“Charleston” created a national dance craze and an iconic cultural phenomenon of the twenties–one that is still referenced in homages, nostalgia and plain kitsch. Yet while Johnson and Shirley’s American Dance Bands on Record and Film 1915-42 lists just eight recordings of James P. Johnson’s hit, and Tom Lord’s Jazz Discography website lists merely fifteen recordings of the song made during the twenties, cursory research shows about eighty song titles alone that simply start with the word “Charleston.” That number excludes tunes such as “Springtime In Charleston,” “Wait ‘Till You See My Baby Do The Charleston” and others (not to mention bands such as the Charleston Chasers, the Charleston Entertainers, etc.). A quick word search at The Online Discographical Project yields over 100 hits.

The music industry was probably eager to exploit the popularity of the dance and the name. Unlike the blues craze of the early twenties, when anything from a pop number to a novelty instrumental might get “blues” slapped onto its title, many Charleston knockoffs actually included the famous Charleston rhythm. The two-note phrase sung to “Charles-TON, Charles-TON!” in Johnson’s original may have seemed like a short, catchy callout that would be much easier to incorporate and expand upon than the vast rhythmic and harmonic vocabulary of the blues.

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The industry, in turn, brought an astounding variety to this combination of a long note starting on the downbeat followed by a short note on the upbeat (and this writer asks musicians to please excuse his oversimplification). Songwriters, arrangers, and musicians needed to put their spin on a well-known sound, which had a shelf life as long as the consumer’s famously short attention span. Commercial demand yielded a supply of well-crafted, energetic music.

Xylophone virtuoso George Hamilton Green‘s “Charleston Capers” grafts the rhythm onto a ragtime piece as a climactic phrase ending:

Zez Confrey’s “Charleston Chuckles” merely hints at the Charleston in the first strain but doesn’t let it rip until the end of that section. The rhythm remains instantly recognizable, remarkably catchy and immediately grooving:

On “Charleston, Charleston, Show Me The Way,” the Savoy Havana Band passes the phrase around, first in the brass’s response to the saxes on the introduction, then in a modified version of it played by the brass in the first chorus, and then in its basic form by the reeds:

Once “Charleston” took off, it must have seemed like a commercial goldmine with the added benefit of being quite musical. Unlike a craze such as “Yes! We Have No Bananas!” this musical sensation gave musicians a simple and very effective device, like answering the sustained chords on Max Terr’s “Charleston Bound,” making a kind of cameo appearance during an orchestral effect:

The Savoy Havana Band’s “Tonight’s My Night With Baby” contrasts the Charleston rhythm with a slightly different one for a sense of release then tension, further hinted at in breaks for the sax section. This one must have kept the dancers on their creative as well as literal toes:

The woodblocks and piano chords on Don Bestor’s “Charleston Baby Of Mine” add a Latin feel, alluding to the rhythm’s origins in the Cuban Habanera:

At the other end of rhythmic flexibility, German bandleader’s Efim Schachmeister “Oh, So Ein Charlston!” takes its title literally, seeming to stumble into a Charleston after a quaint old world frolic:

Listeners who think that pre-swing jazz musicians playing two-beat jazz were just doing “oom-pah” should check out this rhythm and hear just what the rag-a-jazzers were able to do with syncopation and inflection.

The line between jazz and dance music was wonderfully thin during the Charleston’s heyday, but the Charleston rhythm began to leave a special mark in more overtly jazz contexts. On “Charleston Clarinet Blues,” it functions as a ground rhythm for Bob Fuller’s wailing and chanting:

Bert Firman’s ”Charleston Charlie” uses the rhythm as a stop time ensemble shout towards the end of the record:

Tom Morris’s smartly-arranged “Original Charleston Strut” recasts the rhythm for a stomp chorus in the middle of the record, while Morris’s solo implies rather than states the rhythm:

Devices like these point ahead to use of the rhythm in countless solo licks, background riffs, comp figures and elsewhere in modern jazz. The Charleston is a basic rudiment of jazz today. Just hear how simply but magically it clicks in with the saxes playing it over the rhythm section’s steady four behind the flugelhorn soloist in Patrick Williams’s arrangement of “All Or Nothing At All”:

There is a certain humor to the Charleston, as a piece of pop ephemera, leaving its fingerprints on the hallowed halls of America’s classical music. There is also the majesty of jazz’s ability to synthesize popular fads into its expressive range. Yet that little rhythm literally continues to speak for itself.

The Charleston’s reach back in time is as remarkable as its resilience. Johnson composed “Charleston” for the show Runnin’ Wild, yet he was supposedly inspired by the music he heard from residents of Charleston, South Carolina while visiting the city. The origin of that local music probably predates recorded or even written music and is best left to the historical excavations of ethnomusicologists. More than an outdated fad or a period trope, “Charleston” is a folk artifact translated into a show tune, which spawned a national phenomenon that entered into the DNA of American vernacular music. All that, and you can dance to it.


2 thoughts on “Charlestoniana

  1. jazzlives says:

    A seriously lavish banquet of sounds and cultural history. Not in the spirit of one-upmanship but in the spirit of play, I wonder if your readers know the second vocal chorus of this song, where the reaction to the Charleston craze is homicidal, and I do not exaggerate. Did James P. Johnson get his feelings hurt? I hope he was too busy enjoying the royalties to feel in the least threatened:

  2. tronepone says:

    Charleston must have been the best dance. After all, that was the primary function of the music played by most of these bands, what drew people to places like Smalls Paradise.

    That the figure was, as you point out, so short and catchy is what kept it in play and allowed its use in so many contexts, compared to, for example, the inflexible (and annoying) “doo-wacka-doo” that came and went in a few months circa 1924.

    Many of my favorite bands and performances of the twenties are Charleston style. I can’t sit still to this Charlie Johnson record.

    Thanks for another insightful essay.

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