Ballroom Dancers, Swing Kids, and Rockers: Space and the Continuities of Popular Music in Modern Germany

Friday, January 4, 2019: 1:30 PM
Price Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Julia Sneeringer, Queens College, City University of New York
Historians of culture have opened a fruitful discussion about continuities in musical life across modern Germany. But this conversation often lacks a spatial dimension. Exploration of the spaces where popular music was produced and consumed reveals striking continuities from the late 19th through the 20th century. Despite – or perhaps because of – war, economic crisis, Nazism, and postwar recovery, men and women across social lines persistently sought places to dance, drink, and find pleasure through popular music. Entrepreneurs continually met those demands, whether the government was authoritarian or democratic. What do these continuities tell us about the social history of music, and the history of Germany more broadly? My presentation explores these questions through the lens of one address in the entertainment district of the port city of Hamburg. Grosse Freiheit 36, built in the 1880s, saw a succession of uses, starting with a hippodrome where punters rode draft animals and a dance hall where respectable patrons rubbed elbows with the demimonde. In the early 1940s, it housed a bar where youths gathered to hear forbidden American Swing. Bombed in 1943, it was rebuilt as a “modern dance palace,” but the real action was in its basement, which housed Hamburg’s first rock’n’roll club.

This address reveals in miniature an alternative German history marked by hedonism and desire for encounter with the Other through African-American musical forms. It links the local to broader histories of modernity and sexuality. Continuities in the use of spaces for entertainment also elucidate the evolving relationship between work and leisure, particularly the idea of the “right” to amusement. This idea’s spread could not be controlled by political or cultural elites, who fretted about its effects on youth, discursively constructed as a “social problem” whose healthy development and national loyalty became objects of anxiety and intervention.

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