Monday, October 4, 2010

Sweethearts of Rhythm. The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World by Marilyn Nelson, Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

Music was such an important part of the Second World War and no music defines that time more than swing does. Most people have heard the giants of this era, such as Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and Count Basie. But few know about the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an all-girl swing band.

Marilyn Nelson has written about the incredible women who were the Sweethearts of Rhythm from a unique perspective – that of the instruments that they played. The premise is that the instruments have ended up in the same pawnshop in New Orleans. The shop owner has closed up for the day and on the evening of 28 August 2005, the night before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the instruments discover that they were once part of the same swing band in the 1940s:

With a twilit velvet musky tone
as the pawnshop door is locked,
an ancient tenor saxophone
spins off a riff of talk.
“A thousand thousand gigs ago,
when I was just second-hand,”
it says, “I spent my glory years
on the road with an all-girl band.”
From a shelf in the corner, three trombones
bray in unison: They say
they, too, were played in a gals’ swing band
way back in the day.
Then effortlessly, a blues in C
arises out of a phrase
and the old hocked instruments find the groove
and swing of the Good Old Days.
The instruments reminisce about the places they played in and the women who played them, all in anapestic and dactylic meter. Included with each instrument’s memory is the name of the person who played it, accompanied by beautiful illustrations of what is being remembered.

The Sweethearts of Rhythm were unique for their time. They were not only an all-girl band, but they were international. Though mostly African-American, the other band members were Chinese, Mexican, Native American, Hawaiian, and white. The band played sold-out shows in such well-known venues as New York’s Cotton Club and Apollo Theater, the Royal in Washington DC and the Regal in Chicago, and traveled to Europe to play for the troops at USOs in 1945. The band even played in the Jim Crow south, although, Nelson writes in her Author’s Note, since people of color were not allowed to play with white people, the white women would have to darken their skin to avoid arrest, and all the band members ate, slept and lived on their tour bus together to avoid other problems with the law.

This is an interesting 80 page picture book, meant for older kids about 9-12 years old. Because the poems are in the voice of the instruments, Pinkney has done a brilliant job of illustrating this book. He has used bold hot and cool colors to vividly convey the texture of the individual sound of each instrument in the illustrations of the players, the events of the war on the home front and the front lines. Yes, I really loved these illustrations and the Artist’s Note at the end of the book is well worth reading.

Marilyn Nelson includes a bibliography for further reading and/or research. What a great Social Studies project an interested student could do on this first-rate group of musicians. And I can honestly say they were first-rate because I have heard them.

Now, thanks to bobjazz11 on YouTube, you can hear them too:

Non-Fiction Monday is hosted this week by


  1. Thanks for participating in NonFiction Monday this week.

    This book seems like such a unique offering. I liked the video you posted... it really helps put it all in context. They really do sound fantastic!

  2. Thanks, this was a unique story, about amazing some amazing musicians.