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White Face, Black Voice: Race, Gender, and Region in the Music of the Boswell Sisters

Abstract

The New Orleans hot jazz vocal trio the Boswell Sisters was one of the leading ensembles of the 1930s. Enormously popular with audiences, the Boswells were also recognized by colleagues and peers to be among the finest singers, instrumentalists, and arrangers of their day. Many jazz historians remember them as the first successful white singers who truly “sounded black,” yet they rarely interrogate what “sounding black” meant for the Boswells, not only in technical or musical terms but also as an expression of the cultural attitudes and ideologies that shape stylistic judgments. The Boswells' audience understood vocal blackness as a cultural trope, though that understanding was simultaneously filtered through minstrelsy's legacy and challenged by the new entertainment media. Moreover, the sisters' southern femininity had the capacity to further contexualize and “color” both their musical output and its reception. This essay examines what it meant for a white voice to sound black in the United States during the early 1930s, and charts how the Boswells permeated the cultural, racial, and gender boundaries implicit in both blackness and southernness as they developed their collective musical voice.

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Discography

Armstrong Louis, and His Hot Five. 2001. “Heebie Jeebies.” OKeh 8300, 1926. On Louis Armstrong: Heebie Jeebies. Naxos Jazz 8.120541,
2001. The Boswell Sisters. “Coffee in the Morning (Kisses in the Night).” Brunswick 6733, 1933. On The Boswell Sisters Collection, Volume 4, 193234. Nostalgia Arts NOCD 3022,
The Boswell Sisters. “Heebie Jeebie.” 2000. Brunswick 6173, 1931. On The Boswell Sisters Collection, Volume 1, 1931–32. Nostalgia Arts NOCD 3007,
The Boswell Sisters. “Heebie Jeebies.” 1997. Airshot, The Woodbury Hour, CBS, September 1934. On The Boswell Sisters: Airshots and Rarities. Retrieval Records, RTR79009,
The Boswell Sisters. 1982. “I'm Gonna Cry (Cryin' Blues).” Victor 19639, 1925. On It's the Girls. Living Era CD AJA 5014,
The Boswell Sisters. 2000. “Lousiana Hayride.” Brunswick 6470, 1932. On The Boswell Sisters Collection, Volume 3, 1932– 33. Nostalgia Arts NOCD 3009,
The Boswell Sisters. 2000. “Minnie the Moocher's Wedding Day.” Brunswick 6442, 1932. On The Boswell Sisters Collection, Volume 3, 1932–33. Nostalgia Arts NOCD 3009,
The Boswell Sisters. 2001. “Mood Indigo.” Brunswick 6470, 1933. On The Boswell Sisters Collection, Volume 4, 1932–34. Nostalgia Arts NOCD 3022,
The Boswell Sisters. 1999. “Nights When I Am Lonely.” Victor 19639, 1925. On The Boswell Sisters Collection, Volume 2, 1925–32. Nostalgia Arts, NOCD 3008,
The Boswell Sisters. 2000. “Put That Sun Back in the Sky.” Brunswick 6257, On The Boswell Sisters Collection, Volume 1, 1931–32. Nostalgia Arts NOCD 3007 1931.,
The Boswell Sisters. 2000. “Wha'dja Do to Me?Brunswick 6083, 1931. On The Boswell Sisters Collection, Volume 1, 1931–32. Nostalgia Arts NOCD 3007,
The Duncan Sisters. 1924. “Rememb'ring.” Victor 19206,
Hanshaw Annette. 1929. “Big City Blues.” Columbia 1812D,
The Paul Whiteman Orchestra. 1986. “There Ain't No Sweet Man That's Worth the Salt of My Tears.” Victor 21624, 1928. On Bix'n'Bing with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. Living Era CD AJA 5005,
Taylor Jackie, 1999. and His Orchestra. “We're On the Highway to Heaven.” Victor 22500, 1930. On The Boswell Sisters Collection, Volume 2, 1925–32. Nostalgia Arts, NOCD 3008,
The Three Boswell Sisters. 1999. “Heebie Jeebies.” OKeh 41444, 1930. On The Boswell Sisters Collection, Volume 2, 1925–32. Nostalgia Arts, NOCD 3008,
The Three Boswell Sisters. 1999. “Don't Tell Him (What's Happened to Me).” OKeh 41470, 1930. On The Boswell Sisters Collection, Volume 2, 1925–32. Nostalgia Arts, NOCD 3008,
Waters Ethel. 1992. “Heebie Jeebies.” Columbia 14153, 1926. On The Chronological Ethel Waters, 1925–1926. Classic Records 672,
Waters Ethel. 1993. “My Kind of Man”/“You Brought a New Kind of Love.” Columbia 2222D, 1930. On The Chronological Ethel Waters, 1929–1931. Classic Records 721,
Young Victor, and His Orchestra. 1999. “Gems From George White's Scandals.” Brunswick 20102, 1931. On The Boswell Sisters Collection, Volume 2, 1925–32. Nostalgia Arts, NOCD 3008,

Filmography

Fleischer Dave, dir. 1932. When It's Sleepy Time Down South. Fleischer Studios/Paramount Pictures,
2001. Hollywood Rhythm: The Paramount Music Shorts. Vol. 2, The Best of Big Bands and Swing. Kino K198,
1934. Lanfield, Sidney, dir. Moulin Rouge. Twentieth-Century Fox,
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1931. Scotto, Aubrey, dir. Close Farm-ony, UM. & M. TV Corp.,
Tuttle Sidney, 1932. dir. The Big Broadcast. Paramount Pictures,
Wald Jerry, 1932. dir. Rambling 'Round Radio Row #1. Vitaphone,
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Journal of the Society for American Music
  • ISSN: 1752-1963
  • EISSN: 1752-1971
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