Rolling and Swung Counts

West Coast Swing Online Musicality

The first part of this series introduced the difference between straight and rolling counts in west coast swing. In this post, we will introduce the third kind of count common in WCS music: the swung count.

As we saw earlier, the rolling count pushes the triple rhythm closer to the upbeat. Instead of marking the exact midpoint between the downbeat and upbeat, the middle step of a rolling triple is around the 2/3 mark between the two beats:

The rolling count triple, with the middle step closer to the upbeat

In some songs, the counts between the beats fall perfectly within the rolling count structure of &a1&a2, etc. Many of Brother Yusef’s songs, such as “Down Home Blues” or “Shoes of Another Man,” divide each beat clearly into three equally spaced elements of the & count, the a count, and the beat itself.

However, the rolling count does not fit perfectly into other songs. As an example, listen to “Hush Hush” by Etta James and try to count along:

It’s painfully obvious that the straight count doesn’t fit this song at all. But, the rolling count isn’t quite right either. The drum pickup to the upbeat is just off from the rolling count’s a. The difference can be heard most clearly at the end of each phrase, when the guitar plays all three elements of the rolling count to rolling time but the drum pickup hits a split second after the a.

What you are hearing in this song is an example of a swung count. The “swing” in swing music traditionally comes from musicians who would take your normal, straight rhythm and “swing” the eighth note (our & count) towards the upbeat. The further the musicians pushed the eight note away from the middle of the beat and towards the upbeat, the more they “swung” the music.

Rolling count is an example of swung music, but it is not the only way to swing the beat. Because the rolling count is mathematically dividing the beat into three equal parts, playing or dancing a rolling count feels smooth. However, if the eighth note is swung in a way that doesn’t divide the beat into mathematically equal pieces (as with Etta’s drummer), your body feels a little lurch at each swung eighth note. Your internal sense of rhythm is violated, ever so slightly, with each swung eighth because your brain can’t put a mathematical count to the beat. The consequence is that your body experiences a small but noticeable “jump” as the mathematically correct spot for the eighth note passes, the note doesn’t come and hence you tense in anticipation, and then the tension is released an instant later when the note finally arrives. Literally, your body is swinging to the music with a little pulse of tension-release for each swung eighth. (The same principle is at work in the comically over-exaggerated delayed line by Tim Curry’s character in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, below.)

Dancing to swung rhythm is incredibly difficult because every muscle in your body and every metronomic impulse in your head is screaming at you to move now, when you really need to move just an instant later. When dancing to the rolling count, we use the crutch of saying the entire count to ourselves (“&a1&a2…”) in order to keep the a from slipping back towards the middle of the beat. We don’t have that tool when dancing a truly swung count, because the essence of the swung count is that the beat is no longer being divided into mathematically comparable parts. You just have to feel it, and executing that feeling requires years of practice in body control.

But, if you can master the swung count, then songs like “Hush Hush” come alive in a way you can’t imagine. Dancers who can truly execute the swung count create the same sense of anticipation-tension-release that the musicians do, and the effect on the audience is invigorating.

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