A pandemic has us on the brink of a potential recession, while marijuana’s popularity and freedom is debated. A new administration is set to takeover the White House while tensions around race and immigration occasionally erupt. Then there is the daily speculation about activity between the US and Russia.
It’s just another day in the 20th Century. Yes, the year is 1920 politics, culture and a pandemic have a nation on edge. Even the music from 100 years ago is similar to some of the increasingly obscene pop anthems of today – and it’s been this way since the beginning of the music industry. From Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith to Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B., like the vinyl records the songs were pressed on, some things just come back around.
The number one selling song in 1920 was Swanee, by Al Jolson. There were plenty of other songs that were deemed family during the ‘Roaring 20’s’. 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, or ‘race records’. The difference?
Accessibility and politics.
Both have changed progressed, naturally. The songs that were reserved for back rooms in 1920 (i.e. adults), are now on main street, and in the minds and ears of children of all ages in 2020. The impact is strong among 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.
Prohibition, didn’t stop the preference for alcohol, but it was more difficult to get, making 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 brass, percussion stringed instruments for the first time. Most of the headliners were men, but it was the women that where known to sing some of most raunchy lyrics, making their mark in the early 1920s. Ma Rainey, Rainey’s protégé Bessie Smith and Lucille Bogan, completed the primary women of the Blues. 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. Men such as Leadbelly and Georgia Tom contributed to the work. The latter being Thomas Dorsey, who played in Ma Rainey’s band, and wrote the Gospel song, Take My Hand, Precious Lord. He is known as the ‘Father of Gospel Music’. It was Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago, where Dorsey left his mark, mentoring the ‘Godfather’ of gospel music, James Cleveland. 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 the 21st century. Drug use, especially marijuana was in use during recording sessions and made its way into the songs.
It should be clear that obscene music was included in other genres of the time. But for the purpose of this story, we focus on the link between Ma Rainy, and artists that descend down the Blues line.
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, birthed 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’, covering musicians and labels from any legal proceedings. There was 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 the AM or FM dial. Profane R&B and Hip-Hop, was 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, as the sale of crack cocaine exploded. 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 by the public. 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. In 1994 WPGC FM in Washington, DC and 3 Chicago stations; WBBM FM, WGCI FM, WPJPC AM, also banning certain songs from radio play. Some of the 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 among Black and White communicators. It did the opposite. For example, in 1999 KACE FM was sold, with many Black owned stations to follow. During the early and mid 1990s, 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. Of course the increase of children and adolescents home alone, the introduction of the Walkman, internet and iPod gave young people the opportunity to listen to whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted.
A New Year’s Eve video posted by Cardi B. shows her dancing to one of her songs. As her daughter walked in the room, she rushed to turn off the music.
Obscene music isn’t new, and people have always been against it. Americans have a right to listen to what they want. To censor or otherwise curb the access is counterproductive at best. If you don’t 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. The unfortunate difference is that today, you can hear the songs almost anywhere, not just back rooms and adult parties. The censored versions are ineffective and ludicrous.
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 and opposition. Race riots, where Black lives and towns were destroyed are replaced with Black Lives Matter as cities continue marching to the drum of division. Between 1918-1920 America invaded Russia, today there is fear that Russia has at least figuratively invaded America. 1920 was the first election in which women were allowed to vote, while in 2020 Kamala Harris became the first women to win a presidential ticket. Finally, the influenza pandemic (‘Spanish Flu’ was used in the same derogatory term as as ‘China Flu’) that began in 1918 and continued into the 1920s mirrors the COVID-19 global health crisis. The times then are not much different than today. That includes the music. Like the old becoming new, the obscenities today can also be picked up on vinyl records.
Following are resources and sources for this story and further reading:
- Ma Rainey: 20 Things You Didn’t Know About ‘The Mother of the Blues’ https://www.rollingstone.com/ma-rainey-20-things-you-didnt-know-about-the-mother-of-the-blues/
- Encyclopedia Britannica, Ma Rainey https://books.google.com/booksid=QWBPAQAAQBAJ&q=see+see+rider&pg=PA357#v=snippet&q=see%20see%20rider&f=false
- Trump’s ‘Chinese Virus’ ls Part of a Long History of Blaming Other Countries for Diseases, March 20, 2020, Time https://time.com/5807376/virus-name-foreign-history/
- Radio Tuning Out Gangsta Rap, Brenda Herrmann, January 18, 1994, Chicago Tribune chicagotribune.com/…/ct-xpm-1994-01-18-9401180012-storyhttps://www.chicagotribun .com/news/ct-xpm-1994-01-18-9401180012-story.html
- INSPIRING THE MULTITUDES, February 17, 1991, The Washington Post https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/style/1991/02/17/inspiring-the-multitudes/6477f09a-9583-4bbf-ad01-65181512f873/
- 1991: The Most Important Year In Pop-Music History, Derek Thompson, May 8, 2015, The Atlantic https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2015/05/1991-the-most-important-year-in-music/392642/
- The Full Story of the 1908’s Crack Epidemic Is Still Yet To Be Told, June 26, 2017, UPROXX, https://uproxx.com/hiphop/snowfall-1980s-crack-epidemic/
- Editorial: How the 2020s May Be Like The 1920, January 5, 2020, Richmond Times-Dispatch https://richmond.com/opinion/editorial/editorial-how-the-2020s-may-be-like-the-1920s/article_60da39e3-526d-5bd0-b22a-e4b962779979.html
- THE PRMC IS BACK ON THE ATTACK, Patrick Goldstein, December 7, 1986, Los Angeles Times, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1986-12-07-ca-1027-story.html