Music and Culture

How did Music represent and effect culture in the 1920's?
by Ariella Iancu

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The Roaring Twenties brought a lot more to America than money and controversy. It set a precedent for the whole 20th century: the fight between liberalism and fundamentalism, blacks and whites. Some battles were easily won: “the Business of America is Business” – and that is what it still is today (maybe mixed in with a little of cold war spreading democracy theories too).

Music formed in the roaring twenties defined music for the next thirty years. And it did not stop there, it spurred the rock and roll age, inspired British rock bands (leading into our Rock age), and evolved into today’s music of hip hop and pop. F. Scott Fitzgerald called it the “Jazz age,” and that is
what it was. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Jelly Roll Morton, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis. The “Jazz Age” defined culture: the culture creativity, the the music played in the party atmosphere of the 20’s, and rift between the races. The twenties also contained the Blues age, the Harlem Renaissance, Tin Pan Alley, and Musical Theater. Music from each section explained the troubles of
blues_journey.jpg image by valadon2
blues_journey.jpg image by valadon2
life, the “black experience”, prohibition and the exciting times of the twenties. The music that flowed out of the Roaring Twenties defined culture, and in itself represented twenties culture.


I. Blues History

In the 17th century, not only came slaves to America, but their cultures too. Most slaves came from different tribes with different languages, cultures, mythologies, and traditions. Although musical instruments were banned, the slaves still found ways to express themselves in song. At first the Blues were filled with the traditional beats and elements of the work songs. The work songs of the slaves were connected to African traditions with more a rhythm than lyrics. The slaves sang songs to keep their spirits up during working hours:

“No more auction block for me,
No more, no more.
No more auction block for me,
Many thousand gone.”

Work songs helped keep a synchronized beat in the gang labor system, while giving hope.Come the Great Awakenings, The slaves started to incorporate religion into their music:

Go down Moses, way down in Egypt’s land,
Tell old Pharoah ‘Let my people go!’

The incorporation of religion gave them hope, that if God freed his people, that they too would be freed. Furthermore, it gave their masters the appearance that they were content. Some Slaves started performing ‘jigs’ to the songs. The merry and childish facade of the songs and ‘jigs’, gave the slaves a “Jim Crow” masquerade. In fact, that is where the name came from. Jim Crow was a gay slave, from the song “Jump Jim Crow”, who loved to sing and dance and was happy about his slavery. Work songs lasted past slavery, into the sharecropping system and railroad work. Musical instruments were now open to use, and the first jazz groups started. Musical improvisation started, as well as blues, incorporating beats and music from the work songs and Slave/African culture. In 1899 at the St. Louis Worlds’s Far, the Maple Leaf Rag, by Scott Joplin, was introduced, mixing ragtime music and Slave dance. Charlie Galloway with his guitar was in one of the first New Orleans jazz bands in 1894, and Buddy Bolden in 1885 with his cornet started the official Blues movement. New Orleans Jazz mixed with narrative ballads formed the Blues.

However, as the times changed with the end of reconstruction, the banjo and guitar came more into use, and the beat changed. The guitar was easy to use and learn and easy to play cord to form a pattern. Even by simply changing a string, the whole tune would change.

Charley Patton:
Charley Patton:
Several key Blues singers have changed the Blues. Charley Patton having spent a lot of time in Europe and liked the music there, enculturated and acculturated the blues, mixing Delta Blues with European structure. He standardized the music of the blues with flattened 3rd’s and 7th’s, blended 2nd D’s and choked E flats. Leading the way, Patton infused personality and religion into his music. These infusions made the Blues ready for entertainment. Segregation kept African American Blues out of the American mainstream music and mostly in the rural south. Musicianers, as they were called, played instruments for dances, keeping music mainly for pleasure. The songs themselves were mostly Ballads, stories of great heroes.

Sam Collins brought about the personalization of the blues. He believed in self expression, telling his own story. He would sing about the hard times in the Gilded Age. Of no job, discrimination, sharecropping, and drunkenness. Sam Collins changed Blues into the classical blues, where social history and personal hardships were shown through music.

Other Blues Musicians who changed the Blues included Lemon Jeff, Lonnie, and Barefoot Bill. Blind Lemon Jeff, born in the late 1890’s sang of his hardships with being blind, and increased the importance of the musical aspect in the Blues. He would make imitations of everyday sounds, such as knitting needles clicking. He would have fast phrases of lyrics, with chocking and arpeggios accompaniment. He would have “conversations” with his Guitar, where it would respond after each phrase. Lonnie, from New Orleans, was trained well musically. He polished the ruffer edges of the Blues with Jazz. Furthermore, he insisted on putting and playing all emotions, often humming and moaning at the end of each line. Barefoot Bill, also well musically trained, added in the syncopation to the Blues. As times became less ruff, and money became more easy to make, musical skill became more important in the Blues. The extra time, the relaxed atmosphere, lead to the more skill in the Blues singers.

In the early1900’s, the blues became more performance based and cheery. With the increase of money and the end of the Great War, Music became mostly for dances. A mix of panpipes, fiddles, and the fox trot, a part of the blues branched off into a more country styled music.(see Country Music for details) Performances were for the white population, even if performed by Black Blues singers. Performers, such as Jay Bird Coleman (who was said to be killed by the KKK), made music more entertainment based, fitting more into the stereotypes of Banjo playing, eye rolling, black comedians. The Blues became more lyric based with more “Serenading groups” called the “Nigger minstrel companies”, such as Okah. With the Great Migration after WWI, music groups traveled more and controlled by the city bosses, like the rest of the cities. They played only in white theaters, such as Elite Café and De Luxe café.

jelly roll morton
jelly roll morton
However places such as in New Orleans, the music became more colorful . The most Famous Blues Musicians made it in this time: Big Mama Thorton, Ollie Powers, Jelly Roll Morton, Muddy Waters, Little Richard, Bessie Smith and Howlin Wolf- each mixing in new flavors. Jelly Roll Morton often is credited with the start of the Jazz age, Muddy Waters for inspiring the Rolling Stones, and Howlin’ Wolf for a more electric feel. These were the Classic Singers, the Genuine Race Artists. And even though they recorded, they were often ignored, or copied. They started singing about everything. Not about famous heros of times long ago, but of their own histories. Carl martin sang on the PWA, the WPA, and unemployment. Their songs became either passionate, deeply involved or hypnotic. And even though it was made to sell, they sang with cynicism about prejudices.

With the growth of technology, specifically juke boxes, the blues turned into the Rhythm and Blues, or R & B. It became the age of the Bands, or Kin
g Biscutt Time ( an actual band). Mammie Smith, Nat “King” Cole, Charles Brown, Ray Charles, Oscar Moore, B. B. King. The whites started taking songs. Elvis Presley is famous for his song “ Hound Dog”, actually first written and performed by Big Mama Thorton. However, because it was becoming increasingly more popular, and listened to by both Blacks and Whites, it joined the nation together under one music stream. The end of prejudices and racism was the end of the blues. The blues fed off the prejudice, the sorrow, and segregation- with it gone, so was the Blues.

II. The Blues specifically in the Twenties

The Blues, after Sam Collins, always told the woes of the people, reflecting the culture in their songs. However, in the twenties, the blues was used as entertainment for the white community, a way to gain money. Thus, they sang less of woes and more of racial realization. It became more commercialized and even swing like. Prohibition drove the clubs, which is where the blues artist played. They came as performers and performers only, no blacks were allowed in the clubs otherwise. Clubs such as the Cotton Club, often called Jim crow clubs, brought in and MADE musicians, such as Duke Ellington and Ethel Waters. Come the age of radio and records, many white performers felt the pressure of competing with Black artists, having many Blacks rejected from playing on the radio or recorded.

This was mostly in the big cities of Harlem and Chicago, but in the rural south, the old sound of the Blues was protected. The poverty forced the blues players to keep old instruments with older sounds that were easier to manipulate. Here, the Classic age of Blues was preserved.

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The Blues lead to Jazz and Country which in turn influenced rock and roll, rock, surf, caium rock, latino, etc
The Blues lead to Jazz and Country which in turn influenced rock and roll, rock, surf, caium rock, latino, etc

The Jazz Age

I. Jazz

With the end of WWI, the people wanted to break out, to have fun, dnace, dine out, and be daring. This lead to more hotels, entertainment, and especially clubs. In the music, there were more up beats, faster jazzier tempos, staccatos.
Jazz in itself was more daring. Traditionally, jazz is improvisation, or making it up as one goes along. Jazz can be up beat, or bluesy, powerful or quiet, bluesy or swing-y. Breaking off from New Orleans Jazz ( which is really just Blues), Jazz has the mix of African culture and the Blues. Usually filled with syncopation, polyrhythms, and swing notes, Jazz was often mixed with swing- making it fun to dance to at the clubs in the 20’s. Jelly Roll Morton combined the swing with the New Orleans jazz and Rag time, making what is called the “ Jelly Roll Blues”.
Jazz was the music played in the background of the 20’s. Always in the clubs, and always by the talented Black musicians. It made nighttime come to life. It, like the Harlem renaissance (where it was aloud to grow), was erotic, colorful, and sensous. Both Whites and Blacks participated, and was the main entertainment of the twenties. Jazz aloud for the atmosphere of the club life in the 20’s , while simultaneously representing the colorful night life of America.

II. Tin Pan Alley

“The Business of America is Business.” Not only did this show in the economy of the 1920’s, but so did the music industry. Obsessed with making money, the Music Industry found new ways to do so. In Tin Pan Alley- not really an alley , and named for the cacophony of sound found on west 28th street between 5th and 6th in manhattan that sounded like the banging of tin pans- the first Copy Righting of Songs occurred. “Dardanella”, a musical hit, was the first big music event that warned against plagiarism. However, the first big case was not on infringement of lyrics or music, but on the title of the song. “ When my Baby Smiles” vs. “When my Baby Smiles at Me”. It Changed the way America thought about music, about plagiarism, and showed the absolute need for money. The music was all the same, commercialized, in Tin Pan Alley: jazzy with a bluesy and pop twist.
external image tinpan.jpg
Tin pan alley

III. Musical Theater

Talkies, Radio, Bands, Acts, Organists, Musicals- all showed the “Happy times” of the 20’s and incorporated music. Talkies, or non silent films, were often filled with song. In fact, the first movie to win the Oscar and to break the silent movie streak was The Jazz Singer, where all of the words spoken were in song. Theme songs, like ‘Happy Days’ were very big. Popy and catchy, they were j
ust too good to die down. With the death of Vaudeville, musicals became popular. Broadway became big, and big it was; commercial, big, gaudy, glorified, elaborate entertainment- just like the 20’s. The women were naughty, often nude, covered in furs and jems, decked up in gaudiness.

Music in General

I. Country Music
Country music has deep roots in hillbilly folk music and ties to old Celtic and Anglo Saxon music. Although around since the backcountry itself, the birth of Country music really took place in the 1920’s. Jimmie Richards, the Father of Country, infused gospel and blues, black southern culture, with the white southern folk music, forming classical country music. He joined “ Blue Yodel” and Oken music ( see History of the Blues).Country Music at its birth was mostly commercialized and sung by white males, with the exception of Eva Davis and Samantha Bumgarner. The infusion of Blues music was a very white washed watered down version of what the Blues really was. It showed the carefree, Cowboy style and the need for adventure in the Rural south. It was not popular in the cities, or with the African Americans, but it did represent White culture.

II. Women in Music

Women in the twenties were often Flappers : light hearted, daring, fun loving, and smokers. However in music, they were the tragic muse, but the general feel of the flappers did affect what kind of music was played ( light hearted dance music, Jazz, broadway). Many women sold themselves through music, appearing almost pornographic. Many, such as Helen Kane, were “ boop boop a boop girls”, back up singers that were perky. They had more power than before, and they became more alluring. This represents how women were viewed in society in many ways: beautiful and daring, but only meant for back up. Many songs were about women too. They were often provocative and meant to woo women. Many songs talked about flappers, in the same way they talked about prohibition.

Sources Sited:
Shaw, Arnold. The Jazz Age. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
Oliver, Paul. The Story of the Blues.