The 1920s, ′30s, and ′40s were shaped by the end of World War I, the stock market crash of 1929, and World War II.
Following the horrors of World War I, the 1920s, dubbed the Jazz Age, were characterized by simultaneous fear and relief.
The stock market crash of 1929 brought an end to the excitement and freedom of the decade and sent the economy into turmoil.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected in 1932 and promised Americans a “New Deal” to help them get back to work.
Just as the Depression was beginning to ease in the United States, Hitler came to power in Germany and World War II began; the United States joined the fighting after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.
After World War I, a sense of optimism returned; more Americans attended college, and the birth rate increased.
Chapter 1: The World Before Rock and Roll
Elvis Presley’s appearance on Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town in 1956 was controversial.
Elvis’s appearance illustrates what conditions were in place that allowed rock and roll to develop and saturate American culture.
This chapter will examine the history and development of technologies and musical styles that helped rock and roll to emerge as it did.
Building a National Audience for Music and Entertainment
National Versus Regional
Until the advent of motion pictures and radio, most American culture was regional; people knew mainly the music they could perform themselves or hear performed in person.
Radio technology, developed in the late-nineteenth century, was initially used for military and maritime communications; in the 1920s, commercial broadcasts began, and stations were linked into national networks.
The programming of radio networks created a national audience for mainstream pop, whereas country and western and rhythm and blues were not widely heard on the radio and therefore remained regional styles.
The Rise of the Radio Networks in the 1920s (How Did They Work?)
High-power transmitters were used by “clear channel” stations, which could reach large regions.
Radio networks link stations together; early networks such as NBC’s used phone lines.
Prior to 1945, it was considered unethical to play recorded music on the air, and audiences expected that what they heard was being broadcast in real time.
Network programming included soap operas, adventure shows, comedies, variety shows, and feeds from dance clubs.
The Migration of Big Corporate Money Away from Radio to Television
In the 1940s, companies like the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) began to put their resources into television, as national audiences migrated from radio to television.
Rock and roll was able to spread quickly because the national audience could be reached through television programs, whereas radio could once again be used to appeal to regional audiences.
Tin Pan Alley
Sheet Music Publishers and Professional Songwriters
The sheet music business, a second major influence on the mainstream popular music business, was concentrated in an area of New York City known as Tin Pan Alley.
Tin Pan Alley songs follow a standard formal pattern, often a sectional verse-chorus format with an introductory verse and a chorus in AABA form.
Tin Pan Alley advertising aimed at selling the song itself, not specific recordings of a song; publishing firms often marketed songs by convincing professionals or “pluggers” to perform them.
Musical theater and movies were used to promote Tin Pan Alley songs, and radio was the best way to gain exposure.
The Singer Steps Forward
The Singers and the Big Bands
Radio networks, performers, and music publishers relied on one another to succeed, leading to many behind-the-scenes negotiations.
During the big band era, bands played arrangements of Tin Pan Alley songs that emphasized the instrumentalists and were suitable for dancing; singers were used to provide variety and were not the focus.
Bing Crosby is an example of a pop singer who was successful independent of any particular band.
Many former big band stars followed Sinatra’s lead at the same time that economic circumstances forced a number of big bands to break up.
The Sound of Pop in the Early 1950s
Mainstream pop music of the early 1950s was often characterized by wholesome lyrics and a focus on the singer.
In the first half of the 1950s, pop music was designed to be acceptable to a wide range of listeners; but the sensual and emotional appeal of some singers foreshadowed rock and roll.
Big publishing firms had considered rhythm and blues and country and western music to be of limited appeal, so they were caught off guard by the rise of these styles.
“Country” Music in the Southeast in the 1930s
Country was mainly a regional style before 1945, found in the southeast and Appalachia; it can be traced to folk traditions, some of which originated in the British Isles.
“Western” Music in the Southwest and California in the 1930s
Western music was defined in part by Hollywood portrayals of cowboys and prairie life.
Western swing was a style that put a cowboy twist on big band music.
Jimmie Rodgers, the First Star of Country Music
Rodgers was a national star and an important figure in early country music.
Rodgers was known as “The Blue Yodeler” and “The Singing Brakeman,” images based on rustic stereotypes that seem to have been contrived for marketing purposes.
Recordings and Radio
Superstation Radio Broadcasts in Prime Time
At first, country and western radio programming was limited to local and regional stations; the Grand Ole Opry became more widely available when the station that carried it, WSM in Nashville, became a clear-channel station in 1932 and NBC began broadcasting a half-hour version over its network in 1939.
National Barndance was a midwestern program that was carried on the NBC network in 1933; many other barn-dance shows reached regional radio audiences.
Hank Williams’s popularity as a country and western musician was virtually unrivaled in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Williams had an emotional singing style that projected sincerity.
Bluegrass, the New, Old-Time Country Music
Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys
Bluegrass developed during the post–World War II era and can be traced to Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys.
Bluegrass music showcases virtuosic instrumental soloing.
By the early 1950s, country and western music was known nationally, although it remained separate from mainstream pop and had a smaller market share.
Rural (Delta) and Urban Blues
Migration Patterns from the Rural South to the Urban North
In the years following World War II, rhythm and blues was popular music played by black musicians for black audiences; most white listeners had no familiarity with it.
Blues music was popular after World War I; sheet music by W. C. Handy and recordings by black female singers such as Bessie Smith sold well.
Rural blacks began to migrate to urban centers in the 1930s and 1940s, which helped to make the city of Memphis a center for black music; as blues musicians moved into urban venues, they formed combos featuring electric guitar, bass, piano, drums, and harmonica, a style of electric blues that came to be centered in Chicago by the 1950s.
While most rhythm and blues remained outside the pop mainstream, Louis Jordan and his Tympani Five had a series of hit singles in a style known as jump blues.
Regional Radio and the Black Experience in 1950s America
As radio adapted to the emergence of television, more commercial stations took a regional approach to programming; beginning in 1948, black stations began programming and advertising specifically to local black audiences.
Independent Labels Target Regional Audiences
Independent record labels specializing in black music began to appear at the same time as black radio stations; independent labels thrived by focusing on local or regional markets.
Between 1945 and 1955, nobody expected that white listeners would hear rhythm and blues; rhythm and blues was not a single musical style, but a designation given to a number of styles expected to have a black audience.
Rhythm and Blues as a Marketing Category that Includes a Broad Range of Musical Styles
The Influence of Gospel Music (Rural Southern Church Traditions)
Many rhythm and blues styles were indebted to gospel music, from which they drew sophisticated harmony singing, vocal embellishments, and call and response between soloist and chorus.
Chess Records and Chicago Electric Blues
Chicago’s electric blues scene developed in part due to an independent label called Chess, opened in 1947 by Phil and Leonard Chess, two white fans of black music; Chess recordings were known for rough-edged and emotional vocals and a technically unsophisticated recorded sound
Atlantic Records, based in New York, attempted to bring rhythm and blues to a broader audience; Atlantic’s recordings were influenced by mainstream pop and generally focused on the singer.
Doo-Wop (Urban Vocal Music)
Doo-Wop emerged in urban neighborhoods, and it consisted of a cappella vocal arrangements that often contained nonsense syllables.
Rhythm and Blues as a “Dangerous Influence” on American (White) Youth
Stagger Lee and the Black Male Swagger
White teenagers were increasingly drawn to rhythm and blues in the 1950s, which concerned some parents; the “Stagger Lee” myth was a racial stereotype of black men that underpinned some of these fears and misunderstandings.
“Hokum blues” were a musical tradition in black culture that played on sexual double entendres.
Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” (1954) is an example of the hokum blues; when the song was covered by the all-white band Bill Haley and His Comets, the lyrics were adapted to be more acceptable to white audiences.
Haley’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll” also adapted the rhythmic feel to give more of an impression of good, clean fun.
As with country and western, the market for rhythm and blues was distinct from the mainstream pop market, and the music business in 1955 remained segregated.