Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Teaching the American Twenties: Exploring the Decade through Literature and Art

New Forms, New Ideas


In the essay "Jazz at Home," historian J. A. Rogers examined the history and popularity of jazz music—a form he saw as "one part American and three parts American Negro." Rogers, whose essay appears in Locke's The New Negro (1925), saw jazz as a successor to "ragtime" music, which had been popularized by W. C. Handy. Jazz, he suggested, was an "explosive attempt to cast off the blues."

Both jazz and the blues played an important part in the Harlem Renaissance, influencing poets like Langston Hughes, who incorporated the timing and rhythm of the music into his poetry. The music's influence, however, was not limited to Harlem and spread throughout the country and abroad. White composers like George Gershwin began to incorporate jazz and blues rhythms into their own work.

One of the first "talking pictures" of the decade was called The Jazz Singer (1927) and centered on the conflict between a Jewish son who wanted to sing the new music and his cantor father who wanted him to remain true to tradition.

Jazz became synonymous with the 1920s, so much so that the era is often referred to as the Jazz Age. Indeed, as Rogers suggested in 1925, "Jazz has absorbed the national spirit, that tremendous spirit of go, the nervousness, lack of conventionality and boisterous good-nature characteristic of the American, white or black."

Title page from <em>Blues, an anthology</em>
Title page from Blues, an anthology
Miguel Covarrubias W. C. Handy

W. C. Handy, born in 1873 in Alabama to a starkly religious and anti-musical family, engaged in his passion in secret until he found success with a traveling minstrel show in the 1890s. Soon he relocated to Memphis, wrote "Memphis Blues" and "St. Louis B...

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