Pleasure & Pop

Today we get something really special!  Carsie Blanton is a super talented musician and dancer; maybe you’ve even met her, especially if you’re from Philly or New Orleans.  Some of her music is good for swing dancers, some of it is good for blues dancers, and some of it is just plain great to listen to!

Right now, she’s going to tell us about a song she wrote, My Baby Can Dance, which is one of the biggest Lindy Hop hits I’ve seen come out of a modern musician.  My laptop may know how many times I’ve DJed it, but I’ve certainly lost count!  If you already know the song, I hope you appreciate the insight into how it was made, and if you don’t, go listen to it already!

Carsie’s last project was an album of jazz covers, many of which are great dance songs.  Here’s another good one.  Right now she could use your help to fund her latest project “The Radical Magic of Pleasure and Pop” which is shaping up to be a really fun album … I’ve already gone to Kickstarter and backed it, so I’d certainly recommend that you do too!

What thoughts or feelings do you want to get across to your audience when they hear this song? What is there in the song that communicates that?
To me, this song is about the joy and physicality of dance (and, less directly, sex), and how that joy can short-circuit the rational part of one’s brain. I want the listener to be so full of joy that they are totally convinced that this is a good thing. I want the reaction to be “oh well, who needs rationality?!”
The lyric communicates these ideas fairly directly, but I’ve also used the age-old tools of rhythm and melody to get people moving and feeling (and not just thinking).

What music from the past did you draw from to create this song?
Well, the song itself is music from the past at this point (I wrote it ten years ago, and recorded it in 2008), so unfortunately I’m having a hard time remembering! But I know we used Slim & Slam’s “Tutti Frutti” as a reference track in the studio, because it was one of my favorite songs to dance to at the time. We tried to imitate that extremely tight rhythm guitar paired with a slightly looser snare drum shuffle (and then added even looser claps). So it swings with this tight little cute pocket – that makes me really want to dance.
We also referenced Ray Charles’ “What I’d Say Part II” for the vocal call-and-response part. That’s one of my top-5 favorite recordings of all time, in any genre, and it seemed like the time to try and rip it off (just a little).
What was the technical process like to make this song happen – writing, arranging, rehearsing, live vs. studio recorded etc? Any fun stories?
I wrote it on my friend Danielle’s bathroom floor, in about 2006, the morning after a dance in San Francisco. I had just got off the phone with my mom, and was lamenting this terrible dance crush I had, on this guy who I found totally unappealing – except for when I was dancing with him, at which point I found him incredibly appealing. (I was just learning how to dance, so it was one of my first experiences of the “dance crush” phenomenon.) My mom actually gave me the refrain; she said she’d always thought someone should write a song about a guy who’s a total geek and maybe even a fuckup, but then the song would go “my baby can dance!” and it was all OK.
And I thought, I know at least twelve guys like that.
We’re dancers. We love your music. If you were playing this song for a room full of people, how would you like to see them move to it?
Well, my favorite thing about Lindy has always been the levity and connection of it. I love to see people really making each other laugh, and doing sweet simple things in a connected way. I don’t particularly care about style or technique, except as it allows people to communicate better within the dance. I love to see people who are full of joy, and sharing that with their partner.

The Downtown Shimmy Works

It’s been a while since I’ve had an interview with a musician to post, but this one is worth the wait!  Joshua Fialkoff is one of the most in demand musicians in the blues dance community today, playing with both the Fried Bananas and The Downtown Shimmy at many of the best dance weekends going, and here he gives us a really in depth look at how he approaches presenting a jazz standard to us.

A lot of blues dancers have been talking about cultural appropriation lately and how we can really respect the music we love to dance to.  I think what Josh has here is an excellent example of how to go about that.

It’s also one heck of a good song.  Go listen to it on The Downtown Shimmy’s Bandcamp page, and then read his interview!

The Downtown Shimmy

1) What music from the past did you draw from to create this song?

Though the version we play is an original arrangement, the actual song and lyrics were written by Nat Adderley and Oscar Brown Jr. Here it is in its original form. Here it is a little later with Oscar Brown Jr. adding vocals. This song was written post-slavery but is clearly a reference to the work songs slaves would sing to help pass the time. Thanks to folks like Alan Lomax, we can still listen to many of these:

2) What thoughts or feelings do you want to get across to your audience when they hear this song? What is there in the song that communicates that?

Adderley’s interpretation of Work Song is upbeat and optimistic. Brown’s is slightly less so but, much like its predecessors, has the feeling of a song meant for helping the day go by. My arrangement is not these things. I wanted this version to speak of pain and hopelessness. I like to think that this message is clear but, if I had to point out specific elements that communicate these feelings, I would first point to the bass line. This is the first thing you hear when listening to the song, and its droning repeats tirelessly throughout. I would point next to the vocals. They linger behind the beat as though they’re being dragged through the song. And, when we arrive at the climax, the vocals carry the full weight of the silence as the most of the band drops out.

Our performing this song skirts the line with appropriation. Every time we play it, I wonder if we are justified in doing so. That said, I continue to perform it because it speaks to my soul exactly as I want it to – about pain and loss, anger and hopelessness. I also believe that, for those who are truly listening, this song serves as a much needed reminder that blues music is a stolen art form from an oppressed culture. There’s no giving it back at this point though. Blues is too tightly interwoven into the fabric of American music. I’m of the mind that we use it as a tool to remind ourselves of a tragic history, and to honor the struggles of its inventors.

3) What was the technical process like to make this song happen – writing, arranging, rehearsing, live vs. studio recorded etc? Any fun stories?

Original songs and arrangements often feel like great reservoirs held back by weak dams. You poke at it, and maybe yank out a brick or two to see what’s behind. Eventually, the dam lets loose and everything comes pouring out. My best songs seem to come out this way. Sometimes though, it’s as though a song is hiding or scared. These ones need to be dragged out, or coerced. Some may take years to be fully realized. Some may never make it to the stage.

The original arrangement of this song (pre-Downtown Shimmy) came together pretty quickly. Once the bassline presented itself, the rest fell into place. The arrangement that you hear on the Downtown Shimmy album is no longer just mine though. It has evolved overtime, incorporating suggestions from my bandmates, or “perfect” mistakes we decided to keep. And this is how songs are truly written. Generally, though they’re conceived by the songwriter, they are children raised by a community, and one in which creativity and inspiration abounds. I’m lucky to have such amazing musicians with me, and much of this song’s credit, any many others we perform, go to them.

4) We’re dancers. We love your music. If you were playing this song for a room full of people, how would you like to see them move to it?

Respect the song. I don’t think that translates to specific movement, but I can easily think of movements that turn our collaboration (your dance, our music) into a clear example of appropriation. I can also think of clear examples of our collaboration that honor the past, and show appreciation.

I find it helpful to put myself in a proper headspace before I start the song: calm, heart-open, somber. Being in that space, it feels easier to honor the song – to allow myself the memory of a tragic past, and a struggling present. Perhaps you’ll consider doing the same thing the next time you dance to a piece of music. You might ask yourself: What is this song about? How does it want to be danced to? While questions like these might not make you the best dancer on the floor, I feel strongly that they will push you in that direction. They will enhance your musicality and, more importantly, help bring consciousness and intentionality to your movement.


So is the Day


This.  This is a great song.  So good I’ve even had playful arguments with other DJs over who gets to play it at a dance. The #1 thing I see about So Is The Day is that it’s a great example of artistic focus.  It’s got a clear, universal theme – hopeless longing – and every detail about it seems to support that theme, so it communicates really powerfully to an audience.

I first saw Bria Skonberg play in Solomon Douglas’ band at the Emerald City Blues Festival.  We’re lucky she lives on the East coast now!

What thoughts or feelings do you want to get across to your audience when they hear this song? What is there in the song that communicates that?

“So Is The Day” is a song about human desire, a push and pull of emotions and frustration. Playing it and hopefully dancing to it is an outlet; it goes on a journey from frailty to manic release largely communicated by the dynamics.

What music from the past did you draw from to create this song?

It’s reminiscent of Duke Ellington’s The Mooche; I specifically ask the drummer to use mallets and for arco (bowed) bass. Harmonically it is similar to Besame Mucho, a romantic bolero which translates to “kiss me a lot”

What was the technical process like to make this song happen – writing, arranging, rehearsing, live vs. studio recorded etc? Any fun stories?

This song came to me after I had been practicing for about an hour in 2010 and had hit a wall .. Finally I just picked up the plunger, turned off the light in the room and played some blues. Not blues in the technical sense as a “12 bar progression”.. but just allowing the deep things I was feeling at the time to surface. Eventually a recurring idea became the melody and I found words to fit. It’s simple but comes from a deep place so most everyone can relate.

We’re dancers. We love your music. If you were playing this song for a room full of people, how would you like to see them move to it?

It’s a very sexy song. 🙂 Actually the secret is to make it your own .. and it may not even be about a person.

Dance Crush Blues

It’s time to unveil a new type of post for the Sweet Choreography Blog!

Their craft may be different, but the artistic goal of blues musicians and choreographers is similar: to take the blues they feel and display them for the world to see.  So it fits the nature of this blog to sometimes post interviews of musicians as well!  We’ll get another perspective on how artists approach the blues, and hopefully musicians and dancers will gain a bit more familiarity with how each other work.

Our first music interview will be Amy Kucharik, whose band played at Sweet Molasses last year, discussing her song “Dance Crush Blues”.  It only seems fitting that the first one of these posts would be of a song written by a dancer for the dance community as she started a musical career.  It’s also a song that makes every dancer laugh – it hits that sweet spot of comedy where it takes a subject that people can get worked up about at times and shows us how not to take ourselves too seriously.

I also look forward to hearing the other song she mentions “He Doesn’t Need To Know” once her album is released, but for now, you should check out her Band Camp page:

What thoughts or feelings do you want to get across to your audience when they hear this song?  What is there in the song that communicates that?

You’re asking specifically about “Dance Crush Blues,” which is a song I wrote very early on in my songwriting experience, and that song is essentially a parody blues song, so the feeling behind it was really to make people laugh. It’s very lyrically driven; musically it’s a 12-bar blues. I do feel that the phenomenon of the “dance crush” (which, as I define it in the song, and as I understand the term in normal use, means developing feelings for another dancer based on the enjoyment you get from dancing with them) is a very real and typical experience among devoted social dancers, and I was hoping people would relate to the various frustrations of feeling a dance crush. But mainly, I just wanted people to laugh, and I put in a lot of very dancer-specific references (especially the shout-outs to Damon and Dexter) to make it something kind of special, an inside joke. One thing to note is that we’ve recorded DCB twice now; the first time it had a more up-tempo country feel to it with the guitar and harmonica. The newer Dance Crush Blues EP version is slower, has piano and trombone, and is going for a much groovier, more sultry feel, which I thought dancers would respond to well.

I have written and cover other songs I would play for dancers that I think are more emotionally and musically complex. I think a more interesting example for answering this question would be “He Doesn’t Need to Know,” which is a song in which a woman confesses to cheating on and then murdering her disingenuous lover. That song runs through a range of feelings, from the cheeky and sassy admission of infidelity to the increasing despair and madness of the main character. In that song, the form musically follows the story, beginning very sparse in instrumentation, and building in intensity. As the story goes on, more instruments are added, the arrangement gets wilder and more chaotic. Then at the point of the murder, we break into a slow-tempo, three-part vocal section, which in mind sounds like the victim sinking down into the ocean, and maybe also the furies or sirens singing of his demise. It ends with a wild Bacchanalian sort of witches’ rave part. I love how dancers respond to the changes in tempo and intensity.

What music from the past did you draw from to create this song?

I’m inspired by a lot of different blues and non-blues artists from the past (as well as contemporary). With DCB, I think I was inspired lyrically by sassy blues women like Dinah Washington, or going further back, Bessie Smith or Victoria Spivey, or Saffire as a modern equivalent. Musically, it’s a 12-bar blues, so it’s based on the most common blues structure there is… so, like, I’m drawing from the tradition of blues music more so than a specific artist or song. For a lot of my other material, I draw a lot from the sort of chord progressions that happen in older blues forms or jazz; maybe Duke Ellington or Fats Waller, a lot of New Orleans and trad jazz type stuff. The Asylum Street Spankers are a huge influence. But as a songwriter, I’m also drawing from all sorts of influences, everything from 80s music to country to Klezmer, to ideas I get from watching dancers dance or, like, the color scheme of a Wes Anderson movie, or stories from mythology. 

What was the technical process like to make this song happen – writing, arranging, rehearsing, live vs. studio recorded etc?  Any fun stories?

Both versions of DCB were recorded pretty quickly at my keyboard player’s house, “Studio V.” There isn’t so much arranging that goes into a straightforward 12-bar blues; it’s more about playing the song in the form and letting cool improvisation happen within that structure — that’s something I’ve always seen as a cool correlation between blues music and blues dancing, the way you can improvise and innovate with such simple building blocks. 

We just finished recording our first full-length studio album, “Cunning Folk,” which will be released this summer. There are some blues and some swing jazz (AKA “lindy”) songs on the album. For that, we did a Kickstarter fundraiser and spent two days in a recording studio with a  producer and engineer, as well as many follow-up sessions in living room studios. For that album, we actually arranged the songs; in some cases I had specific solos in mind that were transcribed, and in other cases, the musicians came up with solos. The producer and I decided where thing would occur, or in some cases the band came up with cool ideas. It was a very involve process and I could write several paragraphs about it.

One thing that may be interesting to dancers is that we made the decision to record in front of a “live studio audience” based on the idea that perhaps I would perform better to an audience. At one point, we were struggling to get the right energy for a particular song, “Clocks and Bottles.” At that point, we asked a few dancers to get up and dance in the studio. That was a really cool experience; the dancers fed energy back to us to get that song really rolling.  

We’re dancers.  We love your music.  If you were playing this song for a room full of people, how would you like to see them move to it?

Again, this answer will be more interesting for “He Doesn’t Need to Know,” which winds its way through a lot of different textures and moods and gives dancers a chance to express something intimate and spooky and then something languid and then wild abandon. In Montreal at Bagel & Blues, when the song explodes at the end, I saw a dancer take off his hat and wave it in the air — that made me tremendously happy. We recorded a version of “Shimmy Like My Sister Kate” (on the EP), and for that I wanted to slow it down and make it sultry, with lots of tremolo shakes on the piano, to get dancers to really shimmy. With DCB, I just want to see dancers rocking out and having a good time.