Every surge of teenage identity has come with a soundtrack. The history of teen personas, of teenage style and teenage lifestyle, is always associated with if not defined by the music of the era.
New genres of popular music are invariably embraced initially by the young. The adult world more often than not looks at emerging musical styles with disdain if not outright hostility. In the 20th century most of this new music came from America, and specifically from black America. Usually it came with a look, a dance and an attitude.
Perhaps the first example of this is ragtime. It first came into prominence in black communities like St. Louis. That’s where the Scott Joplin House is located and when I think of ragtime it’s Joplin compositions like the “Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer” that come to mind. Ragtime went mainstream with Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” in 1911.
Ragtime brought teenagers to the dance halls, establishing what would be a standard of teen social life for the next several decades. Their parents hadn’t taught them any dances that worked with this kind of music, so they created and popularized the so-called animal dances: the chicken scratch, the turkey trot and the grizzly bear to name a few.
Ragtime faded from the scene with the emergence of jazz. Another musical style that was created by black Americans, jazz had its origins in New Orleans. Starting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries you could hear jazz played by dance bands in bars and brothels and even by marching bands at New Orleans’ lavish funerals. Jelly Roll Morton used to play in Storyville, the town’s famous red light district. Jazz began to spread around the country as tourists came to New Orleans and heard these performances. Apparently Storyville was a pretty common destination for these tourists.
The Jazz Age was a key part of the Roaring 20’s. It was a time of prosperity and a time to emerge from the death and destruction of the Great War. It was also the time of Prohibition, but I suspect that the way that this ill-advised law was so freely disregarded only added to the sense of freedom.
Auther Jon Savage (Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture) calls jazz the “lingua franca” of American youth at the time and notes, “The young men and women of 1922 had found their cause…if drinking, dancing and jazz were to be excoriated by bishops, generals and politicians alike, then those activities would be their standard.”
The Jazz Age was also the time of the flapper. I’m not sure you can associate flappers with femimism but they surely represented an emergence of girls and young women out of their historic domestic roles. Flappers presented themselves as fun-loving and carefree and exuded an air of sexiness.
A lot of the fun came to a grinding halt in 1929 when the stock market crashed ushering in a decade of tough times. Perhaps it is appropriate that the popular music of the Depression was the sound of crooners like Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby.
The tempo started to pick up toward the end of the decade with another new musical style coming out of the U.S., swing. It would be the dominant genre for popular music well into the 1940’s, led by big band leaders such as Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Glenn Miller and Duke Ellington.
Swing definitely brought along a style. The dance of the times was the Jitterbug. The uniform for girls, who would become known as bobby soxers, included saddle shoes, sweaters and skirts that you could twirl around in on the dance floor. The zoot suit for boys meant baggy pants and long jackets, topped perhaps with a pork pie hat. Much like jazz in the 20’s swing grew in popularity as prosperity returned and the world had escaped from the devastation of another world war.
The swing bands of the era also demonstrated the role of music in making some inroads in what was still a primarily racially segregated society. There were integrated swing and jazz bands long before there were integrated sports teams or military units. Or houses of Congress for that matter.
Up to this point, working class teens had yet to be heard from. That began to change by the 1950’s. Grace Paladino, author of Teenagers: An American History, describes a “growing underworld of working-class teenage ‘cats’ who had no intention of following adolescent rules. Both black and white, teenage cats dressed in dazzling shirts with oversized collars and flashy drape pants in color combinations like pink and black. They wore their hair long and swirled in the back with greasy pomade.” And they listened to rhythm and blues, once again adopting their musical accompaniment from black America.
Few rock ‘n’ rollers will deny the influence of R&B on their music. Rock emerged as mainstream, at least as far as young people were concerned, in 1954 with Bill Haley & the Comets hit “Rock Around the Clock.” Rock ‘n’ roll in the fifties provided the theme songs for the teenage rebel. Like Elvis Presley and James Dean. Rebels wore leather jackets or jeans, the girls used too much makeup and donned tight skirts. And they spent a good part of their time hanging out on the street.
A decade later it was the Beatles who, in Paladino’s words, “made rock ‘n’ roll as acceptable as high school yearbooks. The Beatles drew their fans from affluent teenagers, kids who wanted to be rebels but not greasers.” A different kind of rebel emerged in the 60’s and 70’s. Instead of just rebelling against the social conventions that their predecessors showed such disdain for in the 50’s, they took an active role in the civil rights and antiwar movements. They stopped cutting their hair, paid little attention to their clothes and challenged authority at every turn.
The best musical representation of this is Bob Dylan, who, according to Paladino, “expertly tapped a bulging vein of teenage alienation.” That’s right about the time when I was a teenager. So here’s one of the anthems of my generation:
Photos used for this post are part of the New York Public Library digital collection of public domain images.