Radio and Music in the 1920s United States

June 25, 2020  - by 
1920s jazz band

The radio as a form of entertainment grew in popularity in the 1920s United States. This inexpensive form of enjoyment for the whole family included radio shows, music, and more. The decade started off in 1921 with just 5 radio stations in the country but ended with 606 stations. That is some serious growth!

Let’s take a look at 1920s radio and music in the United States.

Interested in knowing what music was popular when you were born? Find out here.

1920s Radio

What made the radio important in the 1920s?

In the 1920s, radio was able to bridge the divide in American culture from coast to coast. It was more effective than print media at sharing thoughts, culture, language, style, and more. For this reason, the importance of radio was more than just entertainment. It was a tool to communicate, interact, and bring the nation together.

The 1920s introduced an era of more innovation than what had been seen in the past. The economy was doing well and income increased. With that prosperity, families had more leisure time, and a favorite pastime became listening to the radio.

family listening to a radio in the 1920s

The first radio stations focused on broadcast news, serial stories, and political speeches, but they later included music, weather, and sports.

What radio shows were popular in the 1920s?

The most popular 1920s radio show was a situation comedy titled Amos ‘n’ Andy. The show was based around the taxicab business of Amos Jones, his friend Andrew Hogg Brown, and George “Kingfish” Stevens. It lasted more than 30 years.

Though popular in the 1920s, Amos ‘n’ Andy, which was performed by white artists, encouraged negative Black stereotypes. Many radio shows of this decade emulated this minstrel-style comedy. However, in 1929, Chicago’s WSBC introduced The All-Negro Hour, the first variety show with all African American entertainers. The show helped pave the way for better representation of African Americans in radio and entertainment.

Radio in the 1920s also introduced sports programs into the home, which quickly became popular. Play-by-play descriptions were broadcast on the radio and helped popularize athletes such as Jim Thorpe, Gertrude Ederle, Helen Wills, and Babe Ruth.

1920s Music

What was the most popular music in the 1920s?

Music in the 1920s in the United States had variety, to say the least! Jazz, blues, swing, dance band, and ragtime were just a few of the most popular music genres of the decade. Almost all of these genres originated from the creative work of African Americans influenced by their culture and heritage.

1920s musicians in a jazz band

Prior to the radio, music could be shared only through sheet music, piano rolls, or live performances. With the use of the radio waves, music of all kinds could easily be introduced to homes across the United States.

Jazz Music of the 1920s

Jazz music was created from the fusion of Anglo-American, African, and Creole influences, born in the melting pot of New Orleans, Louisiana. The 1920s are often called the Jazz Age because Jazz music became very popular during that time. With lots of improvising and syncopated rhythms, jazz music influenced dances, fashion, and culture. The upbeat sounds of jazz became a favorite on the radio. The most popular jazz musicians of the 1920s were Louis Armstrong and Duke Wellington.

Some of Armstrong’s most famous hits were “Heebie Jeebies” (1926), “West End Blues” (1928), and “Ain’t Misbehavin” (1929). Some of Duke Ellington’s 1920s hits included “Creole Love Call” and “Black and Tan Fantasy.”

crazy blues ad

Blues Music of the 1920s

Blues music used repetitive chords and a 12-bar structure. Often associated with personal trials, blues music frequently shared the stories of a prejudiced and segregated South. In fact, blues music was heavily influenced by the African spirituals sung by those who were enslaved. The singing of spirituals was a form of retaining resiliency and reprieve amidst oppressive circumstances.  Sometimes, a blues tune could be considered comical or even witty.

Mamie Smith, a popular blues singer, was credited with being the first to record a blues vocal. The song she sang was titled “Crazy Blues.” Other famous blues singers were Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. Ma Rainey’s most famous 1920s music included “See See Rider” (1924) and “Black Bottom” (1927). Bessie Smith had several hits during the 1920s as well, which included “Downhearted Blues” (1923) and “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-Ness If I Do” (1923).

Dance Music of the 1920s

The most famous dance of the 1920s was the Charleston. This fun dance was set to music we might consider big band music of today, though it did have elements of ragtime. The Charleston made its debut in the 1923 Broadway show Runnin’ Wild and quickly became a favorite in dance halls across the states.

Music in the 1920s also influenced dances such as the fox-trot, tango, and lindy hop. Big band orchestras would create music to the movements of the dancers.

two women and a man dance in wthe 1920s

What were the most popular songs of the 1920s?

The most popular songs of the 1920s covered a wide variety of genres. Here’s a look at some of the top songs of the decade:

  • “Ain’t Misbehavin’”—Fats Waller
  • “Dark Was the Night”—Blind Willie Johnson
  • “Downhearted Blues”—Bessie Smith
  • “In the Jailhouse Now”—Jimmie Rodgers
  • “My Man”—Fanny Brice
  • “Swanee”—Al Jolson
  • “West End Blues”—Louis Armstrong

Discover the Popular Songs and Shows of Your Childhood

You can also discover what songs and shows were popular when you were a child—or even when your parents or grandparents were! Enter your name and birthday into FamilySearch’s All about Me experience (or sign in to your FamilySearch account—it’s free!), and discover all sorts of fun facts about your birthday.

Amie Tennant

Amie Bowser Tennant is a genealogy researcher, writer and presenter.She writes blog articles and other content for many top companies and societies in the genealogy field. Her most treasured experience is working as a consultant for family history. Amie lives with her husband and three children in Ohio, surrounded by many of her extended family.

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    1. Amie,

      A very interesting, informative essay. As an 83 year old younger-than-ever man and amateur song writer, still in search of the one name that describes the styles in which I
      write, your article gave me a clue. I recognized, from my yong years in the ‘forties and ‘fifties, the singers Bailey, the horn player Louis Armstrong, the song popularized by Al Jolson, and others. You included ’em all as blues, ragtime, (did you say ‘piano house’?), swing — that is, a real big variety. I learned composition in high school, but never started composing from the heart until 30 years later, and then simply for self expression. I gave away CDs to friends, and later had a website created. I named the website swing tunes Music, and the CD album, and the site content, “Thinkin’ of Blues”. They are all original — and copyrighted — and they are good. A friend at the James Madison University School of Music calls them “retro blues”, and he’s right about the “retro”, but only some are blues.
      What do I call them? “The Twenties Lives Again”? I have a few more. Would you like to do one? Is there any contemporary singer who wouldn’t be afraid of the “retro” label?
      Music forever,
      Edward “Ted” Hayes
      Retired faculty, journalist

  1. It’s always good to hear about where. when, how, why things came about. The 1920s was an exciting time for American music and especially jazz, blues and big band. I am a musician and I still play some of those songs from the 1920s. They made great music. Thanks for writing about it.

    1. Hi Mr. Walker,
      I am planning a 100th year old birthday for a young lady that was born in 1921. I was wondering if you can send me a playlist of the music from 1920, so I can make a cd to play at the celebration?

  2. I feel confident you can help me find the name of a song. The only lyrics i can remember are, “one love but not like before, one love but now nothing more”. I heard it sung by Butch in The little Rascals so i know it had to have been around the early 1930’s. Can you help me?

  3. Amie, Again, an excellent article packed with information. You sure you don’t publish a magazine — excuse me, operate a podcast — called “Music Then and Now”?