Date: Mon, 29 Jun 1998 01:08:54 -0500
From: Mike Salovesh
Subject: Re: Swing terms (August/September 1938)

Barry A. Popik wrote:
> These two lists that I found today are excellent.
> This is from SONG HITS, vol. 1, no. 9, August 1938, pg. 14, col. 3:
> _Instrument_ _Swing Name_

-- and here I'll cut to just three terms I want to comment on:

> Guitar..........................belly fiddle or pick box (RHHDAS has a 1939
> "belly fiddle")

------ In the folksong world of the 1940's, "starvation box"
(sometimes also used
as an alternative name for accordions).

> Clarinet.........................fountain pen, or black stick (RHHDAS has no
> entry for "fountain pen," 1937 for "black stick")

------- Starting ca. 1938-39, after the Benny Goodman concert in
Carnegie Hall, "licorice stick", rather than "black stick".
Application was pretty general in
swing talk for about ten years, until the effective end of the Big Band
Era. After that "licorice stick" was sometimes used among performers
of "traditional jazz" (AKA "Dixieland jazz"), but outside that circle
was a pretty clear marker of being decidedly unhip. (And "hip"
replaced "hep" with the rise of bebop, middle to late
1940s. . . After that, anybody who said he was "hep" proved he was

> Drums...........................suitcase, skins

------- This is the one that got me to write. SONG HITS got this one
wrong. "Skins" was normal swing usage for drums, but "suitcase" shows
a definite lack of knowledge of the music scene of the 1930s and
earlier. Nobody who knew the scene would have called a drum a suitcase
-- but there were people who used suitcases for drums.

People called "suitcase drummers" played on a hardsided suitcase,
usually one of made of cheap cardboard with a protective paper cover
sealed in shellac or some other coating. Although suitcase drummers did
use standard drumsticks on occasion, they did most of their drumming
with a pair of straw whiskbrooms.

Suitcase drummers frequently appear on records from the 1920s, when
standard drums strained the capabilities of acoustic recording
techniques. (They are usually just identified as drummers, without
specific mention that they played suitcases, not drums, on the actual
recordings.) If real drums were recorded with early recording
equipment, they could blast the recording stylus completely out of
making a usable groove. Where real drums were used, drummers
compensated for the shortcomings of recording machinery by using brushes
rather than drumsticks. That tended to reduce the driving force of drum
rhythms. A suitcase, on the other hand, could provide a driving beat
without overwhelming the apparatus. (Suitcase drummers didn't always
use the brushing end of whiskbrooms, either. The other end of the
broom gave a strong, percussive tom-tom sound that didn't disrupt

In the late 1940s, there was a strange cat on the edges of the Chicago
jazz scene named Joe Klee (pronounced to rhyme with "free", not "fray")
who called himself "the last of the suitcase drummers". Joe used to say
that his instrument gave him an advantage over drummers who used a
standard drum set: "All I have to do is hit a town, check into a hotel,
unpack, and I've got my instrument all set up. Now what bass plucker
can say that?"

-- mike salovesh
anthropology department
northern illinois university PEACE !!!