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STEINBERG: Henry Ford, America’s hateful square dance instructor

Square dancers in Chicago, 1976. | Sun-Times


Social media is awash in conspiracy theories — another word for confused persons trying to window-dress reality into something they can understand and accept. The dust hadn’t settled after Amtrak’s Washington State crash before right wingers were blaming it on their bogeyman of the moment, the anti-fascist movement Antifa.

Then an actual real-life conspiracy gets unearthed and people just shrug on hurry on. If it doesn’t buff their biases, they don’t care.

I was flitting around Twitter this week when I happened upon an article by Chicago freelancer Robyn Pennacchia on Quartz, a web site run by The Atlantic Magazine.

I don’t like to echo the work of others. But OMG.

The headline says it all — “America’s wholesome square dancing tradition is a tool of white supremacy” — and explains the reason countless kids in countless gym classes have been swinging their partners round-and-round for the past 90 years. It is not — as I supposed — some vestige frontier tradition that lodged in public school physical education and somehow survived the lash of time, but a direct result of … well, better let Pennacchia explain it:

To understand how square dancing became a state-mandated means of celebrating Americana, it’s necessary to go back to Henry Ford… Ford hated jazz; he hated the Charleston. He also really hated Jewish people, and believed that Jewish people invented jazz as part of a nefarious plot to corrupt the masses and take over the world—a theory that might come as a surprise to the black people who actually did invent it.

I knew that the inventor of the Model T was a poisonous anti-Semite, an inspiration to Adolf Hitler and the only American mentioned by name in Mein Kampf. But the jazz stuff is new. Pennacchia quotes volume three of Ford’s The International Jew, written in 1921:

Many people have wondered whence come the waves upon waves of musical slush that invade decent homes and set the young people of this generation imitating the drivel of morons. Popular music is a Jewish monopoly. Jazz is a Jewish creation. The mush, slush, the sly suggestion, the abandoned sensuousness of sliding notes, are of Jewish origin.

Pennacchia explains how Ford loved to square dance and he “saw these dances as intrinsically white, and thus more intrinsically wholesome.” In 1925, he announced that he would supplant jazz with square dancing and brought 200 Midwest dance instructors to Dearborn to learn the steps. Ford’s personal instructor, Benjamin Lovett, published a book, Good Morning: After a Sleep of Twenty-Five Years, Old-Fashioned Dancing is Being Revived by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford and went across the country, teaching square dancing.

Ford sponsored fiddling contests and public dances that Ford employees were expected to attend.

A few observations.

First, never underestimate the role of sexual panic in bigotry. Ford went after jazz for the same reason some today care which restrooms are used by transgender people.

Second, for fans of square dancing: as significant as Ford seems to have been, he wasn’t the only one pushing folk dancing in the 1920s, an era that saw country music beginning to enter national awareness through the birth of radio. The Grand Ole Opry began in 1925 without help from Ford. So if Hitler did not spoil Wagner, Ford should not spoil square dancing.

Third, since the Ford Motor Company is still an on-going concern, and people bear grudges, it should be noted that Ford’s grandson, Henry Ford II, took pains to repudiate his father’s legacy of hate, and its former president, Mark Fields, who stepped down last spring, is himself Jewish. No collective guilt over the generations.

Fourth, this does explains why, in suburban Cleveland in the 1960s, were were all circling to the left and circling the right and do-si-do-ing under the watchful eye of Mr. Foster. I never paused to wonder why, but now it makes sense. Which made me worry that I share this theory only because it validates some deep-seated animosity against square dancing. I don’t think so. I remember it being fun. Rather, I repeat the tale because, to me, it is interesting and, unlike most conspiracies discussed nowadays, it also happens to be true. Always a plus.