In the 1940s a mixed-race, all-female band named the International Sweethearts of Rhythm zigzagged their way across the United States, playing one-nighters at black venues, setting box-office records and attracting A-list admirers such as Louis Armstrong. Whenever they ventured into the Deep South, they had to stay one step ahead of the sheriffs and Ku Klux Klan-inspired vigilantes who upheld the Jim Crow laws.
As one of the lighter-skinned musicians in the band (which also comprised Asian, Hispanic and Native American women), Helen Jones Woods often found herself in the same predicament as her white colleagues when the law came sniffing around. On more than one occasion, she and two white friends had to be smuggled off the bandstand or the bus (known as Big Bertha) and make a getaway to the nearest railway station before the local sheriff arrived investigating a rumor that white women were playing in this mostly non-white band.
At a festival in North Carolina in 1946, not long after the band’s return from a triumphant seven-month tour of Germany, France and England, the Sweethearts’ manager sought police protection after phone calls threatening “kidnapping and Klan activity” if their concert went ahead with an integrated lineup. The Sweethearts played as planned, in front of an audience of 10,000. Their refusal to be intimidated later prompted the jazz pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines to call them “the first Freedom Riders”.
Despite their popularity, it was not until the 1980s that the band members began to receive wider recognition that had previously been denied them. By then, Jones Woods, one of the original members, had long since abandoned her music career.
Helen Elizabeth Jones was born in Meridian, Mississippi, in 1923 and sent to a white orphanage, resulting in conflicting documents over her date of birth. When it became clear that she was the child of an interracial couple, she was moved to a black orphanage and subsequently adopted by Laurence Clifton Jones and his wife, Grace. Dr Jones was the founder of the Piney Woods Country Life School, in rural Mississippi, which provided an education and a home for underprivileged black children, and relied heavily on its fundraising activities for income. Chief among these were music groups which included the Cotton Blossom Singers and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi.
Their refusal to be intimidated later prompted the jazz pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines to call them “the first Freedom Riders.”
Many of the pupils at the school were given instruments to play in marching bands. Helen Jones Woods was no exception, and picked the trombone. When Dr Jones heard an all-girl swing band on the radio, he hit upon the idea of forming one at Piney Woods. The group, initially known as the Swinging Rays of Rhythm, was formed in 1937, and soon became a popular draw in Mississippi and neighboring states. By 1939, the girls were traveling all over the country, even performing at the New York World’s Fair.
The 18-piece band traveled in two buses that had been fitted out by some of Piney Woods’ male students. One bus had bunks and was for sleeping in; the other was the “school bus” and was where the girls had their lessons. She later described their relationship as “a bond like a bunch of sisters”.
Much to the chagrin of Jones Woods’ father, she and her fellow musicians broke away from the school in 1941 after two Washington DC bookers, promising them a good income, persuaded them to turn professional. They commandeered the buses and absconded to Washington, which became their new base. Taking up residence in a house in nearby Arlington, Virginia, they renamed themselves the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, “international” referring to the range of races in the lineup.
As band members dropped out, replacements were recruited on the road, and these soon included two white musicians. The band became hugely successful, though their triumphs were only documented in the black press. They proved more than a match for the better-remembered male bands of the day, and regularly took part in thrilling “battles of the bands”. They played with Billie Holiday, packed out famous venues including the Apollo in Harlem, set a new weekly box office record of 35,000 at the Howard Theatre in Washington, and were filmed for “soundies”, an early version of music videos.
However, the promises made to them did not materialize and the band began to disintegrate in the late 1940s. By then, Helen had married William Alfred Woods, the first African-American to earn an accounting degree from Creighton University, Nebraska, and started a family with him in Omaha.
She is survived by her four children: Robert Woods, Jacquelyn Woods, William Woods Jr and Cathy Hughes, the founder and chairwoman of Urban One, the largest African-American owned media company in the US.
After the breakup of the Sweethearts Jones Woods played trombone in the Omaha Symphony Orchestra but was kicked out after her first performance when the management realized she was not white. She abandoned her music career and studied nursing, earning a degree from Creighton University and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Nebraska. For 30 years she worked as a nurse and social worker.
In 2010 she told the writer Leo Adam Biga that playing with the Sweethearts “kept us from having to be a cook or a dishwasher. It showed us an exciting time beyond the same old dull life … Plus, we got a chance to see the world. That was our reward. It wasn’t money, because we certainly didn’t see any.”
Helen Jones Woods, musician, was born on October 9 or November 14, 1923. She died of the coronavirus on July 25, 2020, aged 96