As someone who's into the vintage lifestyle, with one foot in the swing dance scene and one in the rockabilly scene, two distinct scenes, when well-meaning, non-vintage folks find out what I do, they often suggest bands or guest dee-jays (usually their friends) for music events that I put on. These folks mean well, and it can get awkward when I have to sometimes, very politely, decline working with certain bands or dee-jays.
Hopefully, this blog will explain why our approach to '50's music is different from what our non-rockabilly and non-swing dance friends would usually expect from a "1950's" dance event.
There is a difference between "nostalgia" and "vintage", especially when it comes to 1950's music, a difference that the mainstream is usually unaware of.
Most non-vintage lifestyle folks go to the "oldies" playlist for their '50's music when hosting a "1950's-themed" party. These are the songs that most everyone, even folks who don't like '50's rock music, all know. ("All Shook Up" or "Wake Up Little Susie", basically what's in the Time-Life Music Collection.)
But that "oldies playlist", which is the go-to for most mainstream folks, is not what swing dancers care about. As for rockabilly culture fans, that "oldies" playlist is actually the opposite of what they like.
I'll start with the swing dancers, before I go to the rockabilly fans.
Lindy hoppers are generally indifferent as to a song's recognizability. They just want to dance. As long as it's energetic or the song has something they can interpret, partnered, through movement, that's the only things that they care about, and nothing else (and as a dee-jay, if it's got a shuffling rhythm, then it really gets them up on the floor.) Their wanting to dance to a song, or not, has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not they can recognize the song title. (Individuals do have favorite songs, but they won't stop and say, "I don't know that song, so I don't want to dance to that.")
The swing dance scene, at least here in the Bay Area, is primarily Jazz oriented, so when I am asked about Rock n' Roll songs for them to dance to, I tell my swing dance dee-jay friends that the Rhythm and Blues songs of the 1950's can get lindy dancers up on the floor, since Rhythm and Blues ('50's Rock's direct predecessor) and Jazz are closely related.
Joe Turner, Clyde McPhatter, Lee Allen, LaVerne Baker, Ruth Brown, and Chuck Willis are good examples of this genre of artists, but, it's their early pre-mainstream songs that tend to be the most danceable. (For example, The Platters' early jump blues numbers, such as "Hey Now" would work for a swing dance playlist, because of it's driving, shuffling dance rhythm, but their later, softer, and more well-known-to-the-mainstream ballads, like "The Great Pretender", which is usually a part of an "oldies" playlist, will definitely not get swing dancers up on the floor.)
As for rockabilly folks, generally, they not only don't care for the "Golden Oldies" playlist...they actually despise it.
For them, the music has to be hard-driving and raw. An obscure song isn't necessarily a requirement (but it helps!), but the "golden oldies" playlist is usually a no-no (so is the wearing of costume party poodle skirts, by the way!)
If that seems counter-to-'50's-love to our non-vintage friends, remember that originally, Rock n' Roll music was a form of youthful rebellion against mainstream tastes. The "oldies playlist" has now become mainstream, so of course, they won't like it.
Do they like Elvis? Sure, when he was young, at Sun Records or when he just started at RCA, and before he was drafted, and before he started singing all those soft mainstream pop songs like "It's Now Or Never." Nothing against that, by the way, I'm just stating how it is in the scene. I actually like "Surrender", though I would never play it at a rockabilly show. "Mean Woman Blues", on the other hand, should be on every vintage dee-jay's list. (Avoid 1970's white-jumpsuit Elvis at all costs!)
Who is really favored in the rockabilly scene are '50's artists who generally didn't get recognition by the mainstream, back then. The music of Warren Smith, Sonny Burgess, Janis Martin, Johnny Carroll, Dale Hawkins, and (especially) Wanda Jackson are examples. I know that some of my non-vintage friends reading this here, including the ones who actually were teenagers in the 1950's, are probably saying "Who's that?"...but that's the point...
The main thing is, rather than having '50's music done in a soft, quaint way to reminisce about the past, for rockabilly fans, their "1950's music" has to be done in a raw, highly energetic, and driving way (you know...in a....sexual...way.)
Well, before the 1950's, the term "Rock n' Roll" was an African-American slang phrase for....sex...
To me, anyway, that's much more fun(!) than reminiscing about a time I was never born in!
And, from my experience dee-jaying at both a very successful '50's-themed high school dance, and a not-so-successful '50's-themed birthday party, young people can connect to that kind of bravado much more readily than "nostalgia." (That actually was my problem with that birthday party. My issue was less about "historical details" and more about mindset and approach. That party was done nostalgically, for high school students. I told the organizers that's the wrong approach, because they won't connect to it. Kids like raw energy and if the music isn't presented in that way, then it's just "old music" to them. And unfortunately, I was right. The high-school, however, The Harker School in San Jose, let me it try it differently, and it worked beautifully! A video of that party is in our "Gallery" section of this site.)
Another reason why nostalgia is non-existent in the rockabilly culture is because a lot of rockabilly folks are young, so of course, they're not going to be "nostalgic" about it. Their love and focus is on the aesthetics of 1950's youth-culture, the details of the music and the fashions. They don't reminisce about that time the way my parents do. (Why should they?)
And thankfully, because their focus is on the aesthetic, they don't have the outdated mindset of that time (there's no 1950's style segregation or Red-baiting at rockabilly shows!)
On a personal note, what I like about rockabilly hops is that since they are "1950's events", then the dance music is...1950's.
It seems like a no-brainer, but I've made the mistake of going to (and paying for!) "1950's sock hops" that were nostalgia oriented, where '50's hits were played for 20 minutes...then when they ran out of hits, since that's all they know, the rest of the night was...1970's disco....
It's very strange, at least to me, to see my parents' friends and peers dance to disco music...in costume shop poodle skirts. (Hey, whatever you enjoy is fine, I just wish I didn't pay good money for it, or mistakenly drag friends and dance students to an event where they paid good money, with an expectation that wasn't met. If we are paying and have a reasonable expectation, it should be met.)
Our goal for "Rockin' Swing" is to bridge the gap between the rockabilly and swing dance scenes. They are distinct, and there will be purists from both scenes that won't go for it. But there will also be a good number of folks who have, and will. They have an expectations that we owe to them. They want to dance to energetic music. They want to take the culture seriously. They do not want to slow dance and reminisce.
Hopefully, this blog has made it all clear why I either definitely want to, or unfortunately, cannot, work with certain bands or dee-jays. (I should add that original songs, done in a hard-driving '50's rockabilly or jump-blues style, is always a plus from a band. If they do that, contact me!)
Rock on, daddy-o....