At the opening of the 20th century the decisive influence of the ragtime pianists fell on white audiences tiring of the minstrel show and willing to pay to hear black performers. At the same time the American band was being heard everywhere, promoted by John Philip Sousa, the most successful musician of his time, and testifying among other things to pugnacious nationalism. Both phenomena would modulate into dance bands playing vigorous dance music. Burgeoning displays of sheet music in neighborhood stores, often music calling itself rag, attracted a diverse public, much of which never heard the concerts of the creators of ragtime.
Modest as well as prosperous homes had a keyboard, either a piano or the less expensive reed organ: the industry built 107,000 harmoniums a year in 1900, and 177,000 pianos. By 1909, the figure was 364,000 pianos. Piano music was available beyond the proportion of the population that could play: by 1925, more than half the pianos produced were automatics, using player rolls for current hits (see Cyril Ehrlich, The Piano: a History). Such instruments, giving out more and better sound than the evolving phonograph had yet mastered, tuned the audience more closely than ever before to the latest fad in music.
To one veteran songwriter and publisher the 1910s marked a crucial turning point: “The public of the nineties had asked for tunes to sing,” Edward S. Marks remarked nostalgically, “but the public from 1910 demanded tunes to dance to.”
The tunes in question, provided by the songwriting production lines of New York’s TinPan Alley, were “rags”, snappy, syncopated numbers; the dances were dose-contad “anlinal” dances !ike the Turkey Trot and the Grizzly Bear. The sources for both of these lay in the black subculture of the Iate 19th century.
Ragtirne had emerged in the United States in the post-Civil War era, rapidly maturing in the hands of pianist-composers such as Scott Joplin (whose “Maple Leaf Rag” was composed in 1899) into a meticulously crafted piano music in which European marching tempos and harrnony engaged in a subtle dialog with Afro-American approaches to rhythm.
Meanwhile, the cakewalk – a stylized display dance that combined black mockery of white dance steps with the black culture’ s own approach to mavement – had begun to appear in polite white society, where it met with the energetic two-steps of the March King, John Philip Sousa. The establishment of public venues – cabarets, dance halls, restaurants – rneant that dancing ceased to be a predominantly private affair. By the 1910s, discovery of the physically emancipating effect of black folk dance had led to a flood of popular new steps.
A boom in social dancing began during the second decade of the twentieth century, along with the first recognition of music called jazz. Nat Shapiro quotes Variety as estimating that in the mid-1920s there were 60,000 dance bands playing on the dance floors of jazz age America. Beginning in 1920, radio broadcasting brought recorded and live music into homes, posing an economic challenge to pianos and combining with the Depression in 1929 to decimate record and phonograph sales. The music that America absorbed through these media came mostly from New York, from Tin Pan Alley publishing houses and from the flourishing Broadway stage, reproduced also in vaudeville houses across the country. When in the middle of the 1920s recording engineers developed microphones to replace recording horns, a new softer “crooning” performance became possible and stylish on records and over the radio.
Al Jolson’s songs on screen in 1927 opened another medium. When the Depression crippled the New York musical theater, Hollywood studios became the patrons of much of professional songwriting, for the movies that were the country’s largest entertainment indulgence during the 1930s. The record industry struggled back late in the decade, dominated by the big swing bands and their vocalists. As the war overtook the United States, a significant economic struggle surfaced in musical entertainment. The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers ( ASCAP) had been formed in 1914 to collect performance royalties for the owners of song copyrights.
By 1939 it held monopoly power over popular music performance, and a contract dispute with radio broadcasters led to the formation of Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI) as a rival guild. Following a ten-month interval in 1941 during which no ASCAP music could be played on the radio, causing a boom in classical, folk, and public domain music generally, ASCAP entered into a new broadcast contract, but BMI continued and grew. BMI, growing out of the dispute where its rival stood for established interests, came to represent popular music from outside the New York-Hollywood establishment, and local markets compared with the network emphasis of ASCAP. An institution had appeared to reflect the regional, rural, and minority interests in the music world that would gain great audience support after the war.
For the first time styles of music and dance for white America positively encouraged individual expressian and suggested that the immediate moment was to be fully savared, even though dancers stili had to share in a prescribed pattern. The prernier dance couple of the era, Britons Irene and Vemon Castle, led the way.
The Castles managed to cornbine a trendsetting image as liberalizers of behavior with an air of rniddle-class moral respectability. This helped to resolve the controversy that developed as custodians of moral and esthetic standards argued over the merits of the new music and dance. Where one critic delighted in the “delicacy of ragtirne’ s inner rhythms”, another deplored its “jerk and ratile”; what to same eyes embodied the new “spirit of America” was to others decadent drivel.
Underýying the arguments of opponents lay the (by no means always unspoken) fear of racial contamination, not only from the black source of the music and dance, but alsa from the white ethnic (especialiy Jewish) group s who dominated Tin Pan Allei’s modernized song machine. The marginal status of these groups in American society allowed them readily to identify with the black approach, and also encouraged the use of popular culture as a means of social and economic advancement.
The moral opponents’ argument was corred in one respect: more than mere entertainment was at stake. The part of American society that espoused the new styles of music and dance began to absorb, via white ethnic groups, attitudes and practices from the black community. It also raised fundamental questions about the family, about gender and race, and – above all – about the body; for it was to the body’s still unexplored capacity for expression that the music and dance most obviously related.
The music still had a predictable, march-like meter, the legacy and symbol of a relentless, regularizing value system; what gaye it a new, unique character was syncopation, the “offbeat”, with the accent placed against the expectations of the pulse. Jazz would soon take this much further than ragtime, but a crucial point had been made: the control of the regular meter could be challenged – not by outright opposition, but by a change of emphasis.
Black performance style and musicality had interacted with European conventions before, but this was the first time its impact had been so dear. Yet even while apprapriating this music, mainstream society neutralized its more expressive qualities.
Unsure emotionally, self-conscious in display, at once faseinated and repelled by the implications of the music, the dancing public taking their cue from leaders like the Castles attempted to resolve the dilemmas by quickening the rhythms. What had been a subtle music became a display of good-hurnored impudence and respectable candor, which offered the sexes greater opportunity for intimacy, but froze the hand and eye in order to speed the foot.
The dance craze of the 1910s can be seen as an early example in 20th-century popular culture of the conflict between a liberating force and a conservative tendency.
Opposition to developments was to play a part in the story of popular music but the mainstream’s capacity for assirnilation was to prove even more important. The relationship of popular culture to ideology in the 1960s and into the 1970s has become of interest to academic sociology, although the alarmed interest of politicians has given way to accommodation. The relationship of the entertainment favored by highly visible classes of teenagers and young adults to the behavior of that audience, and especially its use of drugs, is probably now still too current an issue for full perspective and confident judgment.
The history of popular music suggests that it is very unlikely that musical entertainment can induce new behavior, or even introduce new ideas to the audience it must court in order to sell itself. Though popular music has been blamed in the past for undermining community standards or otherwise damaging society, it is a new phenomenon for popular music to have the pervasive presence that prosperity and the portable radio and tape deck have given it lately, and for such conspicuous economic power to be vested in a youth audience. The history of popular music that is now happening cannot be fully schematized and managed by the patterns of earlier popular music. Its development has always been contingent, surprising, and even discontinuous except when we rationalize it with hindsight, and it is continuing that unpredictable development now.