Talking Jazz & Politics With Carsie Blanton

Carsie Blanton’s music is an exuberant mix of folk, jazz, swing and pop. Her enthusiasm for pretty much anything (except for Trump, fascists, and sexual shame) is infectious, her grin unforgettable.  

I first came across Carsie’s joyful sound as a swing dancer, where her song ‘Baby Can Dance’ was very popular. Carsie ran a swing dance in New Orleans, and you can tell she was writing for dancers as a dancer. Since then I have followed her music, online rants, cosy YouTube streams and political opinions, all of which interact and inform each other.

The pandemic has led to her having to cancel all her gigs, leaving her and her band with little income. In the past she’s released much of her music under a “pay as you like” basis, and so has turned to this principle to help her band pay their rents. How it works is that Carsie and her band perform a selection of their own songs and covers, as well as chatting about whatever they feel is interesting that month, and ask for optional donations to the fund. So far they have covered the band’s rent plus extra every month of the pandemic.

Do you feel that your rent party streams are part of the same tradition as the rent parties in Harlem in the 1920s?

I’m glad you asked this, because it sent me down a research rabbit hole I’ve been meaning to explore for a year! The original rent parties in Harlem were highly racialized, they existed because rent was more expensive for Black tenants than for white tenants, and Black workers were paid less than white workers. So rent parties sprang up – like so many things in American culture, including all of our best music – as a human response to the dehumanizing forces of racialized capitalism. 

So on one hand, these phenomena are culturally and historically totally different. My band and I are white and middle class, and responding to a temporary economic anomaly (no gigs in a pandemic); whereas the original Harlem rent parties were a response to systemic, racialized economic oppression.

On the other hand, both are a human response to an inhumane society. When we are in crisis, and institutions fail us, we seek help from each other. And on the flip side, no matter how broke we are, we can drop a few bucks (or $.25 in the case of the original rent parties) for a little bit of music, or dance, or fun. In hard times, we seek each other out; we seek solace in pleasure and music. To me, this exposes a beautiful thread of solidarity throughout the centuries.

(Footnote: stride piano was developed at rent parties so that hosts could get by paying fewer musicians (a whole dance band from just two hands!), whereas our Rent Parties were developed as a way to pay more musicians, with fewer gigs! Isn’t it ironic!)

Does the new streaming culture makes music more or less accessible than it was during the jazz age?

Both! Better and better and worse and worse, faster and faster (to paraphrase the writer Tom Atlee). Music is ubiquitous and totally accessible, which I think can overwhelm us and degrade the quality of the listening experience. I find myself scouring record shops instead of Spotify so that I can be surprised, physically savour the songs I love, and literally wear them out. 

At the same time, you can’t overestimate the magic of being able to listen to (almost) any recording instantly. I think those of us who are obsessed with music are making great use of this resource – my musician friends and I have loads of text threads, sending songs back and forth with uber-specific themes (“Here’s another for the ‘Jesus was a regular dude’ playlist”), or chronicling the catalogue of a specific writer or player (“Did you know Roger Miller debuted ‘Gentle on my Mind’ ?!?”)

Do jazz and politics go together well?

Just like in the last twenties, the two are inextricably linked. Music is culture and culture is politics.

I’ve seen people predict we will have a new “roaring twenties” after the pandemic – do you agree?

I like to call it the “Screaming Twenties”. It’s going to be chaos – and chaos is wonderful and terrible, simultaneously.

Before the lockdown were you still going to swing dances? Do you intend to in the future, if things get back to normal?

I haven’t been to a swing dance in about ten years, but I’m glad other people still go to them! I think when this thing is over, we’ll all be craving that kind of camaraderie and joy. Power to y’all.

Carsie is releasing her new album Love And Rage on April 30 and continues to hold her online parties along with her band every month. Follow her at @carsieblanton on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Facebook. Check out her press page here.

Words: Alicia J Cartwright (@AliciaJCart)
Image: © Jason Albus

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