Looking back 100 years, music in 1920.

Well, it’s the year 2020, and that means The Roaring Twenties were officially one hundred years ago! Thinking about this led me to diving into just what people were listening to in 1920. What passed for entertainment?

Although the radio had been invented in 1895 by Marconi, it wasn’t until 1913 when an American, Edwin Armstrong invented a circuit that made long range transmissions more practical. Early radios also did not have speakers, until they were later fitted with vacuum tubes that could power them. Until that point the listener had to listen on headphones. The first radio station licensed was KDKA (Pittsburgh, PA.)*. Up until this point not many homes had radios because there wasn’t much to listen to. It was the domain of engineers and hobbyists. The first broadcast of KDKA was the election results of November, 1920 where Warren G. Harding won the Presidency of the United States. ( m.american-historians.org.) Within just four years of this first commercial station, 600 stations had sprung up across the country! (www.pbs.org)

A 1920’s radio.

Now this is possibly a bigger deal than it may seem at first. For the first time, a whole nation was hearing the same songs, the same news, and enjoying the same on-air skits (at least when NBC, etc. began syndicating). Just a short time before, a rural family in Kansas was never going to hear popular Broadway tunes performed by a full band. Now the whole country could. This literally led to a “collective culture”. In a way it may have helped bring Americans together with a more uniform sense of identity. The only thing that could do that before mass communication was war.

In most homes in 1920 there would have been a piano if you could afford one, or perhaps a parlor-guitar. Most families had one or two members who could play an instrument. The phonograph, had been around for some time, and until 1920 the music business was dominated by song publishing firms, not record labels. Sheet music often outsold records. These early recordings were performed live in a room and captured on rudimentary microphones. Things like multi-track recording and overdubs were still some years away.

Of note is that Jazz had really started gaining momentum after World War One. With radio and records, it would spread much more rapidly across the nation than ever possible before. This was the first time in history that other musicians could learn music and styles from people they had never seen play! It’s actually rather remarkable when you think about it.

Here is a look at the top five songs of the year 1920. (https://tarot.info>music>yr1920)

  1. Al JolsonSwanee
  2. Paul Whiteman Whispering
  3. Mamie SmithCrazy Blues
  4. Ted Lewis and his Orchestra When My Baby Smiles at Me.
  5. Ben SelvinDardenella
Mamie Smith.

What is interesting, is that here one hundred years later we are embarking on an exact reversal of this “collective culture”. With infinite choices, people are no longer confined to Top 40 radio, and the “Big Three” television networks. Everyone is streaming their own particular favorites, no matter how obscure. You can listen to a Scandinavian Death Metal band one minute, and then listen to the latest mix of the song you wrote yourself on Spotify. You can do all this while streaming episodes of Magnum P.I. from 1981. I cut the cord on Cable some time ago and have not missed it a bit. So the point is, although the internet has made the world a smaller place in many ways, it has also made it a much, much bigger one. In the year 2120, someone will thought-transfer some data into your grandchildren’s skulls about how quaint it was that in 2020, I had to type this.

* Prominent radio personality and historian Donna Halper was nice enough to point out that my assertion that KDKA was the first radio station is actually flawed. Although I referenced multiple sources, this seems to be a classic example of “Don’t believe everything on the internet”. Her excellent piece addressing this and more can be found here:



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