Shagging has always been black and white

July 16, 2013 

Tom Poland

COURTESY OF TOM POLAND

A reader of your newspaper shared the recent Augustus Cho guest column, “When did beach music become for whites only?” (CHN, May 11, 2013), with me, and I cannot let such an ill-thought commentary pass.

I devoted three and a half years to the research of “Save the Last Dance for Me,” a book on how beach music and the shag came to be. The book, published by the University of South Carolina Press, received extraordinary "vetting" by experts and editors. It tells the story of race relations and the shag accurately and objectively. Much of the key research comes from the Triangle area.

Mr. Cho seems to be a man of many talents, though he shouldn’t count journalism among them. I’m going to include a few excerpts from the book that show that shaggers have always welcomed blacks, African-Americans, whatever term is vogue into their midsts, even when to do so invited trouble from the authorities.

• In “Shag, The Dance Legend,” Bo Bryan wrote, “During the war, the only people who heard a variety of rhythm and blues were a few hipsters here and there who made a habit of jumping the Jim Crow rope.” One such fellow was Malcolm Ray “Chicken” Hicks.

Hicks grew up around blacks and it wasn’t big a deal to watch blacks jitterbugging at a Durham armory. He slipped into many a “Colored Only” show. Watching from the balcony -- Jim Crow’s reverse sting. Hicks saw new steps. An innovator, he picked up dance moves wherever he saw them. Shag mythology holds that Hicks picked up his distinctive dance step, the “camel walk,” lounging around Skinny’s Shoeshine Parlor in Durham.

• Harry Driver, considered the “Father of the Shag” by some, lived in Dunn, N.C., all his life. He started going to Ocean Drive when he was around 12. He recalled listening to “race” and Hit Parade music in 1945 at White Lake’s Crystal Club during World War II when German submarines prowled coastal waters and blackouts forced the dancers inland. There, they danced to “suggestive” music banned in the segregated Carolinas. The bans mattered not. Of the race music dancing, Driver said, “We had integration twenty-five years before Martin Luther King [Jr.] came on the scene. We were totally integrated because the blacks and whites had nothing in our minds that made us think we were different. We loved music, we loved dancing, and that was the common bond between us.”

• So much change has transpired, beach music’s roots in rhythm and blues are even lost on the very race that created it. Frank Beacham in “Charlie’s Place” quoted Maurice Williams of Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs on this fact. “The beginning of beach music was predominantly rhythm and blues,” said Williams, “but today if you say to a young black man, ‘come on, let’s go and listen to a beach music show,’ he’ll say ‘I ain’t going to that white music.’ It’s strange. They haven’t studied the history of their music and the guys who recorded it enough to know what beach music is all about. They just don’t know any better.”

I suspect that in addition to research expertise, Mr. Cho could use also some shag lessons. Plenty of instructors out there Augustus. Learn the etiquette and have fun. It may even help your aspirations to land in Hollywood.

Read Tom Poland’s blog at www.tompoland.net.

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