Spinning the Webb: Representational Spaces, Mythic Narratives, and the 1937 Webb/Goodman Battle of Music

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Benny Goodman and Chick Webb's 1937 battle of music has become a mythic event in jazz historical narratives, enshrined as the unique spectacle that defines Harlem's Savoy Ballroom and its legacy. While this battle has been marked as exceptional and unique, as an event it was a relatively typical instantiation of the battle of music format, a presentational genre common in black venues during the 1920s and 1930s. Within African American communities, battles of music re-staged ballrooms as symbolically loaded representational spaces where dueling bands regularly served as oppositional totems that indexed differences of locality (Chicago vs. New York), gender (men vs. women), ethnicity (Anglo- or African American vs. Latin), or race (black vs. white). This article details the ten-year history of battles of music that preceded the Webb/Goodman battle and that made its signifying rhetoric legible within African American communities. It then argues that the disconnect between the battle's relatively typical signifying rhetoric and its subsequent enshrinement as an exceptional event occurred due to a specific confluence of circumstances in the mid-1930s that shaped its immediate reception and subsequent legacy: Goodman's emergence as the King of Swing during a new period of massive mainstream popularity for swing music, a coterminous vigilance among both white and black jazz writers to credit black artists as jazz's originators and best practitioners, and the emergence of athletes Jesse Owens and Joe Louis as popular black champions symbolically conquering white supremacy at home and abroad.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)176-196
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of the Society for American Music
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 1 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Music


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