Diggin’ into “Charleston” – The Verse
With the verse, Johnson modulates to the submediant, G-minor This is prefigured by the arpeggiated D7 chord in the final bar of the introduction. The first two bars present the tonic harmony: Gm—Gm7—Gm6. In the third measure, the tonic chord moves to the subdominant, or C-minor. The opening lyrics to the verse, “Carolina, Carolina, at last they’ve got you,” are made more pungent by the minor tonality which supports them; South Carolina, as was the case for most southern states, was treated with apathy by much of the North throughout this country’s history. Johnson brightens the mood with a dominant-seventh chord to reflect that there has been a positive, societal change. The D7 harmony returns, as expected, to the tonic.
Measures thirteen and fourteen as nearly exact restatements of the first two bars. The subsequent bar highlights a secondary dominant of the dominant chord, or an A7. This harmony supports the lyric, “with a peculiar snap!” It’s interesting how Johnson moves to a major chord when bolstering a positive line of text. The A-dominant-seventh leads to a D major triad in first inversion in measure sixteen.
James P. shifts the tonality, by way of the F7, to the relative major key of Bb. The luster of the new key illuminates the lyric, “You may not be able to buck or wing.” There is a playful buoyancy in both in the text and in Johnson’s score. The unstable triad of F#-diminished, the vii°of vi, aligns with, “fox-trot, two-step or,” as if the singer was expressing skepticism to the dancers. The following simultaneity is the anticipated G-minor chord. Of note is Johnson’s left hand throughout this section; he is rolling the chords in order to punctuate them—imploring the listener to understand the magnitude of these four bars. On the final beat of measure twenty, James P. lifts the mood with the dominant of the home key. The lyrics, “if you ain’t got,” are supported by the F major triad.
The ultimate harmony in measure twenty-one is of paramount importance. It is an exceedingly unconventional chord; it is a vii°/vii° harmony. Johnson is rebuking traditional harmonic practices, here. He disavows the past and summons his creative, “modernistic” invention—all the while providing the footing for the word, “religion.” Mack and Johnson are mocking the stodgy sensibilities of white America—those who subscribed to the ideology that jazz was the “Devil’s” music or as Anne Shaw Faulkner probed, “Does jazz put the sin in syncopation?” for the Ladies Home Journal from August of 1921.
James P.’s unorthodox harmonic approach continues in measure twenty-two with the progression of A-diminished—D-minor—Db-augmented, or vii°—iii—PC (passing chord), which aligns with the words, “in your feet, you can.” Johnson returns to relative, harmonic stability for the final two bars. The lyrics, “do this prance and do it neat,” are placed along with a C7—F7—C7—A°—F7, or V7/V to V7 to V7/V to vii° to V7 progression. Worth mentioning is the rising left hand in octaves, which moves in parallel motion to the ascending melody—both of which prepare the listener for the ensuing, ecstatic refrain.
In the next installment, we’ll examine the famed refrain of James P. Johnson’s exuberant “Charleston.”