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Performances in Swing: A Cultural History of Women Singers of Big Bands, 1930s-1950s.

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Title:Performances in Swing: A Cultural History of Women Singers of Big Bands, 1930s-1950s.
Authors:Hall, Jeanette T.
Contributors:American Studies (department)
Keywords:big band
jazz studies
music history
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Date Issued:Aug 2018
Publisher:University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
Abstract:Although women singers of big bands from the 1930s to the 1950s claimed the
microphone and the spotlight, few were taken seriously as musicians or as key players in
American jazz and popular music history. This project—a cultural history—aims to shine a
spotlight once again on those singers. My project examines less-known and analyzed women
singers—including Helen Humes, Kay Starr, Helen Forrest, Thelma Carpenter, Louise Tobin,
and Maxine Sullivan—to understand why and how these women’s stories were etched into
history in ways that often minimized their contributions, music, and labor. Both the mainstream
press and music magazines vigorously debated these singers’ authenticity, vocal talent, and
ability to connect with a blues and jazz tradition, often crafting predictable narratives about
singers’ lives and stories. Through intersectional analysis, I demonstrate how big band singers’
music performances and performances of identity complicated these predictable narratives by
challenging: traditional boundaries of genre (such as categories of jazz, blues, and popular
music), the black-white binary present in jazz discourse, acceptable expressions of womanhood
and sexuality, and expectations of “private” issues remaining apart from the public realm. My
dissertation approaches performance through an interdisciplinary research practice, utilizing
cultural studies, sound studies, performances studies, music, and history to understand the social,
cultural, and political effects of various performance practices found within women’s jazz
singing. I also conduct discourse analysis of newspapers, performance reviews, and record
reviews in magazines like Down Beat, Billboard, and Metronome to gain insight into how
communities received, endorsed, or scrutinized singers. Accounting for big band singers’
performances of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, body, and voice allows us to conceptualize
their life stories and music differently, showing the power of performances in conveying the limitations and constructions of societal norms to audiences. These performances highlight the
significance of women’s gendered labor in contrast to the often reductionist stories told in
dominant discourse. This project demonstrates how past music critics worked to maintain jazz as
an exclusive, masculine domain in how they wrote about women singers, but also shows how
singers both shaped and contested boundaries of jazz and popular music.
Description:Ph.D. Thesis. University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa 2018.
Rights:All UHM dissertations and theses are protected by copyright. They may be viewed from this source for any purpose, but reproduction or distribution in any format is prohibited without written permission from the copyright owner.
Appears in Collections: Ph.D. - American Studies

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