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Musings on Swing

I travel a lot. I’m on planes a lot. On a Friday afternoon recently, headed back home to DCA from Madison, I needed to clear my brain. I turned to my trusty iPhone to provide some soothing tunes. Offline Pandora provided me one of my favorite stations: Swing Radio.

Now, I didn’t know much about swing music until I was about 11 years old. That’s when I met my (soon to be) Uncle Dick. You see Richard Whitt was about to marry my maternal aunt Alba Edmé Colon. I never realized how lucky I to be the unwitting beneficiary of this marriage made in heaven.

Uncle Dick grew up in Georgetown in DC in the 30s and 40s and was a deep source of expertise on swing. Once they married, I can’t remember going into their home or their second home (a condo in Ocean City, MD) when Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Artie Shaw,  or countless other swing artists weren’t playing on the record player. (I’ll add in here one of my favorites from a slightly later time, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald). 

Let me try to give you a visual here. Uncle Dick was about 5’6” with a suitable little belly for an avid beer drinker. Slate grey hair cut close and glasses that did nothing to diminish the perpetual twinkle of his Irish blue eyes.

Uncle Dick was a true lover of life. He loved to hang out and watch people practice their skill set and he was perpetually inquisitive mind on how things got done. I remember standing with him on a fishing wharf on the eastern shore of VA. We must have stood there for a good hour watching the crab boats come in with their catch. Bushel basket after bushel basket of fat crabs were unloaded for sale. Uncle Dick watched it all with the silent attentiveness of a hawk. This would also happen at construction sites or parks – pretty much anywhere. He was a keen observer of all around him.

What makes me write about him today is that love of swing. I believe it is impossible to feel sadness when you hear swing music. The beat, the rhythm, the (mostly) innocent lyrics – there’s just something about that genre that makes you move and put a smile on my face. I associate that joy directly with Uncle Dick. I never saw him angry or short-tempered or in a foul mood. On the contrary, he was always serenely joyful. Like an impish elf who knows a secret. When the music would play, he’d whistle and hum to the tunes and you just couldn’t help but be happy.

It didn’t hurt that he’d throw in some crazy ditty that he had learned along his life’s road:

I woke up in the morning and looked up on the wall.

The chinches and the bedbugs were having a game of ball.

The score was two to nothing.

The chinches were ahead.

The bedbugs knocked a home run and knocked me right out of bed!

On the plane that prompted these musings, I was thinking about the time of swing music. An era of deep darkness in the world with the tension and eventual darkness of World War II. It amazes me to hear the light in the music and think of the backdrop of world conflict and all the unspeakable horror that all wars bring. My musing brain wonders, “Why swing? Why then? Was swing music one ray of light to fight against such darkness? To push it back? To give courage and hope to the boys who fought so valiantly, whether they be on the Allied or Axis side?

That joy taught in what Uncle Dick did, the music he listened is particularly profound to me know at mid-life knowing he cared for his first wife, his mother-in-law, and my grandmother on their journeys battling diseases that would eventually lead to death. To me, h his generosity, gentleness and joyful spirit will be always associated with swing.