This year we are battling a pandemic, on the brink of a serious recession, marijuana is an ongoing debate and it is an election year. Immigration and race are flaring issues, and then there’s Russia.
This is just another day in the 20th Century. Yes, the year is 1920, and the soundtrack, the music bed beneath it all is obscene, even dirty. It has been this way since the beginning of the music industry. Like the vinyl the songs were pressed on it just keeps going round.
Some of the top selling songs of the 21st century contain lyrics that touch or promote violence, open sexuality, and drug use – generally and legislatively considered obscene. It is all relative. The number one selling song in 1920 was Swanee, by Al Jolson. There were plenty of other songs that were deemed family friend as well. Yet there were a number of popular records that did not make it out of ‘play parties’, adult gatherings, and brothels. There were two different worlds of music, not to mention black and white world of segregation. The difference then was access and politics. Both have changed, putting music that used to be reserved for back rooms on main street. The impact is strong, especially among younger, more impressionable minds, whether we like it or not, for better or for worse. You no longer have to find the music or live a certain lifestyle to access it. The music and all of its messages will find you. Technology, politics, and the progression of time have paved the way.
Alcohol, still loved by Americans was difficult to get due to Prohibition, and marijuana was a solid substitute. It became a companion to the many new Blues and Jazz musicians, many casting off the patriarchal shadow of slavery, heading north, able to play the ‘devil’s music’ freely, with instruments for the first time. Many were of course men, but it was the women that where known to sing some of most raunchy lyrics, beginning in the 1920s. Ma Rainey, Rainey’s protégé Bessie Smith and Lucille Bogan, completed the trinity of ‘Blues Belles’. Their lyrical limits would drop a heavy, vintage mic on the artistry of the leading ladies of today. The music was written and expressed without abandon, as the singers knew their audience. Of course, they performed other songs that were more palatable for the public as well. The men of course, were into the act with musicians such as Leadbelly and Georgia Tom. The latter being Thomas Dorsey, who played in Ma Rainey’s band, and wrote the Gospel song, Take My Hand, Precious Lord. There was little in the way of a church musician and secular music. The lyrics often from men were not only sexual but spoke on domestic violence in a way that would never be tolerated in 2020. Drug use of course, especially marijuana was in use during recording sessions and made its way into the songs. Obscene music was included in other genres of the time, but for this story, we will focus on the forms with elements similar to Blues and Jazz.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the music industry was not as prominent. After World War II as the Civil Rights movement began to grow, so did the music. Dirty Blues and the like still existed, but It is possible that Blacks, seeing that desegregation and opportunities would make them more profitable, were more focused on making crossover hits. Wynonie Harris and Bull Moose Johnson ensured that there would be obscene hits during 1950s. As the industry grew (the Recording Industry Association of America was established in 1952), and became more refined, the select artists continued to do well. That meant the raunchy had to become refined. Berry Gordy, founder of Motown trained singers to become successful and created a new standard of popular music. While innuendo and suggestive lyrics, were often used, even the obscene music seemed tamer during the 50s, 60s and 70s. Toward the latter part of the century, technology and politics would converge to broaden the access of such music.
In 1979 Sony debuted the Walkman, it would change music. Now people could listen to whatever they with ultimate privacy. In 2001 iPod was released, followed by the iPhone, debuted the same year as Facebook and Twitter in 2006. Let us not forget MTV and BET. Obscene music had left the back rooms and clubs and is now a part of our everyday lives. All mediums are on board as corporations cashed in on gangster rap and harder forms of R&B. Music was now very portable, and with warning labels, there was now accountability, and plenty of money to be made. Television, the internet, live shows – the only thing missing was radio. While music could be bought in music stores, much of it was not played on AM or FM dial. Profane R&B and Hip-Hop, were not often played on the radio and for a reason that is often overlooked.
First, a look at the political landscape. In 1985, the Parent Music Resource Center was established by Tipper Gore and Susan Baker. Ironically, Ice-T would introduce gangster rap a year later in 1986, during the height of the crack epidemic. The 1990s would begin a dramatic shift in music, especially for songs that needed a stamp of obscene approval. That year the RIAA began requiring the black and white Parental Advisory label on all indecent music. It was also the year Billboard began to use SoundScan for digital measuring to track record sales. No more relying on the word of the record store owner. Surprising to some, N.W.A. months later in June of 1991 would score the #1 album in America. Not only had graphic lyrics been welcomed, it was now branded with a seal of approval. Obscenity was now mainstream.
There were still obstacles in the way of controversial music being fully embraced. A 1993 New York Times article tells of a legendary radio station, KACE FM in Los Angeles banning ‘Harmful Music’. Although within the same article, competitors suggest that the station was saving face for low ratings. However, that was not the only station. A 1994 Chicago Tribune story lists WPGC FM in Washington, DC and 3 Chicago stations; WBBM FM, WGCI FM, WPJPC AM, also banning certain songs from radio play. Some stations that prohibited tracks, including KACE FM and WBLS FM were Black owned. Interestingly The Federal Communications Act of 1996 was a dramatic piece of legislation that was supposed to even the playing field of media ownership. It did the opposite. For example, in 1999 KACE FM was sold, with many Black owned stations to follow. During the early and mid 90s, representatives C. Delores Tucker and Carol Moseley-Braun were formally opposed to certain obscenities in music. Harlem minister Calvin O. Butts also made public his disdain for certain aspect of obscene music. The reality was that Black radio stations would not play the music. Black political leaders apposed it, Black ministers decried it and Black parents, such as Donnie Simpson did not approve of it. After the Black owned radio stations were sold, the radio industry began to be more liberal with music playlists, up to today.
Obscene music has always been here, and people have always been against it. However, Americans have a right to listen to what they want. To censor or otherwise to curb the access is counterproductive at best. If you do not want you or your kids to listen, teach them without shaming those that have chosen with full awareness, or those that admit to being victims of the social statistics that they write, sing and rap about.
In 1920, a new drug marijuana was being criminalized, while today one goal is decriminalization. Immigration and hyphenated Americans had been a fighting phrase, while immigration, now, regarding mostly non-Europeans is subject to strong debate. Race riots, where Black lives and towns were destroyed are replaced with Black Lives Matter marches as cities are being divided. In 1918-1920 America invaded Russia, today there is fear that Russia has at least figuratively invaded America. The times then are not much different than today. That includes the music. There is nothing new under the sun, even the hits, which you can again, pick up on vinyl.