Electroswing - The Sound of Freedom Gets a Fresh Beat

The Perfect Soundtrack for Dystopian Living

Sven Otten and friends dancing to electroswing

About one hundred years ago, the specter of authoritarianism began to haunt the globe. As the shadows of Nazism and Communism crept across the Northern hemisphere, an artistic movement emerged, diametrically opposed to tyranny in both form and character. Swing, a hybrid of African rhythms and Jewish melodies, liberally seasoned in the American melting pot and decked out in European fashions, was more than just another flavor of jazz. It was a cultural phenomenon.

Associated with suffrage, integration, miscegination, cultural diversity, freedom of expression, and an exuberant lack of inhibition, swing wasn't mere dance music, it was a comprehensive expression of rebellion against a status quo built on keeping people apart and in fear of each other.

Almost 30 years before the Civil Rights Act, a demanding, but undeniably talented, Jewish clarinetist named Benny Goodman hired Teddy Wilson, a black pianist to play in his band. Benny didn't hire Teddy to make a statement or to "virtue signal." He did it because he demanded the best, and Teddy was it.

Goodman was the first bandleader to break the color barrier, but far from the last. In an era when "Hebrews, Negroes, and Dogs" were barred admittance to many hotels, nightclubs and resorts, artists like Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Woody Herman, and Willie "The Lion" Smith (who was both black and Jewish) played sold-out shows in venues they would not have been permitted to enter as patrons.

On the other side of the Atlantic, young people risked arrest (or worse) by the Third Reich to attend underground parties where they danced to what Hitler furiously denounced as "nigger-kike music." This moment in history was lovingly depicted in the film, "Swing Kids." In a war-torn world, swing was the sound of freedom.

Today, war, misery, and oppression are again jostling for position on the global stage. It is, then, fitting that the ethos of swing is being rediscovered by a new generation of artists. Or, more accurately, it is being reinterpreted. The neoswing movement of the 1990s focused primarily on recapturing the traditional sound of mid-century big bands, and popular groups such as The Hot Sardines and Postmodern Jukebox have paired contemporary lyrics with Goodman-era instrumentation. In contrast, electroswing has blended sampling and production techniques from hip-hop with the joie-de-vivre and distinctive rhythms of swing. The movement has even updated swing dancing for the Tik Tok era, blending vintage movements with modern steps into a solo dance form called the Melbourne Shuffle (or, more commonly, just "shuffle dance").

In a way that neoswing never managed to do, electroswing has transplanted the fundamental spirit of swing into the present day. It is not coincidental that the Shuffle rose to prominence during the worst days of COVID lockdowns. Trapped in their homes or bedrooms by draconian policies that once again kept people isolated and afraid of each other, young people found freedom and joy in movements and music reminiscent of ones that brought comfort to their great-grandparents.

As humanity continues to struggle against a darkening tide of dystopia, perhaps electroswing will lend us enough courage to keep us dancing rebelliously until the lights come back on.