Swing Supremacy

by Published on
photo courtesy www.BobWills.com
A still from the 1945 film Lawless Empire featuring Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys.

For anyone who thinks the 82nd session of the Texas Legislature wasn’t bizarre enough, there’s this. A few weeks ago, three Republican representatives wearing cowboy hats sang a chorus of “Miles and Miles of Texas” on the floor of the House. It was a surreal act of political persuasion. Rep. Doug Miller, a New Braunfels Republican, drawled his way through the classic by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys while colleagues Sid Miller, a Republican from Stephenville, and Waco Republican Charles “Doc” Anderson banged on the podium and groaned out harmonies to convince the House to support a resolution making Western swing the official music of Texas. When they were finished, Rep. Rodney Anderson, a Grand Prairie Republican, cried uncle: “I can support it as long as you guys aren’t singin’,” he said. Everybody laughed. Then everybody voted yea.

But if Republican legislators thought they could pass Senate Concurrent Resolution 51 without stirring up controversy just because it didn’t slice up Democratic counties or force women to do missionary work before getting mammograms, they were mistaken. This is Texas, and Texans take Texas music as seriously as they do taxes. The idea that lawmakers would determine Western swing is “more Texas” than tejano, conjunto, blues, outlaw country, Lubbock rock, indie rock, or screwed and chopped Houston hip-hop, was too much for Texans. Almost as soon as the resolution was proposed, musicians, music fans and others took to the Internet to voice their discontent. Even Ray Benson, the leader of Western swing’s current flagbearers, Asleep at the Wheel, questioned the Legislature’s decision. “I would hate to have to stand next to my fellow musicians who play blues, rock and roll, jazz, opera, and say, ‘Your music is not our official Texas music,’” Benson said. 

Western swing—which in its time was a revolutionary blend of country, Dixieland jazz, African-American blues, polka and big-band swing—can still move a dance floor. But it long ago lost its ability to unsettle or surprise. It’s become a museum piece, ripe for revues and nostalgia tours, but hardly breaking new ground. Meanwhile, Texas hip-hop, which has given us UGK and Chamillionaire; Texas indie rock, which has given us the Butthole Surfers and Spoon; and Texas Tejano, which has given us Selena and Emilio, have continued to evolve. Why look back to a petrified genre to honor your state?

Asking “what music is the most Texan” is another way of asking “who does Texas belong to?” Establishing Western swing as the official music of Texas is a not-so-subtle claim to an old, white, male version of Texas by a predominately old, white, male Legislature. It’s a traditional, comfortable and simple identity, a throwback to a time when cowboys roamed the range, white men were unchallenged and the ‘60s hadn’t screwed everything up.

Other genres never had a chance. Houston hip-hop, with its molasses beats and references to candy cars, purple drinks and other inscrutable slang, is a convenient sonic representation of everything conservatives feel is wrong with Texas cities: the crime, the liberalism, the permissiveness. More to the point, it sounds black, which to our legislators doesn’t sound like Texas at all. Tejano, meanwhile, speaks to an even more confusing world, in which ethnicity and nationality aren’t clear, a world of porous borders and foreign tongues and rapidly changing demographics. Tejano is the soundtrack that accompanies the end of the white majority in Texas. To a conservative, white Texan watching his state changing before his eyes, drawing a musical line in the Legislature is a symbolic, but significant, gesture of exclusion. It’s us or them.

Maybe I’m taking this whole thing too seriously. Maybe the resolution was proposed and passed all in fun, a lark, a throwaway meant to ease tension at the end of a contentious session. Maybe Doug Miller, who co-sponsored the bill authorizing “Choose Life” license plates; Sid Miller, who co-wrote the bill requiring women to get sonograms before abortions; and Doc Anderson, who co-wrote the voter ID bill, are really just decent, tolerant, Texas-loving public servants with nothing but good intentions, and songs, in their hearts.

Josh Rosenblatt writes about film from New York City.