The 1920s music experience, like many other aspects of 1920s living, was characterized by rapid transitions along with evolutionary changes that characterized the period that became known as the roaring twenties. This was primarily due to the rapid uptake of new and improved inventions and technologies that displaced or replaced types and methods of enjoying music that had remained more or less constant during the preceding decades.
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Prior to the 1920s a lot of recreational music consisted of playing tunes from published sheet music or musically talented friends or family getting together for a sing-song or jam session. While sheet music was still available during the 1920′s its popularity was slowly declining.
The reasons for the decline in sheet music were the rapid improvement in the quality of phonograph records and the affordability of phonographs and radios due to the introduction of consumer credit. The advantage of phonographs and radios was that you didn’t need a piano or musical talent to enjoy music in your home. It was possible to hear the best orchestras and recording artists in your own home. The old cylindrical music rolls first used on phonographs were being replaced by 78 rpm records that contained a song on each side. Families would gather together in the evening around the radio instead of the piano, guitar, or violin as happened previously.
Classical music was popular with the middle and upper class in particular and was heavily promoted by Victor Records who had an extensive library of classical music recorded by the stars of the day and leading orchestras. Classical music was also played extensively by radio stations all over the country.
Broadway musicals like No No Nanette, Show Boat, Rosalie, and Runnin’ Wild, and movies like The Jazz Singer, and The Broadway Melody gave songs exposure to large audiences and created songs that became hits that helped sell records and sheet music for producers like RCA, Victor, Edison, and Columbia. Musical revues like the Ziegfeld Follies and Vanities popularized both songs and dances that often went on to become extremely popular, the best known example of which is the Charleston.
Al Jolson who marketed himself as the “worlds greatest entertainer” and who began his career in vaudeville, made a name for himself on Broadway but went on to star on radio, records, and movies like The Jazz Singer. Songs he made into worldwide hits included Swanee, Sonny Boy, and My Mammy. Eddie Cantor was another singer whose career began in vaudeville who went on to bigger and better things on Broadway and movies. Well known female singers from the 1920′s era include Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, and Helen Morgan.
Dancing was a major recreational activity during the 20′s. Dance bands played a major role in 1920′s music and Paul Whiteman and his orchestra were probably the best known of these. Paul Whiteman was so successful he became known as “The King of Jazz”. During the 1920′s he had an amazing number of number one hits on the music charts where his name appeared constantly year in, year out. He was also a business entrepreneur and franchised his dance music increasing its exposure even more.
Jazz was considered a passing fad by music critics when it first appeared on the music scene, but instead of fading away as many suggested would happen, it went from strength to strength and became a major form of popular 1920s music. It featured syncopated rhythms and blues accents along with aspects of ragtime.
The popular dance music of the early 1920′s was not jazz. However, there were early forms of music taking shape in the evolving blues-ragtime experimental area that would soon turn into jazz. By the mid-1920s, jazz was being played in dance halls, roadhouses and speakeasies all over America. Jazz originated among African-American and Creole musicians in places like New Orleans and became the vehicle for them to overcome discrimination, become well known entertainers, and make records. Records and radio helped disseminate jazz throughout the US and overseas.
Louis Armstrong is probably the best known musician of the era with his trumpet and cornet featuring on dozens of records released during the 1920s. Benny Goodman, the clarinet player, was one of the white jazz musicians who enjoyed great success in this music genre.
In addition to jazz, blues and country music had strong followings. African-Americans dominated the blues scene and their records were marketed to their countrymen. For a short while Hawaiian music was all the rage and hawaiian guitars and ukeleles sold by the thousands as correspondence courses and music schools sprang up to provide tuition.
The great depression had a major effect on commercial music with record sales declining to the extent that several major record companies went bankrupt. However radio prospered as people turned instead to radio for their musical entertainment.