Knowledge Comes In Unexpected Ways

Save the Last Dance for Me: A Love Story of the Shag and the Society of Stranders by Phil Sawyer and Tom PolandMy old girlfriend, Linda, emailed me recently. She had heard I’d written a book about the shag. “I am totally shocked that you of all people wrote about the shag and beach music. I just cannot believe it!”

She had reason to be astounded. In the early 1980s when she and I hung out, the shag was beginning its comeback from the infamous Dark Ages and she and I mocked the older shaggers as they twirled, dipped, and slid across the dance floor. We had no idea how they had suffered and how they fought to rescue their dance. It was part of the story I would write.

For sure I am an unlikely author but such are the whims of fate. The Society of Stranders (SOS, shag’s organized nation) approached the University of South Carolina Press about doing a book on the shag, its music, and the history of the SOS itself. There was just one problem: the SOS didn’t have a manuscript. The Press gave them the names of five potential authors and for whatever reason the Society of Stranders picked me. Thus, did my knowledge about this dance culture come in an unexpected way.

What did I learn? A lot.

I discovered that a blacklisted radio station in Europe introduced the Mississippi Blues to British bands who repackaged it as rock and exported it to white kids in the States. I learned how the jukebox spread black music among whites.

I came across revelations aplenty and a major bit of irony. Two bluesmen—one from South Carolina and one from North Carolina—inadvertently lent their names to a monster rock group that helped keep the shag on the back burner for years.

All the background and story lines are in place now. The writing and associated tasks … research, photos, proofing, indexing, promotional blurbs, and more are done and the book is in the hands of the printer.

In just a few weeks Save The Last Dance For Me will come out. The book chronicles how the blues migrated from the region around Clarksdale, Mississippi, to become the sweet-sounding harmonies once called “race music,” later dubbed rhythm & blues in 1949 by Jerry Wexler of Billboard magazine. (Wexler found “race music” a bit offensive.) Rhythm & blues would evolve into the genre of music folks along the Atlantic in North and South Carolina call beach music. It would also create a foundation for the rock ’n roll that would put the shag out of business for a long time though rock and beach music are in fact cousins. It’s a book filled with surprises.

The book, to be released in August by the University of South Carolina Press will be available in hardback and soft cover editions. It’s 192 pages with color and black-and-white photographs. Anyone who is a fan of beach music will be surprised to see just how much disagreement surrounds just what is and isn’t beach music.

It took me three and a half years to write it and in the process I got a pretty good education about music and dance. When I was growing up in Lincoln County, the area wasn’t exactly a hotbed of dance, nor were area radio stations playing a lot of “race music.” My memories of black music go back to the early 1960s and Motown and the Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas. I remember hearing my parents talk about Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” in 1955 and Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” in 1956 at my Aunt Sister’s home on Kings Way. That’s reaching back a ways. How they managed to hear those songs remains a mystery because most radio stations did not play black music during the days of Jim Crow.

Another factor played a role in my dance and music illiteracy. I grew up landlocked. My family didn’t make many trips to the beach when I was growing up. Certainly an annual trip to Myrtle Beach didn’t take place. When we did head to the coast, we went to Savannah, Daytona Beach, and Ormond Beach. We went to Myrtle Beach once, and I want to say it was around 1958, four years after Hurricane Hazel. By then the shag’s glory days were in retreat and Elvis ruled.

As a 1960’s teen in love with the Beatles, rock ’n roll owned the world, or so I thought. I had never heard of beach music and the only couples-style dancing I had seen was the waltz. I remember my dad talking about the jitterbug, but in my day—the days of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin—people danced free style, at times far across the dance floor from each other. And sometimes they danced alone. I had one dance experience: Faye Butler and I went with a group to appear on WJBF’s “Top Ten Dance Party.” Faye says we won top honors but I don’t recall that nor do I remember how we danced. I do recall avoiding the camera as much as I could.

In 1974 I moved to Columbia, South Carolina, where my dance knowledge would grow. One night in 1982 Linda and I went to a club called Wits End. A jukebox played beach music and the dancing was like nothing we had seen. We laughed at the old fogies stepping and spinning. Little did we know their dance culture ran deep with history. Johnny-come-latelys, we had no idea that our beloved rock ’n roll shared the same roots as their beach music.

From the early 1980s to 2008, I labored under the belief that the shag was a mini dance craze restricted to small clubs, and yeah I heard too that it was popular at the beach. And then I got a phone call from Dr. Phil Sawyer, president emeritus of the SOS. He and I teamed up to write the history of the shag and the Society of Stranders.

It was a most interesting three-and-a-half years. Research and personal stories taught me again and again how the shag had entrenched itself in older generations’ souls.

I learned that the shag’s origins go back to the 1930s and its pedigree includes dances known as the Charleston, Big Apple, and jitterbug. I learned that the shag took root in sand along the edge of the Atlantic in North and South Carolina in the late 1940s. I learned that its association with the South is unbreakable. In Smithsonian, T. Edward Nickens wrote, “Down here, the shag is a dance, as old-time Southern as pouring salted peanuts into a sweating bottle of ‘co-cola.’ ”

I learned that while we were missing out on a lot of great music future rockers like Keith Richard, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Robert Plant, and David Gilmour were listening to black music over a renegade radio station in Europe. The Eric Clapton hit, “Crossroads,” was written and sung way back in 1936 by Robert Johnson, a Mississippi bluesman. Johnson’s 1937 “Traveling Riverside Blues” came to fame here when Led Zeppelin recorded the song in 1969.

Thanks to Radio Luxembourg, the Brits got a huge jump on American rockers, but they didn’t get ahead of a kid from Tupelo, Mississippi who thanks to geography couldn’t avoid the blues and gospel if he had tried. When Radio Luxembourg aired “Heartbreak Hotel,” things change in a hurry. Here’s an excerpt from Save The Last Dance For Me.

Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones first heard American black music over “blacklisted” Radio Luxembourg, which once boasted the world’s most powerful transmitter and broadcast pop music to the British Isles from 1954 to 1963. Then they heard the King.

In his autobiography Life, Richards wrote, “Radio Luxembourg was notoriously difficult to keep on station. I had a little aerial and I’d walk around the room, holding the radio up to my ear and twisting the dial . . . I’m supposed to be asleep. . . . Like an explosion one night, listening to Radio Luxembourg on my little radio was ‘Heartbreak Hotel.’ That was the stunner. I’d never heard it before, or anything like it. I’d never heard of Elvis before. It was almost as if I had been waiting for it to happen. When I woke up the next day, I was a different guy.”

The lads liked what they heard, and they began to form bands and make rock music. It was Elvis more than anyone who influenced the Brits. (Years later Radio Luxembourg would be the first European radio to announce Elvis’s death.)

In the 1960s British rockers adored the delta blues and idolized Elvis and Carl Perkins. Free of racial restrictions, they repackaged and imported American black music to us. We called it rock ’n’ roll, and it had kissing cousins we already knew. Beach music would come from the music Brits loved so much; thanks to Jim Crow, we just didn’t recognize its roots.

Blues singers from South and North Carolina, of all places—not Mississippi, mind you—gave a British rock band destined for fame and glory its name. One story goes that Syd Barrett, a founding member, had a record by Pink Anderson of Laurens, South Carolina, and a record by Floyd Council, a bluesman born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Another story goes that Barrett noticed the bluesmen’s names in the liner notes of a 1962 Blind Boy Fuller album. However Barrett came across the bluesmen, he juxtaposed the first names of Pink Anderson and Floyd Council to get Pink Floyd, a monster of psychedelic and progressive rock. One album they’d produce, “Dark Side of the Moon,” would dominate the charts as no album has. It is, most probably, the greatest rock album ever recorded.

How ironic that this group named after South and North Carolina bluesmen would do its part to sustain shag’s “Dark Ages,” staying on the charts an astounding 741 weeks from 1973 to 1988, longer than any album in history. Blues repackaged and sent to us across the Atlantic as rock would change the music and dance scene. It all began when we were occupied with keeping the races apart and yet listening to Motown.

Yes I learned a lot. As I researched and wrote I saw how rock relegated shag to the back burner for a long time. If you were a shagger during the British Invasion you were down and out and in dance purgatory. Like desperadoes on the run, shaggers proved resilient, migrating inland from the coast. Even as disco and Saturday Night Fever kept them out of the limelight they too were staying alive as the 1970s wound down in pockets where hangers-on hung on keeping shag’s embers aglow.

As my knowledge grew, I learned that Society of Stranders formed in 1980 after Gene “Swink” Laughter put a prank SOS note in a Red Sea Balsam bottle. After it washed ashore and was found the SOS note was picked up and publicized by the Associated Press. The publicity brought thousands of exiled shaggers back to Ocean Drive, South Carolina. I discovered too that race music birthed the shag but that shaggers disagree on how and when the shag began. I learned from Frank Beacham’s riveting chronicle about the onerous days when legendary black performers like Cab Calloway and B.B. King could only play in a string of safe havens called the Chitin’ Circuit.

I deduced that beach music developed in North Carolina and that the shag evolved in South Carolina. Many of the influencing factors popped up independently like so many mushrooms after a rainstorm. I learned that no definitive tale accounts for how the shag got its name, a major disappointment.

I heard story after story about men and women who met and fell in love shagging. And I learned something surprising. Thanks to rhythm & blues, blacks and whites integrated long before Civil Rights legislation passed. Legendary shagger Harry Driver said, “We had integration 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.”

Personal anecdotes, facts, trivia, and photos, those and more are in the book.

You can learn some surprising things too. Read Save The Last Dance For Me and discover who the “Beaver Boys” were. (It’s not what you think.) See how the legendary joint, the Pad, came to be. Read how Elvis Presley and Hurricane Hazel ushered in shag’s Dark Ages and learn how a determined group of men and women refused to let the dance of their youth die.

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Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Tom grew up in Lincoln County, Georgia, where four wonderful English teachers gave him a love for language. People first came to know Tom’s work in South Carolina Wildlife magazine, where he wrote features and served as managing editor.Tom’s written over 1,000 columns and features and seven traditionally published books. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, and his and Robert Clark’s latest volume of Reflections of South Carolina. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground in 2011 and 2012.He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia.Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina. Visit my website at www.tompoland.net Email me at [email protected]