Radio and Music in the 1920s United States


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.

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

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

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

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.

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