Who is Western Swing's Father?

Bob Wills (on fiddle) & His Texas Playboys, 1937.  Milton Brown (at the mike) & His Musical Brownies, ca. 1935.

(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. 330 pp., with photographs, notes, song analyses, discography, index. Hardcover, $29.95.)

Book review by Kevin Reed Coffey (published in The Journal of Country Music, 1994)

As its title suggests, this book is a detailed chronicle of Milton Brown's role in the birth of western swing in Fort Worth in the early 1930s. Part biography, part oral history, and part memoir, this long overdue biographical study stitches together the memories of Brown's surviving brother, Roy Lee, with those of musicians, friends, and fans, combining these with secondary sources to paint a vivid, detailed, and controversial picture of Brown and his time.

Milton Brown was born in Stephenville, Texas, in 1903, and died in Fort Worth in April 1936 following an auto accident. At the time of his death, he was at a crossroads - newly divorced, contemplating several major career moves, and exhausted from having to make a daily radio show in Fort Worth regardless of where he and his Musical Brownies had played the night before. And yet he was also at a pinnacle. In less than four years, he had built the most popular band in the Southwest. In the process, he introduced the slapped bass, piano, and amplified steel guitar to string dance bands, and popularized the use of twin fiddles in these ensembles. The Musical Brownies, among the tightest and most talented groups in country music history, had just finished a marathon recording session for Decca, March 3-5 - cutting a whopping forty-nine sides, a number that alone stands as powerful indication of the band's immense popularity. The band's impact and influence had been pervasive across Texas, changing the course of country music in the Lone Star State forever. In spite of Brown's untimely death, those changes would spread far beyond Texas, and indeed they still reverberate in country music today.

This is the basic story that Ginell tells, and most of the elements are indisputable. The Brownies' innovations and impact are not merely a matter of opinion, but are, in fact, documentable. Ginnell does not question Bob Wills's status as "King of Western Swing" - the genre's icon, its most enduring popular figure; he does, however, challenge the widely held notion that Wills was the music's "father." Indeed, in the popular imagination and in more than a few critical accounts, Wills is credited with innovations that many have known, even prior to Ginell's documentation of them, to be Brown's: the introduction of the jazz piano to country dance bands is just one example. By necessity, then, Milton Brown is a different book than it would have been in, say, 1968, before the Wills-centered western swing revival of the seventies firmly cemented the already considerable Wills legend.

The basic thesis-that contrary to popular and at least some critical conception it was Milton Brown, and not Bob Wills, who established western swing's jazz-oriented style, instrumentation, and early repertoire - is the book's central controversy, but not its only one. Milton Brown is part of the same University of Illinois Press Music in American Life series that issued Charles Townsend's popular and groundbreaking San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills - and yet ironically, the two biographies stand diametrically opposed about many of the key events of the years 1930-36.  The 1976 publication of Townsend's book was a major factor in cementing the Wills legend, and without question San Antonio Rose is an important work - a serious and pioneering study in a field that had few such works before it came along. It is, however, also a book which oozes with unabashed admiration for its subject and offers little room for facts that call into question its basic assumptions. Townsend's biography haunts Ginell's account, with both positive and negative effect. While not referred to explicitly beyond a rather diplomatically critical assessment in Ginell's introduction, Townsend's book is implicitly alluded to-almost invariably contradicted or refuted, though always indirectly-on almost every page of Ginell's. Thus, to fairly assess this account of Milton Brown's career, one can hardly avoid discussing the shortcomings of Townsend's book, groundbreaking though it may have been at the time.

As Ginell points out in his introduction, and he is not the first to do so, Townsend's extensive use of Ruth Sheldon's 1938 Wills bio (Hubbin' It, a Depression-era dramatization of Wills's rags-to-riches rise) as a serious and reliable historical document (which it is decidedly not) seriously compromises the reliability of San Antonio Rose at numerous points in the chapters on Wills's early life, including the years he was associated with Brown. Similarly, Townsend's emphasis is often weighted to create an illusion that the facts dovetail with his ideas when they don't necessarily do any such thing. At one point, for example - apparently to give Wills's hiring of pianist Al Stricklin the aura of an important moment in Wills's development of western swing - after mentioning that Stricklin was playing in a group called the Hi Flyers when Wills approached him, Townsend writes, "the jazz pianist, who had never played in a western band in his life, joined the Texas Playboys." The trouble is, the Hi Flyers from whom Wills plucked Stricklin were a western band who in 1935 were playing Milton Brown-based dance music, which would indicate that either Townsend was woefully uninformed about his area of study or that he was selectively de-emphasizing data that might diminish Wills's stature as western swing's major architect. Whatever the case, after ruminating on the historical significance of Wills's trendsetting hiring of Stricklin, Townsend compounds the passage's problematic nature by burying the following significant clarification in the chapter's end notes: that the Musical Brownies' pianist Fred Calhoun was "the first pianist to ever play professionally with a western band . . . Milton Brown and Fred Calhoun jointly deserve the honor of pioneering piano music in western swing." (n.p., 108). Which is true, though not at all the gist of his main text.

The above example from San Antonio Rose is an extreme one, but not an isolated one. (No wonder Roy Lee Brown has been champing at the bit for years to tell his brother's story.)   Townsend is unequivocal about his assessment of Brown's role in western swing's founding. He refers to Brown several times as Wills's "protégé."  What Brown incorporated into his Musical Brownies, Townsend says, was learned in apprenticeship with Wills: "He continued with the same style he learned from Wills . . . and helped make western swing popular."  That's as far as Townsend will go toward acknowledging Brown's importance. (Even Wills went farther than this: "Milton Brown and myself started this thing," he told an interviewer in the sixties.) Brown's undeniable innovations seem coincidental or accidental in Townsend's narrow conceptualization, embarrassing skeletons in the closet that won't go away.

Given this battle over historical turf, it's interesting to note Ginell's method for telling Milton Brown's side of the story. Rather than challenge Townsend point-for-point in an academically straightforward manner, Ginell chooses to let his oral and secondary sources simply speak for themselves. The challenge, then, to Townsend's account of the rise of western swing is implicit rather than overt.

Ginell's account, like Townsend's, displays an obvious affection and admiration for its subject matter, a characteristic heightened by the lengthy quotes from those who knew and worked with Brown that together comprise the bulk of the book. Passionless objectivity is not too desirable a trait in a biographer, anyway, and only a hack on assignment is likely to possess it. The key to a truly instructive biography is balancing one's passion and affection with an open and ethical critical orientation. Despite the concerns some have voiced about Ginell's possibly sacrificing objectivity by working closely with Roy Lee Brown, he does not seem to have done so. Roy Lee Brown makes no pretense about his partisanship in the matter of the careers of his brothers Milton and Derwood, and while his involvement with this project arguably limited its scope to a degree and colored its uncompromising nature, it does not seem to have compromised the work's integrity. That claim can not always be made about Townsend's work.

Ginell's affection for his subject matter is apparent from the first paragraph of his long and often poignant introduction, which travels from personal anecdote to historical analysis. He's an engaging writer, well-suited to the material. Much of his historical analysis of western swing's post-Milton Brown development seems more suited for a postscript than an introduction, but his discussion of Townsend's Wills biography is relevant, concise, and fair. His rundown of western swing's stages of development is rather too compartmentalized and West Coast oriented (Ginell is a Californian), ignoring the music's lively and sinuous continuum in its home state, where Brown's first-hand, rather than residual, influence remained a real factor long after his death. (As a Texan, I also found Ginell's affectionate but cliched characterization of the state and its populace patronizing - I kept waiting for the Deliverance banjo boy to start picking.)

Perhaps most problematic in the introduction is Ginell's failure to cite any previous works that illuminated the Musical Brownies' role in western swing. He quotes Roy Lee Brown as telling him, "you're the first person to get things right about the Brownies," but it is important to point out that this book is revisionist history only because the Wills revivals of the seventies and beyond (there seems to be one currently) have afforded Townsend preeminence as the source on the music. Others have not been so unkind to Brown. Shelton and Goldblatt's Country Music Story (1966) discusses the Brownies at length and, much more importantly, Malone's landmark Country Music, U.S.A. (1968) gives Brown and the Musical Brownies explicit credit for establishing the music's basic instrumentation, style, and early repertoire. Bob Pinson also gave the Brownies considerable attention in periodicals like Country Directory and Old Time Music over the years. In the Wills-mad seventies, the western swing reissues of Chris Strachwitz (the Old Timey label) and Tony Russell (String) allowed audiences a chance to hear the Brownies' music again or for the first time. Most important during that decade may have been Nick Tosches's Country: The Biggest Music in America, which was the first book that made me look at the legacies of Wills and Brown in a different light, and I'm sure I'm not alone in that.

Beyond the introduction, the body of Ginell's text is unusual. Written very much as an oral history, Milton Brown offers typically sparse narration linking first-person narratives from those he (and in some cases Roy Lee Brown) interviewed. Roy Lee Brown is the most frequently appearing narrator here, but Milton Brown's bandmembers who were surviving when Ginell began his research - all but Cliff Bruner have died since - are also extensively quoted, often to great effect. Other musicians, family members, and friends of Brown also appear. Considering the oral-history emphasis of the main text, Ginell's job was as much one of organizing, coalescing and synthesizing as it was of writing. It must have been a difficult deck to shuffle into a cohesive narrative, but despite a few ill-advised inclusions or over-long passages, it all works remarkably well.

It's interesting to speculate on why the format was chosen. Ginell is obviously attracted to oral history, but there seems to be something else at work as well. When I first interviewed Roy Lee Brown for an article I was writing several years ago, he complained to me about the confusing nature of the footnoting in Townsend's book, which often obscured the source of a quote or assertion. It made it hard for himready with bone to pick!-to figure out just who was asserting what at times (and he is not alone in this). The oral history format adopted here leaves no doubt as to the source of a piece of information. It's another manifestation of Ginell's "here it is - take it or leave it" approach. Again, instead of grappling point-by-point with Townsend's work, Ginell offers these reminiscences at face value and lets the reader weigh their relative merit.

Milton Brown emerges from the start of this book as a canny, driven, and charismatic personality, absolutely impossible to dislike, and this viewpoint is reinforced by virtually every interviewee. A crucial moment in the book is its detailing of Brown's first major innovation, bringing pop vocals to the house dance string band parties. It's an enormously important point and an aspect in the music's evolution that has been given little, if any, attention before. It certainly doesn't figure as a turning point in Townsend's account, but emerges here as the first real movement from typical houseparty square dance music toward something entirely different.

Bob Wills was, of course, very much around in the years 1930-32, and, perhaps feeling the weight of the Wills legend, Ginell strains at times to emphasize that Wills was not much of a mover and shaker during this period. Townsend has credited Wills with a lot of initiative during this period and calls each of the seminal bands - the Aladdin Laddies, the Light Crust Doughboys - Wills's groups. Ginell argues that the bands were no such thing. They were commonwealth groups, and the groups that played Eagles Hall and Crystal Springs were similarly unstructured aggregations. Considering Milton Brown's previous experience as a salesman and the subsequent business acumen he displayed after forming the Musical Brownies, the account here, with Brown having a much more decisive role in the group's directions and bookings than Wills, certainly is supportable. (Wills was never a businessman; one of the most significant moments in his career may well have been when O. W. Mayo became his manager.) Wills was not exactly at his acme during these early years, struggling with alcohol and - when a tune wasn't a routine fiddle breakdown - with his music as well. Still, his fabled charisma probably didn't appear overnight, and it would seem likely he was at least a little more together than he is presented here.

Moreover, the impact that Wills and Brown had on each other's music was probably more reciprocal than either this account or Townsend's is willing to concede. Brown's influence on Wills is tangibly documentable, but it is instructive to note that one of two unissued sides that Wills recorded in 1929 was Bessie Smith's "Gulf Coast Blues," evidence that he was moving beyond typical house dance music before he and Brown teamed as surely as Brown was.

Regardless, the portrait of Brown is a thoroughly convincing one, and at the point he leaves the Light Crust Doughboys and starts immediately re-conceptualizing Texas string band music, the book kicks into high gear. Ginell argues that the moment western swing really begins is when Fred Calhoun's piano is added to the Musical Brownies soon after their formation; Townsend's and other accounts place its genesis earlier - at the dances at Crystal Spring with the augmented Light Crust Doughboys before Brown's departure to form his own group. Here, they claim, the defining characteristic of jazz improvisation first entered into the picture. Ginell argues that this moment did not take place until after Brown had started the Musical Brownies. It's a highly debatable point. Ginell argues his side convincingly, though not irrefutably.

The reminiscences of the surviving Brownies and of fans and musicians (such as the very eloquent Jimmy Thomason, whose memories lend the book some of its most sterling moments) capture the feel of the music, the time, and the places (like the Crystal Springs Dance Pavilion) so vividly that one can smell the dust, sweat, and beer; or hear drummer-turned-pianist "Papa" Calhoun rambunctiously pound his piano or Bob Dunn ferociously tear into his electric steel.

Calhoun, who died in 1987, proves the most vivid storyteller of the Brownies, but they all have their moments. At times, the book approaches the level of, say, Lawrence Ritter's classic baseball oral history The Glory of Their Times. It is, at its best, that vivid, that evocative and moving, that easy to get completely caught up in. (My favorite moments in Townsend's book are those few places where he allows some of the Texas Playboys to wax at length on the joys of playing in that band - Smoky Dacus and the late Danny Alguire were especially eloquent.)

Picturesque details about early recording, about life on the road, about life in Texas in the Depression abound. Although there is a wealth of anecdotal information in the text, Ginell has chosen to pass over many of the more prurient aspects of the Brownies' lives. Drinking was a problem for several bandmembers, but discussion is kept to a minimum - Bob Dunn's drinking is mentioned, for instance, but Derwood Brown's is not, and any questions raised about its possible effect on his bandleading after Milton's death are not raised. Too, any hint of scandal related to the circumstances of Milton Brown's fatal car accident - his passenger, a sixteen year-old girl, was killed instantly - is ignored; Ginell argues rather convincingly, however, that no evidence exists to contradict the details as given here.

This discretion seems not to be mere whitewash, but rather a gentleman's agreement between Ginell and Roy Lee Brown not to air the dirty laundry of men who are nor around to defend themselves. It's an admirable characteristic in a memoir, but something of a shortcoming in a history. As this text falls somewhere between those two, the results are mixed. One drawback to this approach is that it prevents supporting players from emerging as fully-rounded personalities. Only Milton Brown becomes much of a three-dimensional person. We get to know a couple of the Brownies pretty well, Fred Calhoun and bassist Wanna Coffman particularly, because their own voices are so prominent throughout. But one gets little feel for the mysterious Bob Dunn, for example, or for the quiet Ocie Stockard. A notorious friend of the band named Blackie Lawson is the subject of many of the more outrageous anecdotes, and one guesses that the inclusion of so many stories about him is meant to make up for off-color Brownies escapades that were left out.

Derwood Brown, Milton's brother and right-hand man, in particular, remains an enigma. In previous accounts, he's rarely given much credit for his important role in western swing's early days. That oversight is addressed here, but all we really learn about the man is that he was a hellraiser who played his guitar with a singular ferocity. One of the book's most poignant passages, although Ginell relates it rather dryly, is the discussion of the pressures heaped upon twenty-year-old Derwood by Milton's death; these would have been daunting under even the best of circumstances, but in the wake of Milton's sudden and tragic death they must have seemed overwhelming.

Perhaps Ginell's biggest challenge in this book beyond overcoming the Bob Wills legend is capturing Brown's music in words. He is able in his own narration and selected quotes to suggest the feel and excitement of the music, but often not the character. I used to be irked by the misstatements and anachronisms in Ginell's album liner notes - as when he cited in the notes to a Wills album the stylistic influence of electric jazz guitarist Charlie Christian, who began recording in 1939, on an Eldon Shamblin acoustic guitar solo from 1938 - and he makes a few such questionable assertions here. Surely he overemphasizes the impact of the dreary vaudevillian singing of Ted Lewis on Brown. True, Brown incorporated aspects of Lewis's corny recitation into his own recitations, but to argue that Lewis's influence is evident in Brown's singing is an injustice to Brown. Nor, in my opinion, does Brown's voice on pop numbers reflect the stylistic influence of Fred Astaire, as Ginell asserts. Most importantly, Ginell fails to note how far ahead Milton Brown was, not only of hillbilly singers of the day, but also of the majority of pop singers. His rhythm, tone, and lack of stylistic affectation made Milton Brown a startlingly modern singer in 1935, and I can think of very few others from the period whose voices have dated so little. He still sounds great.

Sloppy editing may account for a few other minor errors and questionable assertions. At one point, after noting how Brown was one of the few entertainers ever to part on good terms with W. Lee O'Daniel, the Light Crust Doughboys' boss, Ginell begins a later paragraph with, "With the threat from O'Daniel eliminated . . . " What threat? Later, after several chapters that chronicle Brown's amazing success after forming the Brownies, chapters in which everything seems to go right for Brown, Ginell offers inexplicably, from out of nowhere, "Things were finally going well for Milton Brown."

Similarly the pages on Dunn's electrification of his steel guitar are' contradictory. After detailing Dunn's obsession with amplification in the days before he joined the Brownies, Ginell then seems to suggest that Dunn amplified his instrument once he joined the Brownies not out of his desire to attain a certain style and sound, but merely as a way to be heard in the dancehalls. Both were no doubt factors, but Ginell fails to present the event coherently; considering the moment's historical importance, he probably should have nailed it down more decisively.

There are a few other errors. Fort Worth's fabled "Negro" hotel, the Jim, becomes the "Gem." Pianist Jack Hinson's name is rendered as "Henson" (and to be fair, Ginell is not the first to make the mistake). And I may be wrong, but the musician identified as Claude Davis in a photo of the Hi Flyers looks uncannily like Roscoe Pierce to me. Ginell also lets slip by a chronological error by Fred Calhoun and later repeats the same mistake himself: Calhoun's recordings with Cliff Bruner's band, and his tenure with Ted Daffan, were a decade apart, not contemporary. Certainly the quote in the end notes about Bob Dunn's possible recording activity before he joined Brown, attributed to Shelly Lee Alley Jr., is not Alley's but rather his brother Clyde Brewer's. The quote refers to the speaker's having played with Bob Dunn in Dickie McBride's band. Shelly Lee Alley Jr. was five years old when Dunn left McBride's band to open his music store; Clyde Brewer, however, was a member of the band during Dunn's tenure.

Ginell is also guilty in his end notes of de-emphasizing the importance of singer Dick Reinhart's pre-western swing recordings. He dismisses Reinhart's solo sides as mere cowboy singing, but despite the songs' structures and themes, Reinhart's vocals bear the unmistakable imprint of black Dallas blues singers like Blind Lemon Jefferson, whom Reinhart sought out in Dallas's Deep Elem district to learn from directly. He also fails to mention Reinhart's other recordings from 1929: very jazzy sides - the vocals are emphatically jazz vocals issued on Okeh as by the Three Virginians. It's important to emphasize that western swing was not born out of thin air. Others besides Brown were drawing from jazz and blues and moving in similar directions at the same time he was, and likely before, and it does not diminish Brown's innovations to acknowledge this.

Finally, Ginell's appendices - including a listing of Crystal Springs Ramblers' dance schedules and an annotated exegesis of each Brown recording - are for the serious student or historian, and may be lost on many casual readers. Ginell's details are impressive here, but his stylistic insights are often strained and debatable.

Regardless of any shortcomings one might perceive in Milton Brown and the Founding of Western Swing, there can be little argument that it is a valuable and important document. It's extremely fortunate that Ginell began his research when he did, while a number of the principals involved were still living. (Curiously Townsend interviewed none of these men for San Antonio Rose except for Derwood Brown). Much indispensable history would have died with these men had Ginell not come along when he did to join forces with Roy Lee Brown to tell this long overdue history. Though it likely won't have much immediate impact on popular conceptions, its long term impact may be substantial.

Considering Wills has been dead for almost twenty years and Brown for almost sixty, the controversy surrounding the credit for western swing's founding remains an amazingly volatile one. I write this from Fort Worth, where Brown and Wills started and ended their professional careers, and it's an especially lively topic of debate in certain quarters around here, where many firsthand witnesses of the music's earliest days are still alive.

In late 1991, I interviewed Roy Lee Brown about his brother's career and about the efforts to get the completed manuscript for Milton Brown and the Founding of Western Swing onto bookshelves. An article subsequently appeared in the Fort Worth Star Telegram, and its publication coincided with the annual Texas Steel Guitar Convention in Dallas. A few copies of the piece were passed around at this heavily western swing-oriented event. Many of the participants on the show were former Bob Wills musicians and a majority of the audience were, like me, big Bob Wills fans. The article created something of a buzz. One friend of mine's expression soured when I approached him that day. Someone had just pushed the article in his face, and he was irked. "Nothing against your writing, man," he said, "but I wish Roy Lee would just keep his mouth shut about that stuff."

"It doesn't matter, anyway," he added later, pretty irritated for a guy discussing a subject that didn't matter. "Hell, nobody can prove any of that stuff anyway."

Sixty years after the fact, maybe not. But Cary Ginell's Milton Brown certainly has put the popularly accepted paternity of western swing into question.

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