This is the first of what will be a limited series looking back at seminal songs of a certain decade, in this case the 1920s. Why this decade, ninety years ago, you may ask? Well, it was the first real decade of popular music-jazz and blues, spurred by the emergence of commercial radio stations and new recording technology that allowed for cheaply made records which could be played on gramophones and early jukeboxes. Jazz dominated the era, but it was also the era of songwriters like Irving Berlin and others who came out of Tin Pan Alley in the early 20th century. For many, jazz was an escape from Prohibition and the memories of world war one, even as moralists linked it with rising crime and illegal but hugely popular speakeasies. So, here, then, are some of the songs that helped define the 1920s:
Al Jolson-Swanee (1920)
The first superstar of the jazz age, Jolson made a name for himself on Broadway and in “The Jazz Singer,” where he notoriously performed in blackface, as did many white performers of the early 20th century. Jolson was a true fan and promoter of African American music, however, and helped make jazz popular as its first major star.
Blind Lemon Jefferson-Matchbox Blues (1925)
One of the first popular black blues singers, Jefferson was known for his high-pitched voice and was a major influence on blues and early rock and roll; “Matchbox Blues” became one of his most well known songs and a classic blues standard.
Hoagy Carmichael-Stardust (1927)
The original version of this haunting song was first written by Carmichael in 1927 with lyrics added by Mitchell Parrish in 1929. Covered by many artists over the years, it has become a classic jazz instrumental.
Arthur Gibbs and his Gang-Charleston (1923)
Probably the definitive song of the jazz era, originally written by Cecil Mack and James P. Johnson.
Irving Berlin-Puttin’ On The Ritz (1929)
Written by Berlin in 1927, this song was published in 1929 and first featured in a 1930 film of the same name. Released just as the decade came to an end, it serves as a coda for the Roaring Twenties. A version was made popular by Fred Astaire. The song was notably performed in “Young Frankenstein” and covered by the band Taco in 1983.