Chuck (charlesofcamden) wrote,

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Sister Act

A sharp-eyed reader of this journal asked me a well considered, probing question the other day. I believe this was the exact quote: “Who the hell are the Boswell Sisters?” Ah! Let me tell you about them. As a devoted fan, I wish more people knew about them.

The Boswell Sisters really were sisters, Martha, Connie, and Helvetia (“Vet”). I say “were” because the last of them, Vet, died in 1988. They were an important part of the popular music landscape in the 1930s. Their sound featured tight, close harmonies and imaginative changes in rhythm and pacing. Their backing bands and collaborators included the likes of the Dorsey Brothers, Benny Goodman, and Glenn Miller. They were, in the early 20th century American tradition, a true melting pot of musical influences, bringing the sounds of New Orleans, where they grew up, together with the barber shop sound they had always sung with one another, as well as the early jazz styles being played in New York, where they did the bulk of their professional work. The result was something new, a sound that had never before been distilled. This led to a letter that was sent by a listener to a radio station that was airing a Boswell Sisters performance, a letter which was one of Vet’s most prized possessions. It asked that the station please stop airing the Boswells’ music, because it sounded like “savage chanting.” To the sisters, this was proof that they were onto something. When you listen to the Boswells’ music with 21st century ears, it’s hard to imagine what that listener was hearing, but I think it’s instructive to try!

That reminds me of a story from my own experience, as these things so often do. I had brought in a Boswells CD to my day job, and I asked the woman with whom I shared a cubicle whether she would mind if I played it. I warned her that it might be a musical style she was unfamiliar with. “Oh, go ahead,” she said, “I like all kinds of music!” After a couple songs, she suddenly turned and asked if I would please turn it off. I reminded her of her statement about liking all kinds of music. “Well yes I do,” she replied, “but this is like bad cartoon music!” I thought that if the Boswells had heard that, it might have given them a smile.

So why aren’t the Boswell Sisters better remembered? Well they, like their music, were a product of their times. By 1936, they had all gotten married, so Martha and Vet abruptly retired from performing, though their popularity at the time was undiminished. Connie continued to perform as a solo act well into the 1950s but the sisters as a group weren’t around to enjoy the boom in the recording industry that took place in the 40s and 50s. There were various lucrative offers made over the years for the sisters to reunite, but they always refused, feeling that the music they made together was a product of their lives together, and now that they were leading separate lives, it would no longer be appropriate, or even possible, for them to reunite. But they still have a steady following today, as shown by the fact that I’ve been able to acquire about ten different CDs of their recordings over the years. If you’re one of my Chicago friends, I’d be happy to loan you some of them. In any event, I think their music is as much fun to listen to as anything I’ve found!

One more add-in about the Boswells: They could be accused, with some justification, of being an early example of how white recording artists would appropriate music from black musicians while opportunities were severely limited for the original artists. But remember that old saying about what goes around, comes around? No less an artist than Ella Fitzgerald once said that she learned how to sing by listening to Connie Boswell records! I think you could look at that not only as a payback of sorts, but perhaps also as a statement that it’s difficult to draw firm boundaries between segments of a society when the topic is the evolution of such a collaborative art form. But I digress. Long live the Boswells!

Just a tip of the cap to my former coworker Jean who about ten years ago introduced me to the Boswell Sisters. So I'm just trying to pass it on!

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