Trains blare their horns louder in the mornings than in the evenings. At least that’s what it sounded like the two time I lived next to train tracks in two different American cities. The first time was at some on-campus apartment housing in Houston where trains passed throughout the day, sometimes up to six. A few years later, I lived directly next to the main train tracks in Corvallis, a small Oregon town. Here the train passed four times a day, once around 6 am, then at 2 pm, later at around 7 pm and again at about 10 pm. I knew this because the bar next to our house served $1 shots whenever the train passed, and on particularly tough days we’d sprint over in whatever we were wearing and down some tequila before heading back home and resuming whatever miserable conversation we were having at the time. The train also became my running partner if I timed it right. I’d emerge from the house in time with the whistle signaling its approach and run alongside the conductor’s car for the three blocks before the sidewalk ended and they continued along their journey. I’d try to maintain that pace for the next 3 miles, hurtling across 3 lane streets at times. I start with all this because although we are temporally distant from the time of swing’s emergence, I recognized in reading Joel Dinerstein’s Swinging the Machine that the train still has managed to allow for some of my actions, dips into spontaneous drunkenness and increased running speeds.
The ideas Dinerstein explores in his book on swing’s emergence as a response to 20th century industrial modernization both fascinate and trouble me. Fascinating in the manner that he shows how swing worked make sense and beauty out of industrial cacophony, Dinerstein stating ““Big bands smoothed out industrial noise and overwhelmed mechanical cacophony arguing “Big bands smoothed out industrial noise and overwhelmed mechanical cacophony with massed blowing power under human control, as rendered by trumpet, saxophone, and trombone sections” (Dinerstein 64). I like the idea that musicians were able to suss out beauty out of the perceived elegance of pistons, and rotating gears in order to “stylize machine aesthetics” (Dinerstein 139). Really impressive about these musician’s efforts is how they emerged from the ambient circumstances of the African American experience, slavery and the continued oppression of black bodies, as well as the music brought up from West Africa and discreetly preserved within black plantation culture. Dinerstein’s book therefore serves as a corrective to insert African Americans into not only America’s 20th century musical history, but also into its history of technology as a socio-technical system that helped to bring Americans up to speed the quickening rates desired of American bodies by American capitalism.
That gets me the troubling question the first half of this book brought to mind. What does a quickened way of living do for our sense of value for a minute, and how does a quicker tempo of life play a role in determining consumption habits as well as worthy activities to occupy time? My interest in this stems from a memory of early work on my thesis on Belize wherein I read in Tom Barry’s book Inside Belize (1992) that in his early observations of the country’s languid pace of life, he thought the country’s people may not be able to work enough to sustain our own lives. This reading initially haunted me for the issue of pacing seemed appropriate as a cause for Belize’s stagnant economy. However, I later realized that this assumption of quickness being an appropriate speed was likely another side effect of Western intellectual hegemony. This was reinforced in a recent reading of Polly Pattullo’ Last Resorts wherein she states regarding Caribbean multinational resorts that “multinationals champion efficiency do not get what they want from Caribbean people who do not desire the same goals as them” (Pattullo 80). Although it is arguable whether these desires wildly diverge from global north people, or if the Caribbean’s slow pace is moreso due to high unemployment and its hot climate, the ubiquity of quick living with good productive lives seems like its infringed upon parts of the world wherein there exists no work to be done at the quick pace of metropolitans like NY. Yet within these spaces there is a hunger for fast consumption, for the wealthy to find swing’s pace in the swiping of a debit card and the swig of a shot.