Celebrating the Sounds of Women’s History Month

March 9, 2010

Last year while shelving CDs at the library, I stumbled across a disc by the Boswell Sisters called That’s How the Rhythm Was Born. I had never heard of the Boswell Sisters before, but something about the song titles and the old photograph on the album cover enticed me to take a chance on the disc, and so I checked it out and took it home. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, but when the swinging, harmonized hot jazz voices of the sisters jumped out of my speakers for the first time, I immediately stopped what I was doing and headed over to the stereo to have a better listen. The Boswell Sisters had an amazing vocal sound that was unlike anything I’d heard before (think Andrews Sisters, only cooler and more fun) and still sounded remarkably fresh even 75 years after it was recorded. 

The three Boswell Sisters (Martha, Connee, and Helvetia) were born in the South and raised in New Orleans in the early years of the 20th Century. Growing up listening to Southern gospel and blues music greatly influenced the sisters’ sound, as did listening to their parents and relatives sing barbershop-style songs. The girls never took voice lessons, instead finding their incredible close harmony sound as they went, and began performing in vaudeville theaters around New Orleans and on local radio. In 1925 they cut their first record, but didn’t garner much attention until they moved to New York City in 1930 and started appearing on national radio broadcasts. Over the next five years they made numerous recordings and had 20 hit records, including the number one record, “The Object of My Affection” in 1935. The Sisters worked with a who’s who of great jazz performers during the early thirties, and their performances are generally considered among jazz aficionados to be high water marks of vocal jazz recordings. The Boswells were known for their playful take on well known songs and melodies, changing, rearranging, speeding up and slowing down, and generally turning the tunes inside out. This was quite rare for the era, as most music publishers at the time forbid performers from altering the melodies of popular songs. The Boswells were among the few performers allowed this liberty, and they took full advantage and used it to create their signature sound. In 1936 the group broke up as Martha and Helvetia retired from show business to settle down into married life. Only Connee (who, by the way, was named as a major influence by none other than Ella Fitzgerald) continued on with her singing career, and was quite successful, recording all the way up through the 1950s.

These days, info about and recordings of the Boswell Sisters can be hard to come by. And just like myself before happening across one of their CDs here at the library, most people seem never to have heard of them. It is strange and humbling to think that performers who were hugely popular in their day and so widely influential to the history of vocal jazz to boot have virtually vanished from the cultural consciousness in just under 80 years. Time moves very fast these days; culture is fickle and constantly replacing itself with the next, the newest, and the best. It makes me wonder just what will be left of today’s popular culture in another 80 years, and if it will hold up as well the music of the Boswell Sisters and if it will bring as many smiles to future listeners’ faces as the Boswells have brought to mine.

If you want to hear the sisters’ fun and joyful sounds for yourself, click on the links below. The first is a performance of the song “Heebie Jeebies,” from the 1932 film The Big Broadcast, and the second is a recording of their super fun version of “Shuffle Off to Buffalo.” And for even more information on the Boswell Sisters, check out their website which, among other things, features five downloadable lessons to educate you about just how the sisters achieved their unique sound. Enjoy!

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a9Afn3Z-BWI] [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ITyWVK9ZWcA]

Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.

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