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The Alt-Right’s Roots Go Deep in Co-Opting Pop Music

As with the Nazis and Goebbels and the Ku Klux Klan, the alt-right’s desire to co-opt pop music for their purposes requires ideological and ethical gymnastics.

Like most designations on the political spectrum, “far right” is an elastic term stretchable according to the beholder. A consensus on what that far right is also differs across times and locations. Yet, while recognizing the flaws of inevitable generalizations, common far-right traits can be traced between movements as disparate as Germany’s National Socialist Party and America’s Ku Klux Klan. Both engaged in paradoxical relationships with popular music, each oscillating between responses of condemnation and co-option, sometimes simultaneously.

Swingtime for Hitler

As jazz developed in the US at the end of the 19th century, it spread to Europe, its propulsive rhythms driving new life and energy into the old world and its established cultures. By the ’20s, young people in Britain, France, and Germany were gazing starry-eyed across the Atlantic, yearning for and welcoming over the music, dance, clothes, and street vernacular emanating from African-American communities in New Orleans, Chicago, and New York. Such desires and developments did not sit well with the Nazi party as it made its presence felt in Germany at the close of that decade.

Indeed, even before the party grasped power in 1933, jazz had been banned in some provinces. In 1930, the Minister of the Interior, Wilhelm Frick, an early supporter of Hitler, prohibited the playing of jazz with a decree entitled “Against Negro Culture—For German Nationhood”, which called out the genre for its “alien influence” and as “an affront to German cultural sensibilities”. According to Frick, Hitler, and others like-minded, because jazz was created and performed by black musicians, it was—by nature—“degenerate”.

In far-right circles in the US at the time, the success of stars like Duke Ellington and Count Basie was also perceived as an implicit threat to the racial—and thus, social, cultural, and moral—order. Elevated to high-class status by the adoring masses (as well as by their proud monikers), these artists’ displays of wealth and fame were interpreted as the inferior race getting above its station. Moreover, the mixed racial make-up of their bands seemed to challenge the segregated system itself.

Jews were also involved at all levels of the industry, feeding fears evoked by well-established Nazi conspiracy theories that vulnerable youths might be controlled and indoctrinated. The genre and its attending subculture elicited further anxiety; not only was the word “jazz” a slang term for “sex”, but its unrestrained sounds, dances, and clothes denoted the kinds of sexual expressiveness and gender-bending antithetical to Nazi norms regarding traditional roles and behavior.

As music journalist and historian Jon Savage comments, swinging jazz fans “reversed almost every Nazi tenet. Instead of uniformity, they proclaimed difference; instead of aggression, overt sexuality”. For Hitler, real culture should promote the state, not challenge it; it should serve the ruling party, not individual hedonistic pleasures; its compositions should display discipline and order, not the kind of loose sexuality projected by the saxophone sounds of jazz.    

As with the rock ‘n’ roll behemoth that would conquer the world in the ’50s, though, jazz proved difficult to suppress. Not only had it established a firm foothold in Germany since the early ’20s, but internal censors were unable to stop the flow of it coming in via the powerful transmitters of Radio Luxembourg and the BBC. In a case of “if you can’t beat them, join them”, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels embarked upon an alternative strategy to assert some control over the nation’s omnipresent popular music: co-option.

Many of the German troops enrolled in the military and/or serving on the frontlines had grown up listening to and loving jazz. For them, this music held, says Savage, “the promise of another world”, one full of freedom and escape from the restraints and impending doom of everyday life. Ever the pragmatist, Goebbels temporarily shelved his objections and sent a collection of jazz musicians into war zones to perform for the soldiers stationed there to boost their morale. If such music could pacify the troops, distract them from everyday atrocities, and help foster camaraderie, Goebbels was willing to co-opt it, treating it as just another tool for the cause, another means to an end.

The Propaganda Minister used jazz in other, more bizarre ways, most notably through the bands his department assembled and promoted before and during the war. At the same time the regime was clamping down on African-American jazz, it was fostering its own home-grown ensembles. Unlike their more wild and crazy American counterparts, though, the state-sponsored Golden Seven were instructed to play a toned-down, easy listening style suitable for mass consumption.

The compromise satisfied few jazz fans, who found their music boring, and conservative citizens found it offensive and inappropriate for the public airwaves. The latter reaction seemingly prevailed, as the band did not last long, disbanded by the administration for putting too much swing (i.e., sensuality and emotion) into their sound. Later, in 1940, the jazz program was weaponized further, used as a propaganda tool against enemy nations. So began the career of the Nazi super group Charlie and His Orchestra, a “fake” jazz band put together to infiltrate British radio airwaves.

First, the band were instructed to learn some jazz standards British listeners would be receptive to. Then they were told to start each song with the usual lyrics before inserting the propaganda verses written and provided by the Reich Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. Finally, the songs were sent out on the airwaves across the British Channel. The scheme was concocted in the hope that unwitting recipients would be drawn into the songs before being bombarded with messages about Allied losses, how they were losing the war, and how they were pawns of the US, USSR, and, of course, Jews.

Seeking to demoralize the enemy, the line “Another war, another profit, another Jewish business trick” was inserted into “Makin’ Whoopee”  and “Picture the USA without the Jews” into “Picture Me Without You”.  Winston Churchill was said to have been amused by these broadcasts, presumably by such songs as “The Man With the Big Cigar”, featuring a German narrator pretending to be English describing the Prime Minister as a “friend of the USSR” and “friend of the Jew”.

The most significant legacy of the Nazis’ engagement with popular music might well be the generation gap it inspired and exacerbated, setting an example for various rock-related conflicts thereafter. Although the circumstances of American youth rebels can never compare with those the German youth were forced to live through, stories of how the Swingjudend—or Swing youth—resisted and circumvented their Nazi oppressors resonate through time and across nations. Like most rock artists and fans, the Swings were not political subversives, yet they were treated as such. They wanted freedom of expression, the right to pleasure and leisure, and to be kids. Savage explains: “Swing was not just about musical and physical freedom, it was about a much wider liberty in all its forms: the true emancipation, not just of the Negro musicians who pioneered the style, but of the “teens” whose coming of age the music heralded.”

Rebranding and ReKKKruiting

While Hitler and Mussolini were conducting their reigns of terror around the world, other far-right organizations sprang up and/or spread across myriad nations. Historian D.J. Mulloy estimates that during the ’30s, at least 120 quasi-fascist groups operated in the US. Among these were the American Liberty League, The Defenders of the Christian Faith, The Silver Legion of America (or Silver Shirts), The Black Legion, The German American Bund, and the Ku Klux Klan. All were white nationalists and white supremacists, united by a common hatred of African-Americans, Jews, immigrants, homosexuals, and communists.

Like the German Nazi Party they admired, all were reactionary, chauvinist, and anti-modern, their purported populism constantly compromised by their distaste for contemporary popular culture. Unlike the Nazis, their designs for change never extended to operations that might overthrow the political or economic systems. Indeed, their attitudes toward cultural developments were often oriented by their desires to defend or exploit those existing systems.

The largest and most influential far-right organization in the US during the ’20s was the Ku Klux Klan, then in its second iteration. Rebranded with a less violent image as defenders of traditional American values, the “Second Klan” employed multi-level business and marketing techniques with such effectiveness that by the mid-‘20s, over four million citizens were card-carrying, fee-paying members – a huge constituency considering its fishing pool was limited to just white Protestant “native” citizens. At the height of its powers, the ‘20s Klan constituted the largest extreme right organization in the nation’s history.

That the Klan was widely perceived at the time as just another social group is a testament to its marketing savvy and how pervasive racism was during this era. The federal government tolerated them, while local governments, both above and below the Mason-Dixon line, had members in positions of authority from the police up to judges and elected officials. In tandem, they presented a conservative front determined to “protect” white women and families, to maintain white supremacy in increasingly racially mixed cities, and to clamp down on cultural decadence.

This was the era of the flapper, a symbol associated in the public consciousness with drinking in saloons, dancing to popular music, and sexual permissiveness. Jazz, in turn, also symbolized these aspects of the swinging ‘20s; thus, to the Klan, it was a threat to traditional values and mores of “civilized” behavior.

Considering such opposition, it is prima facie paradoxical that the KKK simultaneously mixed their open condemnations with active co-options of this music. As with the Nazis and Goebbels, the Klan’s desire to use jazz required some ideological and ethical gymnastics regarding race and racial policies. “What’s so weird about this is that a lot of the music styles they’re pulling from…are from African American, Irish Catholic and Eastern European traditions,” says Kyle Burnett, a professor of media studies at Bellarmine University.  Recruitment was the primary motivation for co-opting jazz for both the Nazis and the Klan; for the Klan, this was tied up with commercial ambitions as a means for money-making and the organization’s expansion.

One example of the Klan’s complicated dance with the devil was its dealings with Gennett Records. Founded in 1917 by Italian Catholics, Gennett produced some of the era’s most popular black artists, including Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong. Yet, the Klan still hired them to produce its spoken word and musical recordings while calling for boycotts of the very music emanating from that company. 

Among the side businesses run by Klan leaders was their own record company, KKK Records, out of Indianapolis, Indiana. The records released on it were sometimes sold by Klan-friendly merchants and sometimes at “Klonvocations” – huge public pageants and gatherings held for the many members around the country. A typical Klan song on the label was “Daddy Swiped Our Last Clean Sheet and Joined the Ku Klux Klan”, performed by the 100% Americans in 1924. Its novelty appeal and humor mask the racism and terror still at the core of the organization, fore-fronting instead a kinder, gentler image of the Klan that all (racist white Protestants) could associate with without shame or guilt. Such re-branding subtleties are familiar to those paying attention to the recent alt-right, which is similarly partial to dressing its racism with an (ironic) nudge and a wink to distort itself from its extremist views or those of former extreme-right manifestations. 

Contrary to the stock histories of the KKK, the group did not turn its back on popular culture; instead, it employed that culture to penetrate mainstream society, even if its harsh rhetoric did not always match its practices. Like the Nazis, though, the Klan recognized the necessity and benefits of compromise in its co-options. Thus, the Klan did not just copy the African-American styles of the day but revised them into versions more in line and in tune with its professed values and purposes. Hence, hymns and gospel songs were given a jazz or ragtime treatment—or vice versa.

Foreshadowing Christian rockers nowadays that replace “baby” with “god” in the lyrics of secular songs, KKK bands did the inverse, producing songs like “Onward Christian Klansman” from “Onward Christian Soldiers”, and “The Bright Fiery Cross” from “The Old Rugged Cross”. This methodology filtered into all Klan music and playing, even in its youth divisions. Forerunners of the Hitler Youth, the Junior KKK for boys was formed in 1923, and there were Junior Klaverns in 15 states by the following year.

By co-opting and corrupting both secular and Christian standards, the KKK was able to promote its ethos as well as profit in the process. A glance through any Klan songbook will reveal multiple remakes of “America” and “The Battle Hymn of America” to emphasize the group’s nativist identity. And to signpost its populism, the secular jazz-folk cut “The Ballad of Casey Jones” was often covered, despite being written and originally popularized by an African-American (and friend of Casey), Wallace Saunders, in 1909.

Most songs, though, like “Come Join the Ku Klux Klan”, and “Hear the Call”, reveal the Klan’s main priorities. The jazz bands that played these songs, like the Imperial Quintette of Lansing, the Detroit Klan Quartette, and 100% Americans, never reached the heights of popularity or artistry achieved by the African-American acts they appropriated from, but they served their purposes for the organization: recruitment, expansion, profit, branding, and the dissemination of extreme right ideas and values.

Works Cited

Bergmeier, Horst J.P. and Lotz, Rainer E. Hitler’s Airwaves: The Inside Story of Nazi Radio Broadcasting and Propaganda Swing. Yale University Press. 1997.

Gordon, Linda. The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition. W.W. Norton and Co. 2017.

Miller, Matthew. “A Michigan Quintet and Songs of the Ku Klux Klan”. MLiveMichigan. 7 April 2023.

Mulloy, D.J. Enemies of the State: The Radical Right in America from FDR to Trump. Rowman & Littlefield. 2018.

Savage, Jon. Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture. Viking. 2007.