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Blue Highways and Sweet Music: The Territory Bands, Part II

Karl Ackermann By

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Originally called The Swinging Rays, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm were formed in the 1930s by students at the Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi. Despite its easy, comfortable name, the boarding school was home to mostly orphans and poor children of all races (though predominantly black children). One of those children was Helen Jones, who had been adopted by the school's founder and went on to be the band's first leader. Jones' father had a progressive vision for the co-ed school, especially considering the time and place. While he enforced academic standards, he also had a dream that the school would produce a first-class, all-female dance band. The musical education of the girls was two-fold—Dr. Jones saw the band as a potentially effective fund-raising tool, and it was, though it split from the school in later years. Sherrie Tucker, in her book Swing Shift (Duke University Press, 2000), tells of the praise the group received from many of the more than two-hundred black newspapers that existed in the 1930s. The actual makeup of the band's members was unprecedentedly diverse with Latina, Asian, White, Black, Indian and Puerto Rican musicians.

International Sweethearts' saxophonist Rosalind (Roz) Cron joined the group at the age of eighteen and was one of very few white musicians in the band. As the group traveled through the South, the Boston native was stunned by the level of discrimination and hate shown to her bandmates of color. Cron was arrested in El Paso when she attempted to "pass as black," partially in solidarity with those bandmates but also because doing so would avoid the appearance of outlawed integration. In the Judy Chaikin produced documentary The Girls in the Band (Collective Eye, 2011), Cron reacts to the harrowing experiences the band faced while traveling in the South: "During the break I go outside, lean against the rough wood at the back of the building and try to get the shaking in my hands under control. Girl you've got to toughen up, I tell myself. This is only South Carolina—Saine [Helen Saine, baritone and alto saxophonist] says it doesn't get really rough until we hit the deep south. Well, no two-bit sheriffs are going to scare me back to the north. I'll just have to learn what it takes to live with fear and overcome it...Soon we're heading back to the Williams' house for sweet potato pie, milk and a toss of the coin for the bed. Helen and I get the bed; Saine gets the quilt and the floor...the Wiliamses help us walk back to the parked bus with our stuff. We get lots of hugs from Mrs. Williams and a bag of food for each of us. As we climb aboard the bus, she calls, 'Goodbye, Chillun. Yo'all take care of each other and we'll pray to the Good Lord to look after you.' I reach out through the open window, grab Mrs. Williams' hand and say, 'I know how much courage it took for you both to take me into your home and I will never forget you."

The International Sweethearts of Rhythm didn't reach peak popularity until the mid-1940s, rarely recording, and the group dissolved before the end of the decade. They produced a number of musicians who gained notoriety over time, including Anna Mae Winburn, Carline Ray, Tiny Davis, Willie Mae Wong and Violet (Vi) Burnside. Eddie Durham and Jesse Stone, who replaced him, were the two most prominent arrangers with the band and both went on to lead successful bands of their own. There were spin-offs of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, typically smaller combos that didn't quite gain the traction of the original seventeen-piece orchestra. Their music had a resurgence of popularity in the late 1960s and early 1970s when feminists rediscovered the music.

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