Why California Swings Too

The Dust Bowl of the 1930s was the perfect combination of man-made and natural disasters, the term perfect, not connoting excellence, of course, but perfect in the sense that these two factors built and grew upon each other to reach almost boundless levels of devastation in the Midwest and Great Plains states.

The damage was not solely physical.  Families which had depended on farming the now-buried land were humbled, uprooted, reduced to abject poverty. Foreclosed upon by banks, they began a westward migration of unprecedented size and scope, looking for any sort of work that might be available.

Many of these so-called ‘Okies’ landed in California, pursuing jobs in the growing oil business or in the vast agricultural lands of the state’s valleys; both settings were sadly familiar.

Knowing they’d likely never see their old farms again, the migrants brought all they could carry on the journey – beds, family photos, pots and pans, chairs, quite literally everything. And they brought something else as well, their music.

Thus, Texas (or Western) Swing came to California. And like the cotton and artichokes and tomatoes they toiled over, the Okies’ swing music took root here in California and grew and lasted.

From Bakersfield to Brisbane, clubs opened and attracted headline acts and large crowds of displaced fans of Texas Swing. These amply-muscled oil rig workers and farmhands would wait all week to get paid so they could go down to the local club, meet women, release some pent-up frustration. At Brisbane’s 23 Club, musician Jimmie Rivers recalled, “The music started at 9, fights started at 10.”

Since that time, California has been both home and destination to countless swing bands and artists: Bob Wills, Merle Haggard, ‘Spade’ Cooley, Big Sandy, and many more. Here’s Big Sandy’s version of ‘Tequila Calling.’ We owe a great cultural debt to the migrants who brought their music here.

Swing on, California; swing on.

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