Churches have always been ambivalent about dance music, some clergy fearing it is the devil’s tool, an incitement to lascivious behaviour; some have made use of dance music in liturgy and in Christmas carols. The waltz, where a man and a woman hold each other in their arms and sway rhythmically, was denounced in the 19th century. The bishop of Santa Fe condemned dances as “conducive to evil, occasions of sin, [providing] opportunities for illicit affinities and love that was reprehensible and sinful.” In 1938, Francis Beckman, the Catholic Archbishop of Dubuque campaigned against “swing music”.
Beckman (1875-1948) was no stranger to controversy. He was an isolationist in foreign policy and a supporter of the radical priest Father Charles Coughlin whose radio broadcasts beamed antisemitic messages to millions in Depression-era America. He believed that calls for the USA to oppose Hitler were a communist plot. In October 1938, in a speech to the National Council of Catholic Women, he launched a crusade against contemporary dance music which he termed “a degenerated musical system… turned loose to gnaw away the moral fiber of young people”. “Jam sessions, jitterbugs and cannibalistic rhythmic orgies occupy a place in our social scheme of things,” said the archbishop, “wooing our youth along the primrose path to Hell!” He went on to say that though the Church was zealously trying to promote and preserve the best of modern art, swing music was among “the evil forces … hard at work to undermine its Christian status, debauch its high purposes and harness it to serve individual diabolical ends.”
Archbishop Beckman’s career was curtailed during the Second World War when it was discovered that he had borrowed money in his diocese’s name to invest in a shady gold mine scheme. He was allowed to retain his post but all decisions were left in the hands of a coadjutor bishop.