Lindy Hop may just be the coolest dance genre you’ve never heard of. In my opinion it is certainly one of the most important.
As far as the dancing goes, think of it as the mamma and pappy of rock and roll, Black people making the moves that the White folks would follow some years down the line.
If yours is a passing interest, then watching the video above is what it is all about – you’ll want to watch the whole 5 minutes as it takes a time to get going. The rest of this article is my own opinion on the importance of Lindy Hop to what went after it, and also the impossibly awful world of bigotry and racism that surrounded it. If you are interested please read on, but if you are only here for the music, that’s fine and dandy too. I hope you enjoy the video.
Where Elvis Learnt His Moves
The influence of Rhythm and Blues in the birth of Rock and Roll is well known and documented. But for some reason the big part Lindy Hop also played has never gained the credit it deserves.
The famous gyrating pelvis of Elvis Presley had TV companies respond to public decency complaints by broadcasting him from the waist up only – but Elvis didn’t get those moves watching a farm labourer play a harmonica down on the bayou, he got it from Lindy Hop.
And everything you think of as the Jive, all the jumping and catching, sliding and spinning, that’s all Lindy Hop too. Just better somehow, like the Jive with added twerking. And it was in full swing more than a decade before anyone had uttered the phrase ‘rock and roll’.
If the groin thrusting of Elvis got the TV company’s knickers in a twist in the 1950s, the idea of Black people doing the same and worse on 1940s screens would have been almost unthinkable.
Lindy Hop in Ibiza at the Sunset Swing Festival
Though America was about to join a world war against dictatorial racism, it was in the main comfortable with its own brand of self determined racism. This was exercised most visibly through segregation and exclusion, not only for the cinema audience, but for the acting profession too. In a testament interview, Dr. Mamie Clayton, Founder of the Black American Cinema Society, said that in her young years “the only brown skin I remember seeing on the screen was Bambi”.
It was almost unthinkable, but thankfully not completely unthinkable. The history of music should be grateful that the producers of the 1941 film ‘Hellzapoppin’ were able to sidestep enough of the conservative White ‘moral majority’ outrage to include Lindy Hop in their film. Grateful for having it recorded on film that is, but the method of doing so will divide opinion. They got it onto the screen by portraying the Lindy Hoppers in roles that would minimise discent, by ensuring the viewer knows that these Black people ‘know their place’, which is that of cooking, cleaning and fetching.
The grinning White suits at the door add to the feeling that we are watching a scene by a lazy film maker depicting an off-the-boat-arrival montage of some South Sea island natives performing their heathen rituals as titillating but essentially subjugated tourist novelties.
At least I certainly hope the film makers were doing what they had to in getting the film made, as otherwise the footage comes with a nasty bitter taste. I am confident that they must have taken these conscious decisions, as otherwise why include the scene at all? To include it would be very risky, so why take that risk unless you wanted to show the talent?
Birth of rock & Roll
The clip starts with Jazz of the period, fine but unremarkable. You’ll need to see the 5 minutes through to get the picture.
Cue the drums, and from there it is like watching Rock and Roll being born in front of your eyes. Again, this is 1941 remember, not 51. This film was made eleven years before Bill Hailey released ‘Rock Around the Clock’, thirteen years before Elvis recorded his first song ‘That’s Alright’. In musical terms that is the same timeframe in which all of Glam Rock, Punk Rock and New Romantic came and went in the U.K. Given Rock and Roll is credited as a musical revolution, Lindy Hop was an eon ahead of the curve.
And sorry, though there may be some positive intentions among those in the Lindy Hop world who try to show white people were part of the early days too, watch the feature video above, and then this often presented evidence piece from another 1941 film. Come on, these are not one and the same. It is like comparing the pogo to square dancing, a pot of tea to a bottle of tequila. If you create a segregated society you cannot start grizzling about there being differences between the races. You know what, I would not use a film of entirely white dancers to present my case that white people were integrated with a black music movement.
I do not dispute Blues as being a huge influence on Rock and Roll, of course it was, but in my opinion it is inaccurate and unfair to say Rock and roll came from the Blues alone. If Blues gave Rock and Roll its rhythm and soul, Lindy Hop provided its energy and desire.
Without the energy Rock and Roll would just be more Blues. And all good music needs desire. Whether it is Wagner invoking some primeval desire of teutonic pride, or the sinuous Latin sexuality of Salsa, the best music must make you feel you want it, it must stir something in you.
To be portraying that sensuality so openly and unashamedly in 1941, and for it to be Black people at the centre of it, truly groundbreaking. Up there and beyond the likes of Tony Wilson putting the Sex Pistols on TV, or the first Lesbian Kiss on Brookside – and yes I say these ironically as it sounds so ridiculous to even think these ‘events’ are worthy of mention. But in the 70s and 90s they were huge, society had its face slapped. I have no doubt that wherever Hellzapoppin was shown in the 40s, it would be to picture houses full of jaw-dropped Americans. White ones of course.
Music is the Answer
I have long advocated the unsung importance of Lindy Hop in birth of Rock and Roll, and through that its importance to the evolution of music as a whole. Many others argue the same for the Blues.
But frankly these arguments are archaic and obscene. These precursor musical styles, usually music of black origin, should not need people arguing for them, seeking scraps of recognition in their validation as contributors to a commercial white music that followed. They should not be relegated to the first 5 minutes in a ‘history of’ documentary detailing the journey of some White artist who acknowledges their part as influence or inspiration.
Elvis, Bill Haley, and all the early Rock and Roll pioneers; they were not more successful than the Black artists that went before them because they were better, and they were not original in doing something new. They were just the first white people to do what black people had already been doing for a long time. They were doing that same thing, but inside a skin colour that could be sold to an American consumer society.
That was then and this is now. We can’t turn the clock back, we cannot right the wrongs to all those who time has now taken. But we can make reparations, and sometimes that is just about setting the record straight. Which is what i try to do for Lindy Hop as and when the opportunity presents.
But for all these issues of racism highlighted by the film clip, racism that was the norm of society at the time, I doubt I would be championing the Lindy Hop cause if i didn’t love the music.
I love the energy, I love the passion, and I love that it says how amazing music and dance is to give such joy in a world so stacked against you. It is like that Jurassic Park line, ‘life will find a way’. When you see the dancers and musicians there is joy all over their faces, ‘joy will find a way’, and to find the joy you need music. And as everyone knows, music is the answer.