North American Popular Music: 1900-1950

How culture was created and influenced.

Jazz Music

Approx. 1900

Jazz music is seen still today as one of the most influential music genre in history. Originating in New Orleans, jazz is a blend of African and American music, religious, brass band, and blues styles of music (1). Again, created by black artists, jazz became a symbol of equal rights and more, contributing greatly to society and culture of the world.

In 1917, the first ever jazz song was recorded by Original Dixieland Jazz Band on February 26th, a white band, which was the story of jazz becoming more noticed in the states (2). It wasn't extremely popular until the 1920's as the initiation of Prohibition in 1920 furthered the influence of jazz. The music genre was seen most often in speakeasies and clubs in which most black artists performed. Having jazz performed in these speakeasies brought in young black and white North American's, allowing them to be together without racial tension. Jazz has a huge impact, still in today's music industry and its artists, and throughout history, it has contributed greatly to social movements and culture in the states. It was helped bring attention to black culture in society and bring representation to these people who were slaves or descendants of them. Because of this, there was a huge white response involving the attention of the KKK. Because of the racial mixing from the attraction to jazz music, the KKK grew in members in response as it protested and fought against the absorption of black music in society; however, jazz music contributed greatly to equal rights movement (3).

Jazz is considered one of the most important music genres in Western culture as it developed into other genres like bebop, swing, blues, and other styles (1). The jazz, blues, and gospel genres both contributed largely to the development of rock n' roll.

(1) "Early Jazz." Culture Shock: Flashpoints: Music and Dance. Accessed February 14, 2018.

(2) "History of Jazz Timeline." All About Jazz. Accessed February 14, 2018.

(3) "Jazz Exacerbates Racial Tension ." Race. Accessed February 15, 2018.

The Blues

Approx. 1900

The blues genre was first created by African American slaves and ex-slaves on southern plantations, from the influence of African and American music (1); however, the actual music didn't take off until the 1900s when black artists such as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King and Buddy Guy (2) first started recording their music.

In the 1920s, blues became more popular amongst the black community, and was only being recorded by black artists. Much of this is to do with their inspirations being directly related to black struggles in North America. A lot of this was also to radio broadcasting in which allowed more artists easy access to share their music. The twenties also brought in more black female artists like Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Bessie Smith. Each contributed to culture and societal influence. Mamie Smith was the first artist to record a vocal blues song - "Crazy Blues", which also helped pave the way for Ma Rainey who was the first professional blues recording artist and also considered the first influential voices for the LGBTQ community as she was suspected to be bisexual or lesbian, and often sang about them (3). Bessie Smith, another black female blues artist, made her first recording in 1923 of "Down-hearted Blues" which sold a million copies, and also helped her land a contract with Columbia Records (4).

(1) Kopp, Ed. "A Brief History of the Blues." A Brief History Of The Blues. August 16, 2005. Accessed February 14, 2018.

(2) "Blues Musician." April 02, 2014. Accessed February 14, 2018.

(3) The People History -- Steve Pearson. "Music Played in the 1920s Popular Music From the 20s." 1920s Music played in the 20s Bands groups singers from The People History Site. 2016. Accessed February 14, 2018.

(4) Jazz in America. 2018. Accessed February 14, 2018.


Approx. 1900

Like every genre, gospel music origins are older than the 20th century, however, this genre was never very popular until then. Again, the creation of this music can be credited to African slaves. It is developed from the sacred music of Africa in which was carried on by slaves and the descendants of them which then lead to developing this music into a whole genre in North America (1).

In the early 1900's, the first gospel record was produced, but it wasn't given as much focus until the 20s when more black artists began to record and produce what most genres had-- race records. These were recognized as records made by and for the black community. White artists began to create gospel music as well, however tones and styles were different between the two communities. Gospel was sung by soloists, groups commonly known as quartets, bands, reverends/pastors, and more.

It wasn't until the the Great Depression that gospel music became popular in the sense that it was important to people. This isn't surprising as it is about God, etc., and most looked to it for hope. This led to the golden era of the genre in the late 30s and 40s.

In the 1930's, other than the great depression, gospel music became the sound for the civil rights movement. This was because it was greatly supported by the message of the civil rights movement, and also the message from gospel music. The movement looked to gospel and African spiritual music as tool to promote the movement, and to encourage those hesitant to participate as it "not only spread the message, but also evoke emotion and inspire individuals enough to continue gathering together" (2)(3). Gospel then further developed in the 1940's from the civil rights and great depression era as a genre that provided opportunities for full time musicians to make music and go on tours. It became popular outside of church and outside of the black community. During the 40s and 50s, gospel music provided the further growth to quartets and female artists (3).

(1) White, Alan . "Origins and History ." Early Gospel - Origins. 2015. Accessed February 18, 2018.

(2) "The Role of Music in the Civil Rights Movement." Kent State Online Master of Music in Music Education. 2017. Accessed February 18, 2018.
(3) "Traditional black gospel." Wikipedia. February 17, 2018. Accessed February 18, 2018.

World War I

1914 - 1918

First Radio Broadcast

August 31, 1920

This allowed music to be broadcasted almost everywhere for everyone.

Swing Music

Approx. 1925

Beginning in the late 1920s and early 1930s, swing was developed from jazz, using large bands and vocal aspects that had improvisation. It's upbeat and intense music created not just a genre, but an era. From sing came new fashion styles, dances, and slang (1).

Later on, another diversion of swing - Western swing music- became popular in the 1940s. This subgenre is different from swing jazz as it is a combination of rural, cowboy, polka, folk, Dixieland jazz and blues blended with swing, and mostly played by a string band (2). This is different from the swing music in the 30s, however, it is still important to the overall contribution to society and culture. As it was popular during the war, it is reminiscent of happier times before the Great Depression and the war.

Swing music, in general, had strong impacts towards western society at the time. Like jazz, it attracted the attention of all races specifically black, white, and latin/hispanic (1) which drove against inequities at the time and also united different culture significantly. As the popularity declined during the 40's, it's effect on pop culture was still important towards developing fashion, slang, and dances later on. Swing also lead to other genres such as bebop and western swing music further developed into subgenres of country,

(1) "Tap your Knowledge Box The Swing Era." Between the Wars. Accessed February 15, 2018.

(2) Sallis, James, ed. The guitar in jazz: an anthology. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996

Great Depression

1929 - 1945


Approx. 1930

Folk rose to popularity during the Great Depression, because of how folk music can easily depict the effects of the great depression. Most often, subject matter was of war, sadness, rights, economy, and more. Folk music is difficult to define as a genre other than it represents exactly what the artists want it to, specific to a certain event or aspect, and is often a short melody of music (1). Folk music is imperative towards people that have been affected by something such as racism, economics, sexism, etc., as it provides a sort of representation of what they have been through. This is why it was prominent during the great depression, and later on, movements.

As the 30s progressed, folk music became more notable in social and political movements. Because of the influence from other music, such as African and Indigenous music, it was overall important to breaking down race-based barriers.

Folk musicians such as Jimmy Rodgers and Burl Ives encouraged more popularity of folk music during the 30s and 40s, to it's peak in the 1950s (2) as it was so reminiscent of past and present events. It provides cultural identity to people (3) which explains why it is used so often in terms of protest songs or representations of societal/cultural aspect.

(1) Various. "Folk music." Wikipedia. February 14, 2018. Accessed February 15, 2018.
(2) B, M. "The History of Folk Music." Folk Music A Guide to Folk Music of the World. August 28, 2007 . Accessed February 18, 2018.
(3) Jones, Laura. "Folk Music: A Timeless Genre." The Artifice. February 4, 2016 . Accessed February 18, 2018.

World War II

1939 - 1945

Civil Rights Movement

1954 - 1968