There was a reason why people called that era “The Roaring Twenties”—it was a time when prosperity and high spirits following the end of the First World War put a real spin on culture, and nothing expressed the mood better than the music.
From New York to London and other capital cities of the world, the blues were cool and the jazz was hot – what was the most popular 1920s dancing music?
Baz Luhrman’s movie version of The Great Gatsby may not have depicted the 20s in the most realistic fashion, but the book was certainly set in that era, and written by a man who lived through those exciting years—F. Scott Fitzgerald.
While Fitzgerald could rarely afford the high lifestyle craved by his iconic, flirtatious wife Zelda, they managed to stay visible on the raging social scene of their times. One of the songs that plays throughout Luhrman’s film, however, truly was a song of the 20s—George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
George Gershwin played a big part in 1920s Music
While its introduction was intended to familiarize people with the orchestral scene, the cool sliding glissando of the clarinet at the beginning all the way through to the crashing crescendos at the end captivated people and kept them jumping. It sold a million copies from its introduction in 1924 through 1927.
1920s Music Blues
But what about those blues? Mamie Smith’s Crazy Blues spun on over 100,000 turntables in 1920, and her success meant a whole new market for female blues singers.
Bessie Smith—no relation—was one of the top female performers of the 1920s, into the 1930s, and she later came to be the inspiration for a little ’70s songstress named Janis Joplin.
Just listen to Need a Little Sugar In My Bowl or any of her other blues hits—she sung about St. Louis, Backwater, Black Mountain, Haunted House, Bed Bug, and every other kind of blues—but she really segued into the jazz age with her rendition of Alexander’s Ragtime Band.
A little farther north, in Chicago, you could listen to Joe King Oliver & His Jazz Band, putting out favourites like Doctor Jazz and Sugar Foot Stomp. He was soon joined by a friend of Bessie’s, a blues artist by the name of Louis Armstrong. Armstrong came from New Orleans and his Creole Jazz Band.
As jazz became king, Oliver and Armstrong lived like kings with hits like The Three-Penny Opera—better known to music aficionados of the Fifties as Mack the Knife.
The year 1923 brought us The Charleston, originally written by Cecil Mack and James P. Johnson, but played by everybody from Jimmy Dorsey to the Paul Whiteman Orchestra to the California Ramblers. A new dance to accompany 1920s music.
How to Dance the Charleston
Everybody was dancing the Charleston, and also the Breakaway. Another great hit of that same year was Yes! We Have No Bananas, written by Frank Silver and Irving Cohn, and sang by everybody and his mother, with Eddie Cantor’s version inspiring Billy Jones to take it to the top of the charts.
Fats Waller wrote Ain’t Misbehavin’ which was later performed not only by Waller but also by Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Hank Williams Jr., and a parade of other artists right on up through the years.
Meanwhile, the Foxtrot and the Waltz gained popularity on dance floors throughout the decade.
Songs like It Had to Be You performed by Isham Jones and His Orchestra, and Stardust by Hoagy Carmichael of that same year—performed by many!—kept dancers’ feet sweeping across ballrooms everywhere.
Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall In Love) gave couples an excuse to get close and dance the night away.
Duke Ellington’s breakout hit in the late 1920 was Creole Love Call, and he also broke the charts, as the Lindy Hop became popular—maybe our very first introduction to the swing sound—with That Lindy Hop.
Besides the blues and the jazz, a new sound made its way up from South America, and initially it was too scandalous for anyone but the back rooms where gangsters kept company with their molls.
1920s Music bought Carlos Gardel to the turntables with listeners “tapping the tango”. A South American song that moved up into the States in the 20s, with the tune of Por Une Cabeza familiar to anyone who has ever watched a movie-screen tango.
The 1920s were a time when anything seemed possible. Construction was booming and people’s pockets were lined with silver. Modern technology made automobiles and moving pictures accessible to everybody.
Here is a list of 100 of the most popular songs from the 1920’s in no particular order…
- Swanee – Al Jolson
- West End Blues – Louis Armstrong
- Rhapsody In Blue – Paul Whiteman featuring George Gershwin
- Ain’t Misbehavin’ – Fats Waller
- T For Texas (Blue Yodel #1) – Jimmie Rodgers
- In The Jailhouse Now – Jimmie Rodgers
- The Prisoner’s Song – Vernon Dalhart
- St. Louis Blues – Bessie Smith
- Ol’ Man River – Paul Robeson
- Makin’ Whoopee – Eddie Cantor
- Crazy Blues – Mamie Smith
- My Blue Heaven – Gene Austin
- Sonny Boy – Al Jolson
- Dardanella – Ben Selvin
- It Had To Be You – Isham Jones
- Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie – Pine Top Smith
- Whispering – Paul Whiteman
- My Mammy – Al Jolson
- Down Hearted Blues – Bessie Smith
- Charleston – Arthur Gibbs
- Black And Tan Fantasy – Duke Ellington
- See See Rider Blues – Ma Rainey
- Statesboro Blues – Blind Willie McTell
- Matchbox Blues – Blind Lemon Jefferson
- Bye Bye, Blackbird – Gene Austin
- King Porter Stomp – Fletcher Henderson
- California, Here I Come! – Al Jolson
- In A Mist – Bix Beiderbecke
- Waiting For A Train – Jimmie Rodgers
- Louise – Maurice Chevalier
- Star Dust – Hoagy Carmichael
- Yes! We Have No Bananas – Billy Jones
- Yes Sir That’s My Baby – Gene Austin
- Toot Toot Tootsie (Goo’Bye) – Al Jolson
- Sweet Georgia Brown – Ben Bernie
- Baby Face – Jan Garber
- Dinah – Ethel Waters
- My Man – Fanny Brice
- When My Baby Smiles At Me – Ted Lewis
- Some Of These Days (1927 Version) – Sophie Tucker
- Am I Blue – Ethel Waters
- April Showers – Al Jolson
- I’ve Found A New Baby – Ted Lewis
- Heebie Jeebies – Louis Armstrong
- I Ain’t Got Nobody – Marion Harris
- Valencia – Paul Whiteman
- Corrine Corrina – Bo Carter
- Wildwood Flower – Carter Family
- Singin’ The Blues – Frankie Trumbauer
- Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And out – Bessie Smith
- Pony Blues – Charley Patton
- Always – Vincent Lopez
- I’ll See You In My Dreams – Isham Jones
- Singin’ In The Rain – Cliff Edwards
- Tip Toe Through The Tulips – Nick Lucas
- I’m Looking Over A Four Leaf Clover – Nick Lucas
- Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall In Love) – Dorsey Brothers
- I Wanna Be Loved By You – Helen Kane
- Bill – Helen Morgan
- East St. Louis Toodle-oo – Duke Ellington
- T’Ain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do – Bessie Smith
- Walk Right In – Cannon’s Jug Stompers
- Ida, Sweet As Apple Cider – Red Nichols
- It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo’ – Wendell Hall
- Side By Side – Paul Whiteman
- Somebody Stole My Gal – Ted Weems
- Three O’Clock In The Morning – Paul Whiteman
- Carolina In The Morning – The American Quartet
- Blue Skies – Ben Selvin
- If You Knew Susie – Eddie Cantor
- Little Pal – Al Jolson
- The Birth Of The Blues – Paul Whiteman
- Aggravatin’ Papa – Bessie Smith
- Empty Bed Blues – Bessie Smith
- Love Me Or Leave Me – Ruth Etting
- Lovesick Blues – Emmett Miller & His Georgia Crackers
- Someone To Watch Over Me – Gertrude Lawrence
- Muskrat Ramble – Louis Armstrong
- Ain’t We Got Fun – Van & Schenck
- Me And My Shadow – Whispering Jack Smith
- Swingin’ Down The Lane – Isham Jones
- When The Red, Red Robin Comes Bob-Bob-Bobbin’ Along – Al Jolson
- Charmaine – Guy Lombardo
- Fare You Well, Old Joe Clark – Fiddlin’ John Carson
- Turkey In The Straw – Gid Tanner & His Skillet Lickers
- Who’s Sorry Now – Isham Jones
- The Sidewalks Of New York – Nat Shilkret
- Sleep – Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians
- Honey – Rudy Vallee
- Margie – Eddie Cantor
- Parade Of The Wooden Soldiers – Paul Whiteman
- Sleepy Time Gal – Ben Bernie
- All Alone – Al Jolson
- My Blue Heaven – Paul Whiteman
- Among My Souvenirs – Paul Whiteman
- The Brakeman’s Blues – Jimmie Rodgers
- Shake That Thing – Ethel Waters
- James Alley Blues – Rabbit Brown
- Way Down Yonder In New Orleans – Peerless Quarte
- Big Butter And Egg Man – Louis Armstrong (May Alix)
Have a awesome 1920s song you’d like to share? leave your idea in the comments area below!
The music of the day was soft and wild, quiet and raucous. It was the best of times, up until the Wall Street crash of 1929. Who knew what the 30s would bring?
If you are looking at having a 1920s themed party, we can help create a playlist to match! Find out about our DJ services here.
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