It was at these parties that I first started to really learn how to dance.”
– Frankie Manning, famed Lindy Hopper
Turn down your lights, roll up your carpet, plunk a musician in front of the piano, then make sure you have enough bootleg alcohol and fried chicken for dozens of strangers filling your home. It’s time for an old-fashioned house rent party!
These parties impacted the growth of Swing and Blues dancing like few other periods. Let’s watch how:
Raisin’ the Rent…with a party!
- fun can be hard work -
The month is coming to a close, and you don’t have enough money for the rent? No problem! Here’s an easy recipe to raise that extra cash:
- one bathtub full of alcohol
- one piano
- heaps of fried food
- all furniture pushed to the sides of the room
- add someone at the door to collect money
Charge everyone who shows up 25 cents (the typical entry fee). They want some of that home-cooked food? Another 10 cents. A cup for alcohol? 10 cents.
The Saturday night rent parties that I attended were often more amusing than any night club, in small apartments where God-knows-who lived.”
– Langston Hughes, Jazz Poet
In return for paying those few coins, you’d get…
A chance to cut loose after a hard work week; if you were an African American day laborer or a sailor stopped in port, you usually had just one day off to squeeze in the most fun possible.
A cheap way to get a home-cooked meal; you’d find the kitchen towering with mounds of fried chicken and fish, pig’s feet, pork chops, gumbo, sweet potato, collard greens, mulatto rice, and other “southern style” food prepared by the home owners themselves. [pictured: famous jazz singer, Billie Holiday, home cooking with her dog “Mister”]
Illicit opportunities; chief of which was access to Alcohol (illegal in the U.S. from 1919 – 1933); Gambling; and sexual opportunities ranging from 15-minute room rentals to outright Prostitution [see “Sex for Sale” section later in article].
But all these things made way for the real entertainment — dancing.
Here’s a ‘reenactment’ of a house rent party in full swing, complete with dancers, drinking, neighbors, and finally the Police:
In the end, you could eat, drink, and amuse yourself all night long for hardly any money — definitely for much less than it cost to go out to a restaurant and see a band. What was not to love about them?
“Pleasure Hungry” People
- getting high and gettin low -
“shin-dig: a kick in the shins
(source: Southern United States)”
– Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms
They were also referred to as stomps, breakdowns, scuffles, struggles, shake-me-downs, chitterling rags, and other terms showing they were so wildly popular they filled homes to capacity.
and still are (especially with parents gone for a weekend)
In his 1938 narrative Harlem Rent Parties, Frank Byrd describes the appeal and spread:
Like the Charleston and Black Bottom, it became an overnight rage. Here at last, was a partial solution to the problem of excessive rents and dreadfully subnormal incomes. Family after family and hundreds of apartment tenants opened wide their doors, went the originators of the idea one better, in fact, by having a party every Saturday night instead of once a month prior to the landlord’s call.
Parties were eventually held on other nights also. Thursday particularly became a favorite in view of the fact that ‘sleep in’ domestic workers had a day off and were free to kick up their heels without restraint. [But] the majority of working-class Negroes, maids, porters, elevator operators and the like, were paid on Saturday and, more important than that, were not required to report to work on Sunday. Saturday, therefore, became the logical night to ‘pitch’ and ‘carry on’, which these pleasure-hungry children did with abandon.”
House parties like these were nothing new in African-American life; they were around since the late 1800’s. But charging to cover the rising rents of the 1920’s and 30’s exploded thanks to two sources of inspiration:
- the tradition of African-American church suppers & fund-raisers
- Friday and Saturday Night Fish Fry’s (like the Louise Jordan song of the same name)
Dancers in your Living Room
- and hall, and then some -
You haven’t seen slow dancing until you been to a house rent party.” – Frankie Manning
In his book, Ambassador of Lindy Hop, Manning paints a picture of the parties; “It was so full of life, so much fun. People would be telling jokes…Folks would be chitchatting in the bedrooms, and, of course, lots of people would be congregated in the kitchen because that’s where the food was. But the living room was where they did the dancing. That’s what I liked best. I loved watching my mother and her friends because it seemed like they were having such a good time out there on the crowded floor.”
Harlem resident Frank Byrd described the dancing after one o’clock in the morning, which was when men “settle down to the serious business of enjoying themselves” by throwing their partner around the dance floor, while women get “tantalizing grins and the uniformly wicked gleam in their eyes [daring] the full blooded young bucks to do their darndest.”
He continues, “they may have been utter strangers during the early part of the evening but before the night is over, they are all happily sweating and laughing together in the beat of spirits.”
These parties were about more than just one type of dancing; both Manning and Byrd talk about the wide range.
Fast ‘n’ Swingin’
“They stir, throw or bounce themselves about with complete abandon. They apparently work themselves up into a frenzy but never lose time with the music despite their frantic acrobatics.” Byrd adds, “the house-rent party takes credit for the innovation of the Lindy-Hop that was subsequently improved upon at the Savoy Ballroom. For years, it has been a great favorite with the regular rug-cutting crowd.”
Frankie Manning throws in a description of ‘jam circles’ to give room for larger moves. “When they played hot music — fast music, ragtime, or Charleston-type music — if someone started getting a little wilder than everybody else, the crowd would back up and form a circle. Everybody would stand around clapping for the people in the middle, who would start shining, what we called ‘showing off’.”
Here’s a fast tune with the story of a man who can’t pay his rent [lyrics start 0:40]
Slow ‘n’ Bluesy
Manning says that when the music slowed down, “we’d put the lights down low, grab a girl, and just lay her up against a wall.”
“When people wanted to get funky, they’d do the black bottom, the mess-around, and slow drags — honky-tonk dances, what they did to slower music. If it was a Blues number, everybody would be out there shakin’ butt. You’d hear someone say “Turn the lights down low and let the party get started!”
To set the right mood for the all-night partying, many party hosts would change their lightbulbs from the normal white to colored, sensual ones.
A New Black Sound Emerges
- using what you got -
You’d want music to fill the apartment, but there wasn’t room for a lot of musicians — that would mean less room for paying customers.
Fortunately, a new style of piano playing was coming out of New York around 1918 that made it possible to have ONE instrument play for the whole party:
- left hand playing the deep rhythm
- right hand playing Blues-based embellishments and fill patterns
- it gives the piano a complex “orchestral” sound all by itself
It was named Harlem Stride, and it exploded at house rent parties in the 1920’s. The list of famous artists who played Stride is impressive: Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Willie “The Lion” Smith (who would sit sideways while playing so he could talk to the crowd), and more.
Sometimes a drummer would join in, muffling his traps with a blanket. Maybe he knew a trumpet player, and he joined in too, or someone who could blow a harmonica. Any number of musicians might pop up randomly at a party; but the only one you needed was a piano player. And business for them was good:
For ten bucks a shot, [Stride players] made appearances at three or four different rent parties on a good Saturday night.” – Duke Ellington
Yes, for only 10 dollars (or sometimes simply free food and drinks) a young Duke Ellington would appear in your living room! Musicians, inspired by the sea of moving bodies — and alcohol inside themselves — would begin improvising and creating new tunes, new sounds, new fads right on the spot.
or while laying around your house looking dreamy (Duke)
Stride might have been the hot sound in New York, but for the rest of the country House Rent Parties meant Boogie-Woogie; a style also capable of filling a room with just a piano.
Boogie was the original House Rent Party music of the 1870’s which then spread north, as Elliot Paul chronicles in his book That Crazy American Music, “The first Negroes who played what is called boogie-woogie, or house-rent music, and attracted attention in city slums where other Negroes held jam sessions, were from Texas.”
Harlem Stride, then, was New York’s evolution forward by giving the pianist even more freedom on the keys. Both were a hugely-important steps in Jazz and Blues music (and if you’ve joined my classes on “Blues Through the Eras” you learned more about their importance in dance, too).
Is it Harlem Stride or Boogie Woogie?
They’re similar and often confused, so here are two clips demonstrating their basics: (open in new YouTube windows)
Or, watch the difference between legendary musicians playing “St Louis Blues” (Harlem Stride) and “Boogie Woogie Dream” (Boogie Woogie), especially which video shows more variety with the left (rhythm) hand.
Sidenote That May Interest Only Me
How could African-American households living in poverty afford a piano for parties?
In the days when I was growing up on the Lower East Side, all the families around us were poor. But they had pianos. You could buy one for a hundred dollars and pay it off on time payments. They’d hoist it up to the apartment on a rope.” – Harry Ruby (1895 – 1974)
Amazingly, house rent parties made this one of the highest-selling periods ever for pianos in New York.
Illegal Acts in your Hallway
- don't call the cops -
“Awful” Bootleg Liquor
With the Prohibition Era in full effect — making alcohol illegal between 1919 and 1933 — one of the draws of house rent parties was a virtually unlimited supply of hooch going by names like “King Kong” (home-make whiskey) or “bathtub gin” (exactly what it sounds like). These liquors were popular for their cheap purchase, easy home brewing, as well as the punch they packed. Alcohol also gave release to inhibitions, raising the fervor of the parties.
Bars would be set up in the hallway or kitchen; bathtubs were filled with grain alcohol so you could fill your cup for 10 cents, get a pitcher for 50 cents, or pick another assorted size like pints and quarter-pints (nicknamed “shorties”).
Amusingly, Langston Hughes compares the quality of the drinks versus the food at house rent parties when he called them a place “where awful bootleg whiskey and good fried fish or steaming chitterling were sold at very low prices.” You didn’t drink at these parties for the taste.
Sex for Sale
I could earn three day’s pay, or more, in fifteen minutes.”
In a 1938 interview that’s part of the Library of Congress records, “Bernice” (Harlem-ite from 141st St. near Lenox Avenue) described how her roommates got her started making extra money at these parties:
“We rented rooms for just a little while during the party. At first I was a little shocked at the utter boldness of it. One day a man came along there was no one to take care of him. Hazel asked me if I would [take care of him]. I thought about it for awhile, then made up my mind to do it.
Well, that was the last of domestic work for me. I figured that I was a fool to go out and break my back scrubbing floors, washing, ironing, and cooking, when I could earn three day’s pay, or more, in fifteen minutes.
I’ve seen some girls who made enough on Saturday night to buy themselves an entirely new outfit for Sunday, including fur coat.”
Not every house party, but some, offered this — all in a night’s amusement.
Bernice (and many others) found they made extra money with gambling. “[My roommate] also ran a Poker and Black-Jack game in the little bedroom off the kitchen. An’ on these two games alone, I’ve seen him take in as much as twenty-eight dollars in one night. Well, you can see why I didn’t want to give it up, once we had started. Especially since I could only make six or seven dollars at the most as weekly part-time worker.
“The games paid us both so well, in fact, that we soon made gambling our specialty, and our place became the hangout of all those party-goers who liked to mix a little gambling with their drinking and dancing.”
The reason people came to house rent parties was to be entertained and forget about the stress of the week; gambling was one more way to do that. It was an especially popular activity on Pay Day, which just happened to be Saturday for most day laborers – the same day as the biggest parties.
Pot wasn’t illegal in the heyday of house rent parties. Frankie Manning used to tell the amusing tale of getting a “contact high” as a young kid at these parties!
Tons of songs were written about pot — many of them likely created while playing house rent parties — like this 1936 ode to marijuana (that turned into a huge Harlem Stride hit for Fats Waller):
But then, one year after this song was released, marijuana became illegal …not that it stopped the musicians (or party-goers).
Attracting a Crowd
- ain't no party without people -
You had tough competition to raise your rent money: “As many as twelve parties in a single block and five in an apartment building, simultaneously, were not uncommon in Harlem during the 1920s” notes the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance.
To make sure people showed up to your party, you had to advertise, advertise, advertise. A catchy slogan helped:
You don’t get nothing for being an angel, child
so you might as well get real busy and real wild.”
That appeared on a 1927 “rent party ticket”. You would print these out and hand them around to friends, colleagues, work yards, strangers on the street — anywhere to get a crowd.
Save your tears for a rainy day,
We are giving a party where you can play
With red-hot mammas and too bad She-bas
Who wear their dresses above their knees
And mess around with whom they please.”
Harlem-ites who wanted these tickets printed with their party address could find the “The Wayside Printer”. He wasn’t hard to spot: he was the middle-aged white man walking down the street holding a portable printing press. Yeah, that’s the guy.
- continuing the culture -
That passion brought communities together at juke joints, spiritual revivals, and even during slave labor [related Dance Blog article: From Africa to America]. It feeds our dancing today.
And sharing that feeling around the world might be the best part of today’s dance community.
Now excuse me while I grab some bathtub gin…