The History of Teens as Told Through Their Music

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.

The EntertainerPerhaps 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.

Alexander's Ragtime Band

Still from the movie “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”

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.

Ingeneus jazz ban

Ingenues, an American women’s jazz band

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.

Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington and His Orchestra

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.

Benny Goodman

Benny Goodman

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.

James Dean

James Dean

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.

The Beatles

The Beatles

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.

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22 Responses to The History of Teens as Told Through Their Music

  1. Donna Janke says:

    I love the first line of this piece “Every surge of teenage identity has come with a soundtrack”. You’ve shown us how that soundtrack was representative of or shaped by the times. Very interesting. I chuckled when I read your comment about the adult world looking at emerging musical styles with disdain. I remember my father saying that the music of the Beatles would never last.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Same as Donna, that highlighted sentence struck a core with me. Back a few years when Heath Ledger started in “A Knight’s Tale,” I watched the behind the scenes and found it most interesting that the director said he put a rock and roll soundtrack to the film because every generation would have had its music.

    Your essay taps into that very thing and delves deep. Enjoyed reading about it and remembering multiple conversations with my parents about their music versus our music and always seeking to find a common ground.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Phoenicia says:

    Young people like to have someone to identify with. Each decade brings a person of influence to captivate young people. I take my hat off to singers who are still.popular despite being around for decades. Take Madonna, she she is constantly reinventing herself to stay current. I do not agree with much of her attire but she is one clever woman.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Erica says:

    I really am enjoying this series, Ken. I knew so little about teenage life in the 20s, 30s and 40s. I remember surfing through channels and seeing The Lawrence Welk show as a kid. I always thought it was so strange, but it makes sense how it appealed to an older generation looking back at their younger years. I actually had a Great Uncle who passed away before I was born who was a famous Big Band Leader. He also had his own radio show back before television took over. It would have been neat to have met him and gotten to talk to him about the music scene in that era.


  5. I was born near the start of the rock and roll era and music certainly has had a profound influence on my thinking and my life. Very interesting article!


  6. The music of each new generation always seems to get blamed for making teens go to hell in a hand basket. It’s endlessly fascinating. Though now there are so many more common experiences teens share in thanks to the prevalence of social media. And thanks for including the Dylan song. It reminds me of being in high school and first hearing one of the cooks at the hotel where I cleaned rooms at playing some of his stuff in the kitchen. I was like, “Oh my God, he sounds like a screeching cat. That’s not music.” But what did I know? I was 16. I loves me some Bob Dyland soooooo much now because he has things worth saying not just oh, baby baby, ohhhhh.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Excellent article.
    I never realized that Ragtime was a music that teenagers danced to. The Chicken Scratch, The Grizzly Bear – – – great names for dances!


  8. Interesting article, Ken. I did a research paper in middle school about rock and roll over the decades from the 50-80s and learned a lot about all these different bands. My daughter is doing an American history report on how history influence music. I am going to share this post with her. I think she will enjoy it.


  9. My fatgher who was into opera and classical music in general couldn’t believe it when he had a daughter who listened to Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa, Janice Joplin and others. In general we have stopped liking the music that appealed to us then. But I have to say that I still like Janice Joplin.


  10. lenie5860 says:

    I can so well remember my parents upset with the music we listened to, especially Elvis. With his pelvic grind he was considered the ultimate ‘trip to the devil’. But then our sons listened to heavy metal and I’ve gotta say I wasn’t much impressed. So it is all part of establishing your territory as a teenager.
    I enjoyed your little aside about “Apparently Storyville was a pretty common destination for these tourists”. Cute..

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Hi Ken. The series on teens is great, but really like this one on the music because it goes way back and has some really interesting facts. What is amazing is every generation thinks the music the teens listen to at the time is horrendous and it can’t get any worse. But every year it does (or maybe I’m just getting old 🙂 ) but can’t imagine what music will be like in 10 years if you hear some of the lyrics in today’s popular teen music.


  12. Ken Dowell says:

    Today’s teens are surely not the first to enjoy popular music with dodgy lyrics. Listen to the lyrics of some of the popular songs if the fifties.


  13. Andy says:

    This week I’ll offer a shout-out on behalf of the late, legendary Les Paul, whose seminal contributions to
    (a) the invention of the electric guitar and
    (b) recording techniques
    have had as great an impact on ‘teenage music’ (all music, really) as anything else that I can think of.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. What a wonderful informative post.
    Music has always reflected the attitudes of people, and their demographics.
    If anything, music helped loosen the doors to racism, having ethnic music (as it once was called) being adopted by white culture expanded their consciousness to people different then themselves.
    Thanks for sharing this with us.


    • Ken Dowell says:

      That’s a good point William. I think it is especially important for young people who by being exposed to other cultures, may be able to free themselves from some ot the prejudicial opinions of their parents.


  15. Awesome article Ken
    I am loving this series.
    Music is such a big part of our lives, and we react to it in many ways without even realizing.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. heraldmarty says:

    I’m also enjoying the series. Until a couple of years ago, I actually thought of myself as pretty worldly in terms of music because I enjoy everything from opera to bluegrass, and certainly an exception to the rule when it came to adults and their disdain for music of the “younger” generation. But apparently it snuck up on me because at one point I suddenly realized I had no clue who many of the popular artists are these days and the only music I was listening to was from the “good old days” which – at least in my mind – is pretty much anything made before 2000.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Kire says:

    Ken, just catching up on my reading. Glad I started here. Great post. I love the music of all these generations and beyond the 70’s, being a child of the 80’s.


  18. Pingback: The Invention of the Teenager | off the leash

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