Jazz, Social Commentary, and the Harlem Renaissance

Diggin’ into “Charleston” – The Refrain

2 Jul 2020

Diggin’ into “Charleston” – The Refrain


Diggin’ into “Charleston” – The Refrain

The form of “Charleston” contests convention, to say the least. The 1920s established a codified musical system for the structure of popular songs—the AABA, thirty-two bar format. This methodized practice was proliferated by the composers of “Tin Pan Alley,” a section of Manhattan on West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, where the preponderance of music publishing companies was housed. Since the arrangement was essentially devised of two eight-bar phrases, it initially suited the amateur musician. However, the propagation of the form and its consequent prominence in American culture would come to serve as a creative vehicle for jazz composers.

Tin Pan Alley, 1910.

With “Charleston,” Johnson defied the masses and employed a thirty-two-bar form, separated into eight, nearly discrete four-bar sections for the refrain: ABACABDE.

Johnson begins the refrain with the statement of the tonic, Bb major, and the compelling “Charleston rhythm.” The score, marked con spirito, beseeches the performer to play with spirit—the same vivacious defiance embodied by this new American age. Along with the propellent rhythmic figure, James P. creates a stimulating, melodic line that ascends chromatically in the first three bars. He employs a string of secondary dominants to support the exclamation, “Charleston! Charleston! Made in Carolina.”



The second, four-bar phrase, which continues with applied dominant function, begins with “Some dance.” This harmonic tension adds to the composition’s adrenaline-inducing effect. Johnson brilliantly chooses to contradict the stepwise motion of the tune’s first phrase by applying disjunct motion in the melody beginning on the fourth beat of measure twenty-seven and ending with measure thirty-one. The upward leap of a perfect fifth on “o-lin” is musically audacious! He follows that jump with a descending leap of the same interval on the syllable, “a.” Measures twenty-nine and thirty are identical with their melodic statements—G4 leaps to D5. All veneration for convention is rebuffed! Johnson’s approach to the tenets of voice-leading, where a note that leaps in one direction should be followed by stepwise motion in the opposite direction, corroborates his desire to be “modernistic” and defy Eurocentric, musical norms. This treatment can be observed with the lyrics, “Some dance, some prance.” The disjunct motion continues in measure thirty-one with an ascending leap of a minor third with the lyrics, “I’ll say.” Bolstering the section phrase is a harmonic progression that extends the functionality of the V chord (mm. 29-31): C9—F9—Gm7/D—E°/Db. Measure thirty-two breaks up the “Charleston rhythm” with a series of consecutive eighth notes that are aligned with the words, “There’s nothing finer than the.” Harmonically, the dominant function is once again prolonged (mm. 32): A° /C—F9.


There is a recapitulation of the primary theme, A, from measures thirty-three through thirty-six. James P. juxtaposes this restatement of the first phrase with a see-saw-like melodic line in the C section. “Every step you do, leads to something new. Man, I’m telling you, it’s a lapazoo.” It should be noted that the lyrics here are a form of word-painting—a compositional technique where the music reflects the literal meaning of a song’s lyrics; the words are moving up and down, by step. Harmonically, the entire C phrase supports the extension of the V chord (V—V7/iii—V7/vi —vii°—V). The next four measures are a return to the A theme and open with the tonic harmony (mm. forty-one through forty-four). Johnson balances this return with a slight variation of the B phrase.



A new section, D, occurs with the lyrics, “Sometime, you’ll be dancing it one time. The dance called the.” These four measures are distinct in their harmonic structure (Gm—Bb9 —Eb—Bb) and conjunct melodic line. Of particular interest is the presence of the Italian-Augmented-Sixth chord in measure fifty-one and the French-Augmented-Sixth chord on the downbeat of the following bar.


The final phrase, E (mm. fifty-three through fifty-six), is constructed upon a protraction of the V chord (vi—vii°/V—V), which eventually resolves to the tonic harmony and a confluence of step-wise and disjunct, linear motion—all supporting the song’s apex, “Charleston—made in South Caroline!”



I’ve included the full repeat for your listening pleasure! I hope you found this to be both an informative and entertaining excursion into James P. Johnson’s masterpiece (and the theme song to the “Roaring Twenties”)!



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