In the years before and during World War II, everyone danced — not just the swing freaks and the jitterbugs but old people, young people, rich and poor. Ever since Irene and Vernon Castle had spread the gospel of foot-warming rhythms in the early years of the century, America had been a country of dancers. Almost everyone's idea of a night out included some kind of dancing, whether it was twirling through a conservative waltz, bouncing into a black bottom or a Charleston, or stepping through the elaborate schematics of the tango. Visions of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers floated through the collective unconscious of the nation.
With the end of the war, a massive ennui seemed to blot out the vision and still the dancing feet of America's white communities. Dancing seemed frivolous in comparison to the need to build families, find homes, climb the economic ladder, and reassemble lives shattered by the tragedies of the long and fatiguing war. Frivolous, that is, for white Americans. For them, dancing, physical movement, and the continuing intersection of music and life were a relatively recent phenomenon.
For American blacks it was a different story. Unlike whites, they never stopped dancing— rhythmic energy and the use of song as a story-telling, journalistic medium were too deeply ingrained in their cultural background to fadeaway during hard times. Indeed, hard times simply represented another feeling to be expressed, another unfriendly spirit to be exorcised by the mysterious powers of rhythm and melody.
And for blacks, even more than for the white population, they were very hard times. If, as many historians suggest, the revolution of black consciousness really began with the litigation years that were set off by the Supreme Court's 1954 decision that “separate but equal” public schools were inherently unconstitutional, the stage for that revolution surely was set by the inexorable movement of events started when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
At that time blacks had endured more than sixty years of virtual non-citizenship. Ever since Rutherford B. Hayes claimed the presidency in 1877 (by one electoral vote) when he promised to withdraw federal troops from the South and uphold the principle of states' rights, blacks survived only if they understood the uses of invisibility. Swift and violent punishment was meted out to those few who were foolhardy enough to claim the rights that legitimately should have been theirs through the force of constitutional law.
No wonder black performers became experts in — as Charles Keil describes it — ”changing the joke and slipping the yoke,” in using music as something more than lighthearted entertainment, in hiding within it the voice of survival and the subtle, if indirect, language of a powerfully felt rage. (“Hard times don't worry me,” sang Lonnie Johnson in the Depression, “I was broke when I first started out.”)
The World War II years were dominated by an almost cyclic interchange between riots and civil disturbances and small but significant civil-rights breakthroughs. Between the end of World War II and the start of the Korean “conflict,” the NAACP and CORE petitioned and protested with considerable effectiveness. By the time the Korean hostilities began in 1950, the Supreme Court had issued three decisions that undercut the legal foundation of segregation. The next few years saw a series of sweeping attacks on segregation and discrimination, especially in public schools, that climaxed in the Supreme Court decision of 1954.
The effect of these changes on black art — in particular on the day-to-day musical expression that is perhaps the black community's most vital form of editorial commentary — was astounding. Lyrics became brighter, the blues form began to open up, and a sense of positive — even urgent — energy coursed through the rhythms. A new, expansive form of black music that soon came to be called — accurately, I think — “rhythm and blues” was emerging. — Don Heckman, from the liner notes