100 Great Records Of The 1920s, Prologue.

(I know I said there would be something else first, but it’s taking longer than I figured on, and I compiled this list relatively quickly.)

Hello and welcome to the newest installment of me running my mouth about music I like. Previous installments have covered the 1970s, the 1950s, and the 1980s; the next installment will probably be a do-over of my increasingly embarrassing 1960s list. Or not. It depends.

But I wanted to note that there will be a difference with this list, or at least with what I say about this list. Even the 1950s are recent enough in pop-music terms to feel relatively normal; anyone raised on rock can get Chuck Berry or Howlin’ Wolf. But the music of the 1920s, unless you’re well-versed in the history of the period, can be like an alien planet. It’s a world where jazz is a signifer not of cerebral adult cool, but of raw, youthful sexuality and the end of the world, where the everyday pulse of popular culture, hip and dumb alike, beats not in television or even radio, but on the stage. The people I’m going to be talking about were mostly born in a Victorian world, a world without an internal combustion engine or electrical wiring; a world without amplification.

All this to say, this is going to be as much an historical inquiry as it will ordinary chatter about significance and cool; this music isn’t necessarily stuff that a modern audience can listen to and get right away. I don’t believe that the music of the 1920s is better than the music of today; nor do I believe it’s worse. It’s just different, though not as different as it might seem on first hearing it. It has different rules, different agendas, and different norms, but it still works the same way: it gives its listeners something to dream about, something to dance to, something to be intrigued by, something to prove how hip they are. It’s only the dreams, the dances, the intrigue, and the hipness that have changed, and that’s what I’ll be talking about. To some extent, anyway; I’m not a professional historian, and I’m certainly no musicologist. I’m just some guy who thinks all music is worth paying attention to on its own terms.

The other reason it can be difficult for modern listeners to appreciate the music of eighty-some years ago is purely sonic. It’s low-fidelity stuff, much of it recorded by the most primitive means possible: literally transcribing sound waves onto a surface. (Electrical recording turns up around the middle of the decade and gives the records somewhat greater dynamic range, but there’s still won’t be anything as pristine as a master tape until the mid-1940s, movies aside.) Surface noise — the snap, crackle, and hiss of worn shellac grooves — is a fact of life here, and smaller sonic details are lost to the ages. But it’s all we have, and to turn our backs on it is to reject where we come from and who we are. Like anything, you can learn to love it if you listen to enough of it.

Because of this moderate difficulty of appreciation, and because of the relative difficulty of getting your hands on this music, I’m including 128kbps mp3s of each song with each writeup, so that you can hear it for yourself. The mp3s will only be available until a week after the entire list is posted; if you really like this stuff, buy it so there will be more of it available.

Finally, almost everything here is popular, as opposed to classical, music. This is not because there wasn’t great concert music being written and performed during the 1920s — much of it among the greatest music of the twentieth century — but because very little of it made its way onto records until thirty years later. In this at least, little has changed. But it does give an unfortunately lopsided impression of the decade.

Anyway. Lemme know what you think, especially once I’ve let you know what I think.

4 Thoughts on “100 Great Records Of The 1920s, Prologue.

  1. Been waiting for you to get to this one. Go to it, Jonathan; really looking forward to this.

  2. Hi,

    I’ve been a lifelong collector and have dabbled in ’20s music only infrequently through the years. I could appreciate and enjoy some songs and performances but couldn’t quite get my ears around it.

    Just a few weeks ago, for whatever reason, the clouds parted and I am now INTO this stuff. Finding this list comes to me at the perfect time as I try to quench my 1920s musical thirst.


  3. Paul Luchter on February 17, 2009 at 5:20 am said:

    Ella Mae Morse was not one of the 100? That is not right.

  4. Ella Mae Morse first recorded in the 1940s. I don’t know what list you thought you were reading.

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