The 1920s, and all that jazz

I may have dreamt it but I’m pretty sure I read some stuff the other day about there now being a “90s revival” in progress. Oh no! Meanwhile, the “Noughties” revival is surely just around the corner ...


These marketing wheezes are pretty dire if you ask me, siphoning up the easily-led with a bland offering of hit music and tacky clothing. But hey, each to their own! That said, I like the look of a 1920s night being put on by a north London Amnesty group (Waltham Forest), not least because ... well, they’ve got a DJ playing original 20s “hot” dance music on shellac 78s. Great! Check out DJ Tony Tunes here


Which got me thinking: what are the really great records from the 1920s? Well, don’t worry, I’m about to reveal all ...


First, a quick thought about the so-called Jazz Age, the “Roaring Twenties”. Apart from the fact that the introduction of radios into homes in the USA and other richer countries brought music to a much wider audience, not least new “jazz” sounds (dance orchestras etc), I wonder what was so great about the period for most people. True, a world war had ended, but a lot of countries were economically stagnant. According to the historian Eric Hobsbawm, throughout the majority of the 1920s “unemployment in most of Western Europe” was “astonishingly high”. There was the General Strike in Britain, the Wall Street Crash in the US (then the Great Depression). In the Soviet Union the late-20s collectivisation of the countryside killed millions. Mussolini’s March on Rome, Hitler’s Mein Kampf - no, a miserable period in many ways.


But still, leaving aside the F Scott Fitzgerald mythologising, there was undoubtedly some great music being made in the 1920s, and for more or less the first time in history a lot of it was being put down on record. So here’s my pick of the decade, ten from the 20s. They’re all black musicians from the USA, performing in an era decades before the civil rights movement really got going. That said, in their own way these great musicians were themselves civil rights activists. It may not be explict, but just by being talented - or brazen - in public these artists were performing protest musc.   


And it was massively influential. In my humble opinion, blues and jazz are the key musics of the 20th century: there’d be no Elvis, Beatles or er, Aphex Twin without these people ...


Bessie Smith, Thinking Blues (1925)

A sort of “bad girl” superstar of the 20s blues “belter” scene, Smith liked to give a lascivious lilt to a lot of her songs (some of which are clearly about sex or drugs anyway). This has got what sounds like a muted trumpet providing a drawling accompaniment to Smith’s own drawn-out vocals. Great stuff.


Sam Collins, Hesitation Blues (1927)

Collins’ falsetto-voiced version of a “standard” blues song from the 1920s, it’s got a lot of the delicacy and understatedness of the best early blues. “How long now, will I have to wait? / Can I get you now, honey as I hesitate”.


Blind Blake, He’s In The Jailhouse Now (1927)

Recorded a year earlier than Jimmie Rodgers’ more famous version (which has admittedly got some of Rodgers’ always rather good yodelling), I like the rougher feel of Blake’s rendition. It’s got the jaunty jug band style that fits this half-amusing/half-serious vaudeville song.


Victoria Spivey & Lonnie Johnson, Dope Head Blues (1927)

An out-and-out drugs song, Spivey’s keening voice and Johnson’s high-in-the-mix guitar make this … very addictive. Has great lyrics like “I got more money than Henry Ford or John D ever had” and “Go get my airplane and drive it to my door / I think I’ll fly to London …”. Impertinent!


Kansas Joe McCoy & Memphis Minnie, When The Levee Breaks (1927)

Fabulous finger-picking blues and lovely singing. Like a lot of these folk-blues songs, it’s about a disaster - a terrible flood in Mississippi and several other US states in 1927 which forced more than 600,000 people out of their homes, led to countless awful events (including white residents making local black people work on the levee defences at gunpoint), and ruined many people's lives. “All last night I sat on the levee and moaned / Thinking about my baby and my happy home.” Beautiful and sad.


Louis Armstrong, St James Infirmary (1928)

A big favourite with blues-rock people for years (White Stripes etc) I’m not a fan of the “goofy”, showbizy Armstrong, but the slow pacing of this and the trumpet playing is exceptional. Lovely, right-in-the-speaker vocal harmonising at the beginning as well.


Memphis Jug Band, Cocaine Habit Blues (1929)

Er, another drugs song. A really wheezy jug band tune this, complete with paper-and-comb by the sounds of it. Check out the still photo (from 0:37) on the YouTube video - that’s a party! It’s got lyrics not many people would approve of these days - “I love my whiskey and I love my gin. But the way I love my cocaine is a doggone sin” - but it’s a superbly groovy tune.


Fats Waller, Ain’t Misbehavin’ (1929)

Super-famous but … still, utterly brilliant. I reckon Waller was one of the funniest people in the entire history of recorded music. It seems he can alter the phrasings - piano, vocals - whenever he feels like it. I think I’ve heard dozens of slightly different versions of this down the years. Anyway, it’s a good song. You know it is. Yes, yes, yes.


Lil Johnson, House Rent Scuffle (1929)

Another “bawdy” singer in the Bessie Smith mould, this tune is really rocking. Fantastic boogie-woogie piano and equally fantastic guitar. Superb record. Evidently there’s no known date of birth or death for Johnson, which somehow sums up the plight of poor black Americans from the period.


Cab Calloway, Minnie The Moocher (1930)

OK not technically from the 1920s, but close enough! To me there was always something wonderfully excessive about Calloway. He might have been close to a “pet” of the Hollywood system (like Louis Armstrong), but check out some of his slinky wild-man dancing in the 1950s YouTube recording. And an amazing voice. Hep!


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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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