The rhythm of Europe in the 1930s was a sinister, thudding march. But many young people followed a different beat: they danced to the music of swing.

In this column, we explore the wonders of Europe – artistic masterpieces and jewels of cultural heritage. These are the treasures which fill us with a sense of Europe’s complex past – how beliefs and identities have intertwined to create the continent and the nations whose borders are often so hard to define. In the eighth instalment, Ziemowit Jóźwik invites you to dance to the music of swing.

It rained bombs

If anyone could listen to the heartbeat of Europe in the Thirties, they would probably hear nothing but the sinister, thudding rhythm of a march. The whole Continent was plunged in the Great Depression that once for all ended the crazy years of roaring twenties. The prevailing impression of coming catastrophe cast a shadow on Europe. And those who came to see Picasso’s “Guernica” at the International Exposition dedicated to Art and Technology in Modern Life in Paris in 1937 had no illusions about the dark prophecy the painting provided.

Photo: Charles Russell (PD) |
German troops on the Reichsparteitag in 1935.

The ominous picture was accompanied by a poem written by Picasso’s friend Paul Éluard. But only a few cordial, moderate republicans of the Troisième République, smoothing down their grey hair under elegant bowler hats, believed the poet’s words: “Your death will serve as a warning.” Others perhaps just took a quick, blank glance at the poem’s final line – “and the misery of your life” – and plunged deep into their own thoughts. Guerre-nica, Guerre-nica…

It rained bombs on Guernica; then it rained bombs on Warsaw, and it rained bombs on Rotterdam.

It rained bombs on Coventry; it rained bombs on Brest. It rained bombs on Dresden… (Harold Pinter)

There’s no need to be blue, zah – zuh – zah – zuh – zah – zuh…

Nevertheless, just after visiting the Spanish Pavilion of the Exhibition, most of the Parisians went to completely different places than the Chaillot Palace. Having left the Trocadéro square, which was filled with that rumbling march, they followed an utterly different beat. A rhythm that has nothing in common with the regular succession of tramping tones which characterises Europe’s gloomy thirties. A rhythm that put accents in the places where they wouldn’t normally occur, in places where they wouldn’t be even expected.

To me it don’t mean a thing,

But it’s got a very peculiar swing!

It’s difficult to define when the swing movement began among the European youth. What is known is that across the whole Continent, the emerging authoritarian leaders had problems with insolent young people who didn’t wish to march beside each other in rows.

Although swing came from (African-)American cafes and smoked-filled pub cellars, it found fertile ground in Europe and came into very unique blossom. The young swing fans tried to follow the style of early Hollywood gangster movies. Boys (or rather Old-hot boys, as they often called themselves) wore loose, deep-rise trousers, zoot suits or striped jackets while Jazzkatzes – the girls – put on short skirts and knitted pullovers. Basically, anything that was a bit garish or might express an ostentatiously arrogant attitude to the gloomy reality was highly welcomed. Whether it was an umbrella or a so called Anthony Eden hat (worn at rakish angle), lipstick, shining nails, pencilled eyebrows or even a cigarette, or two, dangling from both corners of the mouth. All of this was not just an idle masquerade. It was the protest of a generation whose youth was to be stolen. Sooner or later, the French Zazous, who called themselves after the refrain of a famous Cab Calloway song, were better known as Judeo-Gaullists, while the seemingly innocent competition between Hitler Youth and the Swing kids or the Edelweiss Pirates soon changed into a real manhunt.

Swing Heil!

The pre-war music with its swashbuckling rhythm and tone accompanied by the dominance of the wind section and the crying clarinets still tease our ears – and not only because of the musical mastery or the airy innocent subtlety behind the rustles and swishes of an old gramophone record that is so difficult to find in the current hits. We cannot avoid the impression that probably also made the Europeans shiver before the cataclysm of WWII. Any dance could be the last. Each song might be drowned out by “the rain of bombs” or at least an intervention of the authoritarian state police, which organised regular crusades in the name of “public morality” or “high national culture.”

Photo: degenerate art (PD) |
A racist poster from the Nazi era, depicting the “degenerate music” supposedly played by black and Jewish musicians.

Yet the music itself was an amazing phenomenon totally inadequate to the bitter circumstances. Not only was it cheerful, colourful and spontaneous. Just to mention one of the biggest swing stars of the turn of the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich who was originally a Romanian-Ukrainian-Polish Jew from Bukovina known as James Kok. He was probably a friend of a Belgian-French star Jean “Django” Reinhardt – the founder of hot gypsy guitar jazz. We also shouldn’t forget one of “the hottest” Polish songs of those times which was said to be crazy Arabian-Jewish foxtrot about a guy called “Abdul Bey.” Now we can only imagine those semi-conspiratorial Tanzpalasts, secret cafes of Berlin, Hamburg, Paris, Budapest or Kyiv where they gathered. So, let me give the floor to a talented Hitler Youth reporter from Hamburg:

“The sight of some three hundred dancing people thrashing about was absolutely horrid. No one can describe the dancing because no one danced normally. Indeed, this was the naughtiest of Swing dancing that can be imagined. Sometimes two boys danced with one juvenile girl, and at other times several couples locked themselves into a mass embrace and just hopped around. Many couples hopped together while holding hands and bent over wildly, so that their long hair flew across their faces and whipped their thighs as they spun. (…) The band increased the tempo faster by the minute. No member of the band was sitting, because they were all getting hotter and wilder as they also succumbed to the jungle beat on the stage.”

Life is just a bowl of cherries

In the times of militarism and the general fall of mankind, this lively music came back to the very inner aspects of joyous humanity. When Europe seemed to be a doomed place, swing was trying to enable the people to reverse the horror that was happening outside. Today, this music sounds tragically naïve. Those witty and pure songs seem to be some very moving melodies of a lost, destroyed world that were drowned out by the rumbles and crashes of the war.

However, in the light of the coming catastrophe, wasn’t that actually the best way to protest? To put on gaudy clothes instead of feldgrau and dance (which is really too weak a word to describe the acrobatic figures they were able to make) when the nations were ordered to march. But anyway,

It makes no difference where you go,

There’s one thing that they sure do know

There’s no need for them to be blue,

For the zaz-zuh-zaz will always see them through!

Photo: Carl Weinrother (Wikimedia Commons); Licence: CC BY-SA 3.0 DE |
Girls getting ready for a ball in Berlin, 1934.

… because all in all:

Life is just a bowl of cherries.

Don’t be so serious; life’s too mysterious.

You work, you save, you worry so,

But you can’t take your dough when you go, go, go.

So keep repeating it’s the berries,

The strongest oak must fall,

The sweet things in life, to you were just loaned

So how can you lose what you’ve never owned?

Life is just a bowl of cherries,

So live and laugh at it all.

And now imagine your (great)grandparents dancing like this…

If you’d like to hear more swing from the 1930s and 40s, here are a few songs from across Europe:

Benny Goodman: Sing Sing Sing

Ambrose and his Orchestra, with Evelyn Dall: Joseph! Joseph

Kalmár Pál: Giling, galang, szól a harang

Henryk Gold Orchestra with Janusz Popławski: Piękne Rumunki

Otto Stenzel Orchestra with Wilfried Sommer: Musik! Musik!

Die Weintraubs: Ich bin der Hans im Glück

Das Bar Trio: Haben Sie schon mal im Dunkeln geküsst?

Django Reinhardt: J’attendrai swing

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