By: Noah Sandweiss, Bicentennial Intern, Class of 2018, History, Bloomington
Bars, basements, and other venues are packed and steamy with students huddling, dancing, or jostling around. In the midst of the crowd, a band carves out a little breathing space. It might be a one-night arrangement, thrown together for the heck of it, or a group playing demos for a new album. Every once in a while, the musicians will play something that the world doesn’t have a name for yet—call it folk punk, post punk, cool jazz.
For over a century, students at Indiana University have been breaking molds both on and off campus, creating new genres, experimenting with older styles, or just goofing around. Bloomington’s diverse student population catalyzed musical innovation in ballrooms, bars, and basements.
I became intrigued about the history of Bloomington’s music scene because of the insistent flux of influences and shared experiences between local musicians over the course of decades. The stimulus of the music school, particularly the jazz program, is evident in lineages of jazz and jazz-fusion groups, while the folklore program inspires the exploration of vernacular southern Indiana music, and the student body’s anti-establishment bent has sparked innovations in punk music since the genre’s inception.
With such an eclectic spread of musicians and bands constantly forming and splitting up, and evolving through graduation, maturation, or chance, it has been difficult narrowing down the information that I plan on using for my interactive timeline.
Numerous projects have been conducted in mapping of musical groups during key periods of creative growth and in sketching the biographies of IU’s most influential musicians. In putting together a new, all-inclusive narrative, I have to give credit to the organization Musical Family Tree, which promotes the recognition of Indiana musicians, Eric “Indiana” Spears for his videos and blog posts on the local music scene in the 1980s and 1990s, and Richard Sudhalter, author of Stardust Melody: The Life and Music of Hoagy Carmichael .
I’d also like to thank everybody who met with me for interviews and shared their own personal experience creating or promoting music in Bloomington.
What never fails to amaze me as a history student is how easy it can be to find information if you simply know where to look. In Bloomington alone, Indiana University has over 30 libraries and the Monroe County Public Library and the Monroe County History Center have plenty of primary resources and local histories. People who have been playing music in town for decades are usually willing to share their stories.
Of course, the internet is a wonderful thing, and there are many credible blogs, databases, and articles on most any subject. Of course, I don’t have to tell you that, but I don’t want to give off the impression that I’m entirely analogue. The videos and images that I use come in part from the IU Archives, as well as elsewhere on the internet, falling under the fair use clause as educational content.
As far as my timeline is concerned, the history of an innovative IU inspired music tradition begins with the introduction of ragtime music, which in the 1910s inspired a young Hoagy Carmichael, a Bloomington boy, to take up piano.
He found his way to Indiana University, and, along with fellow Hoosier jazz pioneer Bix Beiderbecke and art musician Ernest Moenkhaus, Carmichael adopted the sounds of New York, New Orleans, St. Louis, and Chicago, and invited African American bands from Indianapolis to play in Bloomington.
Not only is Carmichael one of the most famous musicians to come out of IU, but many people involved with the Bloomington music scene give him credit for attracting the out-of-town bands that allowed music venues to grow, and for helping launch the tradition of off-campus innovation.
The period between the 1930s and late 1960s seems oddly quiet however, as the depression and war dominated the two decades following Carmichael’s graduation. The most likely reason for this gap is that there simply weren’t many local musicians being written about.
Much of the music performed around IU consisted of popular swing and dance tunes. It is during this period however that IU’s jazz program took off. Jazz students and faculty blurred the line between academic and popular music, with jazz greats such as Al Cobine and David Baker attending and later teaching at IU. In 1968, Baker founded the Jazz Studies department.
The boom of local bands from 1968 onward was spurred by a number of factors, including the new jazz program, a strong counter-culture scene, the emergence of do-it-yourself record labels, and new FM radio stations like WIUS and WQAX.
Though the early 1960s were dominated by jazz bands and folk clubs, the late 1960s began to see the rise of experimental bands such as Mrs. Seamon’s Sound Band, which would morph into the Screaming Gypsy Bandits, and later into the influential acid rock band MX-80.
In particular, the Screaming Gypsy Bandits helped launch a new wave of bands, which performed at houses, bars, and street dances put on by WQAX. A theatric experience, Screaming Gypsy Bandit shows could feature improv sketches such as impromptu sales pitches for canned camel meat.
Folk music continued to be performed, in folk gatherings and in public with singer-songwriter (and eventual voice actress) Caroline Peyton, among others. The Spectator, a radical leftist newspaper, hosted public shows, reviewed local musicians, and served as a community hub and news channel. Paul Buhle, editor of Radical America declared The Spectator “the most intellectually serious underground newspaper I’ve ever seen.”
The paper gained such notoriety, that J. Edgar Hoover coordinated a failed FBI attempt to undermine its influence with the publication of an anti-leftist campus newsletter disguised as an alternative paper.
During this period, the FBI was also responsible for placing hidden cameras in radical businesses, and allegedly planting heroin under the car of the owner of a black power store called The Black Market. In 1968, Dean of Faculty Joseph Sutton barged into The Spectator’s office—a WWII-era Quonset hut—accompanied by campus police and armed with a fire axe, throwing out files and equipment. The paper went literally underground then, operating out of a basement apartment.
In 1979, the Dancing Cigarettes made inroads into Bloomington’s emerging punk scene. Known for their danceable tunes and Dadaist lyrics, the Dancing Cigarettes helped popularize early punk in the area. Up through the present day, a punk lineage has left its legacy in Bloomington through house shows, street dances, and anarchist collectives.
Between the 1970s and 1990s, the emergence of simple and inexpensive recording techniques transformed Bloomington into the hub for the anarchic DIY genre of folk-punk, with formative bands such as Ghost Mice and AJJ recording at Plan-it-X Records.
Today, the music scene in Bloomington seems more diverse than ever. Co-ops host punk, hip hop, and DJ’s from Bloomington and beyond. Local venues such as Rhinos, Players Pub, Bears, and The Bishop, just to name a few, draw musicians from far and wide, and record stores feature locally produced music.
Bloomington is host to numerous record labels such as Plan-it-X, Secretly Canadian, Jagjaguwar, as well as the former site of numerous discontinued labels. In shared spaces, influences, and experiences, Bloomington’s innovating musicians share a unique heritage that continues to push the envelope of popular (or unpopular) music.
 Sudhalter, Richard M. Stardust Melody: The Life and Music of Hoagy Carmichael. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
 Wynkoop, Mary Ann. Dissent in the Heartland: The Student Protest Movement at Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, 1965 – 1970. Indiana University Press. 2002.