Written by Montanna Macdonald
From the 1920s to the 2020s, from Blues, Jazz, swing, pop, rock, reggae, rap and everything in between, here at Ponderings we have brought together the generational hits of the western world in a three-part series.
Highlighting the political discourse and issues of the time, the art form of music as a communication platform for social change is evident throughout our history. These artists have succeeded and confronted the many facets of revolutionary, culturally challenging ideas and civil movements for the greater good of a collective human feeling. In Part 1, we will be exploring the 1920s to the 1950s and their music scenes.
First, let’s take our Ponderer’s back to the 1920s, the roaring Gatsby era of speakeasies and the Harlem Renaissance.
First, paint yourself a picture, immerse yourself into Bazz Luhrmann’s 2013 Great Gatsby to encapsulate what a liberating, radical age the roaring 20s were.
As technological advancement changes the music industry forever, society can take music home via radio and vinyl. In 1919 America, the manufacturing and sale of alcohol is banned, resulting in the ‘prohibition era’ where many people were flocking to speakeasies jazz bars to listen to controversial revolutionary music and illicitly drink alcohol.
Beginning in New Orleans in African-American communities, Jazz and Ragtime roots spread to Chicago and New York, with African American and European American jazz music colliding, transforming the social landscape. Famous artists that iconically represent this era include Bessie Smith, Cliff Edwards, Duke Ellington Orch, Louis Armstrong and one of the first famous European American white women recognised for singing Jazz, Marion Harris. We also cannot forget the slow emergence of southern country music.
Artists like Vernon Dalhart became the first national success country singer with the song ‘the wreck of the old 97’ about the derailment of the Southern Railway Fast Mail train No. 97 in Virginia after crashing into a ravine and killing nine people on board.
This was the decade of artistic, intellectual and social African-American culture blossoming in Harlem, Manhattan, New York.
The birth of the American flapper girl also arises, inhabiting what was considered “male” like behaviour with short hair, smoking cigarettes and dancing in speakeasies. The roaring twenties generation came to a halt in 1929 on October 29 ‘Black Tuesday’ after the fall of Wall Street stock prices, leading to our next generation, the 1930’s and the Great Depression.
1930’s – 1940’s
The Jazz and blues era was influencing a new sound, swing music—a world puzzled by the losses and successes of war, the Great Depression and racial prejudice. The 1930s becomes the gateway platform for Old Hollywood romanticised swing music and communicating African-American generational pain. We see the birth of ‘pop stars’, mostly recognised as male blues singers such as Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby.
With the emergence of Old Hollywood, film had a significant influence on music, creating global western world hits like Judy Garland’s 1939 Somewhere Over the Rainbow for the film The Wizard of Oz directed by Victor Fleming.
However, the 1930s began to see music as an instrument for protest.
One of the most influential songs of the time includes Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit 1939, protesting the monstrosity lynching of African-Americans that were terrifyingly common at the time in Southern America. This song is considered the revolutionary beginning of the civil rights movement.
The 1940s strives with Jazz, swing and blues, big band sounds but also the rise of country music.
With global communication in World War II, radio and recordings made artists’ as well as musical genres globally’ famous and influential in the western world between allies, even in Australia. As a sign of the times, music is primarily focused on producing war songs, but also becoming a propaganda tool, surrounding the want to end the war and bring soldiers home.
Even after the war, the culture of Jazz from the west could not be ignored, with Minister of Propaganda for the Nazi’s Joseph Geobells, creating a Nazi swing band called Charlie and his Orchestra as a war tool to turn western music songs against itself. Songs were released called “let’s go bombing”, and “so you left me for the leader of the soviets” as mimics of popular American songs. They did not become a huge success.
Ahhh the age of rock and roll; not a lot of social change, but a whole lot upbeat post-war celebratory love making music. Welcome Baby Boomers. The 1950s were the parents to world-class Jazz, pop, rhythm and blues, swing, doo-wop, country and, American southern rockabilly. Elvis, Chuck Berry, Bill Hayley & His Comets, Louis Armstrong and more Elvis!
To listen to many of the songs that rocked our world, you can listen to Pondering’s Music Playlist here!
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