appear on the same editorial page as impassioned arguments about why men swing musicians should be exempt from the draft.

    The war thrust the swing industry (and other industries) into a supply-and-demand crisis that required drastic reconfiguration of workers and consumers. Unlike many industries, however, the swing industry was not impelled to come up with a new product. While automobile plants vied for coveted jeep-manufacturing contracts, dance music took on patriotic meaning without so much as a style conversion. The demand for swing skyrocketed as millions of Americans, isolated from loved ones and far from home, sought diversion, comfort, and social contact through music and dance. Defense workers pursued recreation at "swing shift dances" at strange hours in strange cities. Soldiers yearned for music that reminded them of their private lives and lost leisure and that represented ideas about peacetime America for which they could fight and to which they could dream of returning. At the same time, conscription made it increasingly difficult for men's bands to supply such demands. For men's and women's bands able to accept the plethora of bookings, travel restrictions designed to prioritize transportation for military needs and to conserve such scarce commodities as gas and rubber made it difficult for them to keep concert dates. Wartime restrictions on charter buses especially affected African American bands — less likely to be booked in hotels and major ballrooms and theaters, black musicians depended on tours of one-nighters at least partly through the Jim Crow South, where travel was uncomfortable and dangerous for all black travelers and public transportation was segregated.

    As the swing industry sought to take advantage of its war boom despite the shortage of men workers and transportation restrictions, American women workers were simultaneously celebrated as never before. Massive recruitment campaigns to make such figures as women welders acceptable to the women who might fill those positions (as well as to their families and the general public) also spilled over into other nontraditional fields. This highly micromanaged transformation in acceptable roles enabled traditional women to step outside their normal experiences without risking exclusion from the category good women, but it was a double-edged sword for women who already worked, including those who had played in all-girl bands before the war. While wages went up and opportunities expanded, the sudden increased public awareness of women workers, on bandstands as well as on assembly lines, lent itself to the illusion that all women in the workforce were "Swing Shift Maisies" — 1940s lingo for temporary substitutes for the "real" workers who were off in combat. Entertainment trades that had run features on all-girl bands during the prewar years now captioned photos of such bands with such contemporaneous, if misleading, quips as "The draft is really blowing!"

    Certainly, conscription and other radical changes wrought by the war affected women musicians in all kinds of complicated ways, but World War II did not introduce women musicians to the big band business. In fact, many of the women musicians who scrambled from one-nighter to one-nighter during the war years, entertaining the troops, filling the "dance band shortage," playing swing shift dances for defense workers, and traveling on USO-Camp Shows, were the self-same women who had cut their teeth performing in all-girl bands in vaudeville and tent shows, dance halls, ballrooms, carnivals, and theaters a decade earlier. Tenor player Vi Burnside and trumpeter Ernestine "Tiny" Davis, star soloists for the most celebrated African American all-woman band of the 1940s, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, were both alumnae of the Harlem Play-Girls in the 1930s. Many members of Eddie Durham's All-Star Gift Orchestra, the Darlings of Rhythm, and Jean Park's All-Girl Band had previously played in the Harlem Play-Girls as well as such other black women's bands of the 1930s as the Dixie Rhythm Girls and the Dixie Sweethearts. White women's bands of the 1930s included those led by Rita Rio, Phil Spitalny, and Ina Ray Hutton. Jane Sager, trumpet soloist with Ada Leonard's All-American Girl Orchestra in the 1940s, had played in a host of earlier white all-woman units, including Rita Rio's band and a group called the Platinum Blonds of America that traveled to Cuba in the mid-1930s. Mary Demond remembered that her professional career started at age seventeen when she discovered a Down Beat on a trolley in 1939 and spent her shorthand class answering an ad for a woman trumpet player. Although often remembered as wartime phenomena, many of the most famous all-woman bands, including the organizations led by Ina Ray Hutton and Rita Rio, actually disbanded before U.S. involvement in World War II, and many bands that entertained during the war years, such as the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and Phil Spitalny's "Hour of Charm" Orchestra, had, in fact, been established long before 1941. Thanks to a continuum of earlier bands, the hundreds of all-girl bands that traveled in the wake of Pearl Harbor to fill war-related entertainment demands were not without precedent, nor were they devoid of experienced, professional players.

    Even the women who stepped directly out of high school to join all-girl bands during the war were more likely to have previous training than most women welders or riveters. Girls in both black and white high schools had more access to school bands than they did to shop classes. Most of the women I interviewed played in high school bands, and some attained their first professional experiences through their school band connections. Marilyn Merle, Joy Cayler, and Marge Kiewitt all started their own all-girl bands while in high school. Clora Bryant, Helen Cole, and Elizabeth Thomas played with their high school teachers and classmates in a professional dance band in Denison, Texas, before joining the Prairie View Co-Eds. Betty O'Hara played trumpet in a small dance band that included at least two women saxophonists and was led by her high school music teacher. Joan Alfert (Zieger) attended weekly rehearsals of the citywide high school band in St. Louis, after which those so inclined remained to play in a swing band. Trombonist Lois Cronen (Magee) noted that, although improvisation was not taught in high school (or college), the opportunity was there to learn these skills in extracurricular dance bands. Rosalind "Roz" Cron played in junior high, in high school, and subsequently in professional dance bands with her schoolmates Serge Chaloff and Hal McKusick in Boston before going on the road with Ada Leonard and later with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. While still in high school, bassist Vi Wilson was one of two African Americans in the All-City Orchestra, which consisted of the most promising student musicians in Los Angeles. In addition, she played alongside such talented young musicians as Melba Liston, Clora Bryant, Doris Jarrett, Minnie Hightower, and Dexter Gordon in a co-ed WPA band led by drummer and music teacher Alma Hightower.

    Women long out of high school who joined all-girl bands for the first time during the war were also likely to have transferable musical skills gained as a hobby or from church or other music-industry jobs. Ernestine May's extensive experience as a songwriter, arranger, and copyist made her transition to musical performance even smoother than that from housewife to worker described by the Office of War Information, in which knowledge of how to operate a sewing machine was declared ideal preparation for making liberty ships. Looking for a way to make some extra money to support her three children during the war years, May noticed a magazine ad about a New York agent who was booking black women musicians. "So," she said, "I went and told him that I was a piano player. And he said, 'Well, I need a piano player who sings.' I said, 'Well, I sing, too.' I kind of exaggerated that singing part.... He said, 'Play something for me.' Well, the only thing I knew that I could sing was gospel music. So I sang a spiritual, but I put it in, like, swing. That was the only thing I could think to do on the spur of a moment. Would you believe that he hired me?" Like many women musicians, Perri Lee (Poston) had taken piano lessons throughout her childhood. In addition, she had played in her college band. When her mother got a job in a Los Angeles defense plant, Lee landed a job typing and answering the phone for the black AFM local, 767. "One day," she says, "it occurred to me, maybe I'll take one of these jobs!" She won her first audition and was soon making more money in three nights than her mother was making in a forty-hour week. Frances Scher was a staff singer at Tin Pan Alley when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and she decided to start an all-girl band to play for civilian defense. Her band not only found itself playing voluntary patriotic jobs but soon experienced commercial demand in Chicago and nearby resort areas, as well as on the road, throughout the war.

    This section is not so much an argument about whether the wartime changes were good for women musicians as it is an examination of what those changes were and how they affected the working conditions, public perceptions, and professional strategies of women musicians. What changed for women workers in general and the swing industry in particular during World War II, and how did women musicians in all-girl bands play those changes? How did women musicians deal with public perceptions that they were Rosie the Riveter, for example?

Rosie the Riveter, Uncle Sam, and James C. Petrillo

Rosie the Riveter is the lasting symbol for women workers during the war, but it is important to remember that, like Swing Shift Maisie, Rosie was carefully designed not just as a capable woman worker but as a swing shift worker, a term that, during the war, implied more than the stint between day and graveyard. Swing shift implied the extra shift, the shift temporarily added for the sole purpose of wartime production. Maisie and Rosie propaganda portrayed women workers as attractive, competent, patriotic, and temporary. Although the Rosie of mainstream advertising images was invariably white, the black press ran images of African American women workers as Rosie the Riveter, celebrating black women's wartime access to better-paying jobs in the defense sectors, drawing from their experiences to expose war plants that broke Franklin D. Roosevelt's Executive Order 8802 forbidding race discrimination in the defense industries, and praising black women workers for their patriotism. Women workers, including those who played in the all-girl bands that crisscrossed the country during the 1940s, reaped both the breaks and the drawbacks of being seen as patriotic Rosies and Maisies working the swing shift.

    But Rosie wasn't just a woman worker. She was a particular kind of woman worker, whether she bucked rivets or took hot trumpet solos. The image of an independent Rosie the Riveter, rolling up her sleeves to reveal capable muscles, cheeks glowing with good health and self-esteem, proud of her labor, continues to circulate on feminist T-shirts, coffee mugs, and posters as an icon of women's potential. But even the catchy 1942 novelty tune that provides Rosie's sound track reminds us that our strapping heroine will be riveting only as a conversationalist when "boyfriend Charlie" returns from the marines. So long as her man is away and her country is at war, Rosie will "work for victory" and spend her paycheck on "lots of war bonds." Women who wanted to keep their improved working conditions after the war, who enjoyed their independence, who did not necessarily see their identities as welded to the institutions wife and mother, and who spent their hard-earned wages on themselves were not good Rosies at all. No, they were Rosie's "bad girl" coworkers — women who were as reviled by society as Rosie was serenaded.

    The repugnance the general populace held for "bad Rosies" is part of the story that contemporary feminist posters and coffee cups tend to forget. But this shadow side of Rosie the Riveter was very much apparent in wartime debates about whether women should take the place of men musicians who had been drafted or enlisted. The attitude that women musicians were pitching in for the war effort pervaded the publicity and reviews of the most successful all-girl bands whether the women in them had played professionally before the war or not. "With the war what it is and the draft blowing harder and faster in the male direction, female bands won't be hard to take as time goes into history, especially if they're as good and chockful as beauty as Eddie Durham's crew" — so raved a typical favorable review of an African American all-girl band made up of many musicians who had played in earlier bands. Women musicians might improve their chances for bookings and enhance their popularity by embracing a patriotic Rosie the Riveter identity, or they might risk accusations that they were selfish and unpatriotic by adopting a more enduring image. Reeds player Deloros Conlee (Goodspeed) recalled her irritation at being bombarded by fans inquiring what she planned to do after the war. "We worked before the war, and we would work after the war also," she replied. Although many women workers offered similar rejoinders, to imply that one's labor was disconnected from the war effort was a risky move for women to make during World War II. Publicity for all-girl bands tended to avoid this tack, instead balancing allusions to professionalism with promises of patriotism.

    Some women musicians found ways to extract useful dimensions of Rosie the Riveter — her public acceptability as a skilled worker (rather than "daffy housewife"), for instance, and even her patriotism — without necessarily subscribing to the notion that they were temporary substitutes for the real musicians off at war. Most of the women I interviewed, in fact, maintained self-identities as both patriots and professionals. What they had no choice about, however, was their audiences' tendency to think "Rosie the Riveter" when they saw an all-girl band on the stand and to interpret women musicians as substitutes, amateurs, or cheerleaders, no matter how well they performed. Figuring out ways to be taken seriously as musicians without appearing unpatriotic and self-interested was a particular challenge for women musicians during the 1940s.

    Oddly enough, being taken seriously as workers was a challenge faced by men musicians as well during World War II. At the same time that women workers were accepted in fields dominated by men, many of those fields, especially those deemed by the federal government to be "nonessential," were feminized as ideas about masculinity became unwaveringly affixed to military service. During the same years that women on the bandstand were asked, "What are you going to do when the war is over?" men musicians and other men civilian workers were scrutinized with the ubiquitous, "Why aren't you in uniform?" While demand for swing bands boomed, the musicians who played in them were likely to be seen as morale boosters, regardless of sex, as chipping in for the war effort, but they were often not recognized as performing real work. Debates between the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), the musicians' union, and various arms of the government over musicians' wartime roles were heated and can be traced in the pages of the trade magazines, including the AFM members' magazine, International Musician.

    As early as December 1940, Doron K. Antrim editorialized in the pages of International Musician that music should be considered an "essential industry," protected and supported by the government because of its value to the war effort. England had found music to be essential, Antrim argued, citing the use of live and piped music in British munitions plants. Debates about the essential or nonessential status of music were carefully monitored in musicians' periodicals, as the outcome of such decisions affected men readers' draft vulnerability. Although music was eventually found to be a luxury and musicians were conscripted along with other nonessential workers, the power of bands to cheer soldiers was recognized by the government, and musicians were expected to donate their time to bond drives, armed forces camps, and canteens. "Uncle Sam admits that music is valuable, nay, even indispensable, in the war effort, and Uncle Sam has a way of paying for what he needs, that is, in every case except that of music," argued another International Musician editorialist, insisting that music is labor and men's labor at that. "The little house erected for the Bond Drive was the work of architects, carpenters, painters, and plumbers, no doubt paid in good coin of the realm.... But the musicians got hearty handshakes to take home to their wives to buy supper with."

    Efforts to protect members' jobs during the war frequently brought the union under attack as unpatriotic. James C. Petrillo, the powerful and controversial AFM president from 1940 to 1958 (and perhaps the most caricatured labor leader during World War II), waged widely criticized battles against "canned music," radio broadcasts by student musicians (including the National Music Camp at Interlochen, Mich.), and demanded remuneration, preferably government subsidies, for musicians who entertained the troops. Along with other entertainment guilds and unions, the AFM struggled for and obtained an agreement with the uso (United Services Organization) that only union performers would be hired for Camp Shows. When military bands stepped up their public appearances, the ever-controversial Petrillo declared that they could not do radio broadcasts. A measure of Petrillo's power is that he emerged victorious from his tussle with the War Department, having secured an agreement that military bands could not perform jobs that might be filled by civilian union musicians. Not surprisingly, this triumph further fueled critiques of the AFM's lack of patriotism. Petrillo mitigated such accusations with lavish displays of patriotic fervor, such as his order to the entire AFM "membership of 138,000 musicians to play 'The Star Spangled Banner' at the beginning and at the conclusion of all programs at symphony concerts, park concerts, hotel engagements, dance engagements, theater engagements, Hollywood studios, radio engagements, and so forth." Even during the much-criticized AFM recording ban in 1942 (which forbade members from recording until safeguards could be secured protecting musicians' jobs from the threat posed by "canned music" on jukeboxes and the radio), Petrillo exempted musicians who recorded "V-disks," or "Victory-disks," records made exclusively for the troops and distributed by the War Department. Throughout the war, the union also guaranteed drafted and enlisted musicians dues-free membership.

    While the demand for swing and the shortage of men musicians would seem to have placed all-girl bands in a good position to achieve some recognition and upgrade their working conditions, the battles between Petrillo and Uncle Sam left women AFM members in a tough spot. Women's claims to musical expertise did not bode well for their union brothers' struggles to be recognized as indispensable. Public notions of women workers as temporary patriotic substitutes made their holding jobs perceived as morale boosting particularly appealing. Whether band members were paid or not, public perceptions of all-girl bands as amateur were at odds with women AFM members' own ideas about their skills as well as with the AFM's battle to have music recognized as work. Despite popular notions of women workers as patriotic pinch hitters, most women musicians in all-girl bands during the war saw themselves as professionals, and most belonged to the AFM. Union membership was imperative in order to work in hotels, restaurants, ballrooms, or radio. Trumpet player Laverne Wollerman (whose stage name was Laverne Walters) commented that serious women musicians in the 1940s necessarily joined the AFM: "If we didn't, we stayed home and married the boy next door." One bandleader (who wished to remain anonymous) remembered that the union picketed her band of fellow high school girls (and even placed them on the unfair list in International Musician) when they first started to accept professional jobs. When the young women rushed to the union office to join up, they were promptly fined; but, after that punitive initiation, they were accepted by the union throughout the war as viable, professional AFM members. On the one hand, the AFM required loyalty and cooperation from women musicians more than ever before. On the other, if women musicians appeared ready, willing, and able to fill the demand for dance music, they weakened the AFM's case that men musicians were "workers, not shirkers."

    Like Petrillo, women musicians had to counteract their demands to be recognized and remunerated as serious professionals with proof of their selfless devotion to Uncle Sam. Used in moderation, Rosie the Riveter was a useful figure in maintaining such a balancing act. In fact, she was made for the job.


Struggles for Freedom of Expression in American History

By Michael Kent Curtis


Copyright © 2000 Michael Kent Curtis. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents


Introduction: “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t in the History Books”

I Playing the Changes of World War II

1. Working the Swing Shift: Effects of World War II on “All-Girl” Bands

2. “Hours of Charm” with Phil Spitalny

3. Extracurricular Activities with the Prairie View Co-eds

II Road Hazards

4. Surveillance and Survival in the Jim Crow South

5. Internationalism and the Sweethearts of Rhythm

6. The Darlings of Rhythm: On the Road and Ready to Run

III USO-Camp Shows

7. Female Big Bands, Male Mass Audiences: Gendered Performances in a Theater of War

8. Battles of a “Sophisticated Lady”: Ada Leonard and the USO

9. “And, Fellas, They’re American Girls,”: On the Road with the Sharon Rogers All-Girl Band

Conclusion: Post-War Changes, Familiar Refrains



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