An "Invasion of Vulgarity":
American Popular Music and Modernity in
Print Media Discourse, 1900-1925

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2004, Volume 3, Issue 1

Matthew Mooney
University of California, Irvine

Ragtime is the musical expression of an attitude toward life only too familiar to us all, an attitude shallow, restless, avid of excitement, incapable of sustained attention, skimming the surface of everything, finding nowhere satisfaction, realization, or repose. It is a meaningless stirabout, a commotion without purpose, an epilepsy stimulating controlled musical action. It is a musical counterpart of the sterile cleverness we find in so much of our contemporary conversation, as well as in our theater and our books. No candid observer could deny the prominence in our American life of this restlessness of which ragtime is one expression.

-Daniel Gregory Mason, March 1918, New Music Review

Throughout the summer and early fall of 1912 readers of Musical America, a monthly magazine devoted to classical music and of special interest to opera aficionados, were treated to a heated debate between columnist Arthur Farwell and a series of correspondents who criticized his stand on ragtime, the reigning popular music of the era. Farwell, while expressing no great love for the syncopated pastiche pouring forth from Tin Pan Alley, argued that ragtime was created by and for the masses and served, therefore, a legitimate function in bringing pleasure to the working class millions. 1. “Popular music,” argued Farwell, “is not forced upon the people; it is created out of their own spirit…what right has the man of culture to pass judgment upon the goodness or badness of ragtime, of popular music as a whole – in short, to make out a case against the popular song?” (24). Disagreeing, his critics pronounced ragtime unequivocally “bad;” for them, popular music was a consequence of America’s ever more disparate distribution of resources. Money-grubbing capitalists, they argued, forced popular music down the throats of an ignorant and exhausted proletariat. Rudolph Bismarck Von Liebich, replying to Farwell’s assertion that popular music represented the needs and desires of its consumers, wrote:

With the advent of the machine age, when the giant tools of production (machines, factories, railroads) are owned by the few for their private gain and the worker is compelled to beg for work, which may at any time be denied him, he has no heart for song. Music as a spontaneous means of self-expression is no longer for him. He accepts songs like his clothes, made for one reason only – profit; and songs and clothes alike are shoddy, to his dire and tragic impoverishment. (26)

George Hamlin, primarily concerned with the aesthetic qualities of ragtime and its caustic effects on consumers, charged:

Trash is always trash no matter in what form it exists. It is always worthless and often noxious unless disposed of. Mr. Farwell overlooks the fact that there is music of a depraved nature that is malevolently conceived and has a wide and powerful influence; that this music is at present rife in every part of the United States. (36)

While Farwell’s defense of ragtime’s modest virtues makes for interesting reading, early twentieth century polemics against popular music, such as those quoted above, are far more intriguing because they indict it as both a source of social disintegration and as a symptom of the dehumanizing industrial order relentlessly transforming America into a spiritually empty, impersonal realm where nothing was safe from the commodifying effects of the market. The contentious debate carried out in the pages of Musical America was echoed incessantly throughout the American popular press (though rarely in the explicitly Marxian formulation espoused by Von Liebich) of the era. An analysis of the discourses created in reaction to the popular music of the early twentieth century allows us to grasp more clearly how certain Americans resisted what they perceived to be the final dissolution of a pre-capitalist, nineteenth century paternalistic mentality.

As the modernizing forces of industrial capitalism and bureaucratic rationality molded early twentieth century America into the world’s foremost manufacturer of consumer goods, many Americans paradoxically perceived this transformation as engendering social chaos rather than order and stability. In the eyes of America’s traditionalist middle-class, the nation was socially and culturally descending into a primitive morass of irrationality, a tribal barbarism guided not by the cherished achievements of the European Enlightenment but by the lowest common denominator of the mass market. They were appalled by the seething, heterogeneous mob of urban working class America, swollen to appalling dimensions by decades of immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe, which they believed threatened to swamp the remaining citadels of bourgeois culture in a torrent of ignorant sentimentality designed to satiate only the most vulgar, unrefined corporeal impulses. As one commentator baldly stated, “One thing is certain: the voice of the people is not the voice of culture and art” (Smith 183). Yet, there was no denying that the voice, or choices, of the masses in a dollar-directed nexus increasingly determined the tenor of American culture. Indeed, the nineteenth century dictum attributed to master huckster P.T. Barnum, “Give the people what they want,” found its fruition in early twentieth century consumerism. This culture of the popular, both arising from and directed at the masses, was widely recognized as a sphere central to the struggle to define and direct the evolution of American society. Of course, not only did few Americans agree on what it was the people wanted, but many disdained Barnum-style populism altogether and advocated, instead, that they knew best what it was Americans needed (whether the masses themselves knew it or not). Film historian Charles Musser identifies these traditionalist advocates of a restrained moral conservatism with the “semi-official, elevated Protestant culture and its stamp of social responsibility and respectability” (9). Their fight to defend a culture of learned gentility against the tyranny of the marketplace and the teeming masses who drove it (and were driven by) are plainly evident in the contentious discourses surrounding the era’s most popular musical genres: ragtime and early jazz, both of which represented America in its most modern guise: urban, restless, pleasure-seeking, pragmatic, and avowedly materialist.

The emergent “culture industry” that manufactured and distributed popular music came to fruition in the mid to late 1890’s and increasingly challenged traditionalist values thereafter. Tin Pan Alley’s entertainment entrepreneurs fashioned commercial amusements not in correspondence with the venerated models of “high” European classicism, but for an ever-expanding working-class audience demanding immediate and uncomplicated pleasures. This gradual turn away from entertainments justified by their ostensibly “uplifting” didacticism and towards modern amusements, such as ragtime and early jazz, did not occur in the absence of opposition, of course. Traditionalists vociferously resisted this trend in, among other places, the pages of the early twentieth century press. The resulting confrontation between modern and traditionalist discourses was described by a period sociologist as a battle between “warring sides of human nature – appetite and will, impulse and reason, inclination and idea” (Musser 9). The character of discourses generated in response to popular music depended primarily upon an author’s impression of the emerging, mass-marketed American culture: modernity as indicative of profound cultural degradation or modernity as the triumph of the people’s will over an exclusionary, elitist tradition.

Although jazz is musically distinct from ragtime, traditionalist discourses opposing the spread of popular music made little or no distinction between them. 2. For most, “jazz” was simply a new label applied, around the end of the First World War, to the ragtime menace they had been combating for a generation. Therefore, an analysis of opposition to early popular music should not commence in 1917, with the abrupt explosion of jazz into the national consciousness, but should instead view opposition to ragtime and early jazz as constituting an unbroken discursive continuum stretching back into the final few years of the nineteenth century (1896 is often acknowledged as the beginning of the ragtime era). Therefore, utilizing the turn-of-the-century as a starting point and continuing into the mid-1920’s, this paper will examine both affirmative responses (popular music as triumph) to ragtime and early jazz as well as oppositional discourses (popular music as cultural degradation) that sought to arrest and reverse the burgeoning popularity of these early mass-marketed musics. Oppositional discourses will constitute the primary subject of analysis, however, because the unqualified acceptance of ragtime and early jazz in contemporary America contrasts so starkly with the fervent disapproval that greeted their initial appearance. This sharp discontinuity between past and present perceptions provides a unique opportunity to examine fears about modernity, the maturation of industrial capitalism, and the growing hegemony of the market in the first three decades of the twentieth century.

Both ragtime and early jazz have long-since been incorporated into national memory as benign, wholly inoffensive artifacts worthy of cultural veneration and early twentieth century predictions that they might become “the much vaunted music of the future” appear quaintly prescient (Sherlock 639). While today relatively few Americans are intimately familiar with these genres, no one feels, upon hearing a snippet of ragtime, as though their aesthetic sensibilities have been assaulted. “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” fails to generate fears of moral degeneracy, and American teenagers are quite unlikely to draw any parallels whatsoever between the music of Irving Berlin and Eminem. In contrast, fervent denunciations of popular music as a harbinger of cultural decline were common in the early twentieth century popular press. Ragtime, for instance, was often described as a “virulent poison” or “malarious epidemic” to which the nation’s youth were especially susceptible (“Musical Impurity” 16). Detractors condemned ragtime and early jazz with an intensity reminiscent in tone and content to that which greeted rock 'n’ roll in the 1950’s and rap in the 80’s and 90’s. Indeed, early twentieth century popular music never denoted “innocence” for contemporaries. Both enthusiasts and detractors agreed that ragtime and early jazz were culturally potent, powerfully affecting consumers. Traditionalist opponents contended “ragtime was an insult to public taste; that popular music was a degradation to the cultured mind; that it provided entertainment for the MASSES [sic] only, and that its very sound was obnoxious to the refined and cultivated instincts of the better class of Americans” (Meyer 3), while popular music’s modernist champions countered that, “If any musician does not feel in his heart the rhythmic complexities of ‘The Robert E. Lee,’ [an enormously successful ragtime number about a steamboat named after the iconic Confederate general] I should not trust him to feel in his heart the rhythmic complexities of Brahms” (“Ragtime Wrangling” 69).

The insistent, syncopated rhythm pulsating through the music seemed to compel men and women into joyously promiscuous interaction on dance floors throughout America, a development that critics feared would contribute to the moral degradation of (white) Americans. Traditionalists denounced popular music not only because the working class masses preferred it to the high culture cultivated by America’s “better classes,” but also because it became increasingly clear that their own sons and daughters were very often attracted to these highly rhythmic, racialized musics that, according to the May 1900 edition of The Musical Courier, exploited the “lowest, basest passions” (“Rag-Time Rage” 20). As one exasperated observer reported, “Our girls will spend hundreds of dollars taking grace lessons and as soon as a ragtime piece of music starts up, they will grasp a strange man in any outlandish position that will often put the lowest creature to shame“ (Peiss 103).

Opponents objected not only to popular music’s savage, primal rhythm but also to its often-uncouth lyrics. While even ragtime enthusiasts conceded that ragtime lyrics might often be meaningless, critics charged Tin Pan Alley wordsmiths with cranking out messages that were unequivocally toxic. They objected to “young men and ladies of the best standing” delighting in popular songs that referenced “a nauseating twaddle about ‘hot town,’ ‘warm babies,’ and ‘blear-eyed coons’ armed with ‘blood-letting razors’” along with a whole host of other objectionable images (“Musical Impurity” 16). How do we account for the intensely negative reaction of so many to a music that would not only eventually be proudly embraced as distinctively American, but harmless as well? Ultimately, opposition to early twentieth century popular music was rooted in the unsettling effects that mass market commerce, with which popular music was intimately linked, produced in traditional social hierarchies and power relations. Oppositional discourses represented a quixotic attempt by America’s old bourgeoisie to maintain their positions of influence and authority in a modernizing, dollar-directed world that increasingly regarded them as both irrelevant and antiquated.

Such an argument does not, however, imply that race was absent from discourses surrounding ragtime and early jazz. Indeed, the growing popularity of ragtime and early jazz parallels the institutionalization of legalized segregation and the growing stream of African-Americans migrating from the rural South into Northern urban centers like Chicago. Most Americans assumed without question that ragtime and jazz were primarily of African-American origin. In the early days of the ragtime craze, a 1903 article reported, “There can be little doubt that ‘Rag-time’ is a genuine creation of Negro blood” and this perception was rarely challenged in mainstream periodicals (“Musical Possibilities” 11). For white critics, however, the “blackness” of popular music was simply another avenue through which to disparage it. Locating the origins of jazz in Africa itself, the Ladies Home Journal claimed, “Jazz originally was the accompaniment of the voodoo dancer, stimulating the half-crazed barbarians to the vilest deeds. The weird chant, accompanied by the syncopated rhythm of the voodoo invokers, has been employed by other barbaric people to stimulate brutality and sensuality” (Faulkner 16). The ever-growing popularity of this music alarmed those who feared the growing influence of cultural forms associated with African-Americans. By 1913, the prevalence of popular music in American consciousness seemed so widespread as to prompt this letter to the editor of the Musical Courier:

SIR – Can it be said that America is falling prey to the collective soul of the Negro through the influence of what is popularly known as “rag time” music? Some sociological writers of prominence believe so; all psychologists are of the opinion. One thing is infallibly certain: if there is any tendency toward such a national disaster, it should be definitely pointed out and extreme measures taken to inhibit the influence and avert the increasing danger – if it has not already gone too far. (Kenilworth 22)

Interestingly, bourgeois critics did not condemn all “black” music. African-American “folk” music (spirituals and plantation chants) was often approved of and accorded a guarded acceptance alongside the cherished masterworks of Beethoven, Mozart, and Brahms (among others). It is likely that many white critics deemed African-American folk music “safe” because it represented a time when Blacks “knew their place” at the bottom of the social hierarchy under slavery; they likewise approved of the oft-religious themes.

As a critic patiently explained, Americans, in their enthusiasm for “manufactured” popular music, failed to appreciate “the wealth and beauty of the true Negro songs” from the antebellum era. Indeed, she went on to argue that

Side by side with the too highly civilized white race the Negro must in time have eliminated from him all his God-given best instincts and so fail utterly. For are they not already ashamed of their old African music? They should be taught that slavery, with its occasional abuses, was simply a valuable training in their evolution from savagery, and not look upon their bondage and their slave music with shame. (Murphy 1730)

The middle class African-American response to such racial discourse was complex. African-Americans were integral to the formation and expansion of both ragtime and early jazz, yet their relationship to American popular music was ambivalent and contested. While white critics readily assigned an African origin to the popular music they so despised, black writers sought to complicate such assumptions. “I do not see why this music should be put upon the shoulders of the Negro solely,” argued the editor of the Negro Music Journal, “for it does not portray his nature, nor is its rhythm distinctly characteristic of our race” (“Our Musical Condition” 138).

Popular music in all its permutations was often subject to sweeping condemnations by these arbiters of Black middle-class propriety. As Kevin Gaines argues, “Virtually all but the most unchurched and bohemian black elites were unable to distinguish the aesthetically ambitious ragtime piano compositions of, for example, Scott Joplin, from humiliating coon songs and minstrel characters” (76). Instead, critics struggled to maintain a strict separation between classical music, with its connotations of learning and respectability, and popular forms associated, unfairly or not, with demeaning racial stereotypes.

Racism as entertainment was nothing new, of course. The blackface minstrel show, which bequeathed its rhythms and representations to ragtime and the vaudeville music hall, delighted white audiences for much of the nineteenth-century. Since the antebellum era, minstrelsy had demeaned blacks and effectively equated bourgeois morality with whiteness (Gaines 67). Beginning in the 1890’s, however, the power of mass-marketed popular music to spread and further reinforce racist stereotypes was of increasing concern to uplift-minded African-Americans. The Negro Music Journal explicitly referenced the rapidly expanding music industry when it maintained the races bore equal culpability for the popularity of ragtime: “The whole country is responsible, both black and white. Neither side can be excused for the part it has played in creating, publishing, and distributing this low and degrading class of music. Publishing houses in all parts of the country have, with few exceptions, published this music more or less“ (“Our Musical Condition” 138).

In response to the power of the music publishing and vaudeville industries, many middle-class African Americans believed that achievement in “legitimate” cultural endeavors, like opera, which demanded “high-class performance and artistic execution” rather than the “droll song and dance” associated with popular music and minstrelsy held the promise of disrupting vicious racial stereotypes. As the Colored American Magazine argued, in favor of cultivating an appreciation of opera, “At these gatherings the refined and cultured of our race assemble, and from them the Caucasian learns that all of the Negro race are not ragtime characters, but that a great number of us possess a discriminating and cultivated taste for the fine arts” (“Drury” 507).

Ultimately, the black bourgeoisie’s rejection of popular music was rooted in an effort to de-emphasize perceived racial differences and achieve a semblance of social equality by carefully identifying their cultural aspirations with those cultivated by the white middle-class. It sought to demonstrate African-Americans’ essential sameness with those who despised their growing aspirations. Unlike a later generation that would embrace jazz within a wider celebration of their uniquely African-American heritage, the early twentieth-century black bourgeoisie, in pursuit of an uplift ideology emphasizing class over race, disavowed popular music and instead overwhelmingly sought to distinguish themselves in cultural endeavors deemed legitimate by “the better sort” of whites. African-American discourse in middle-class periodicals echoed white assumptions that classical music embodied universal values that edified, enriched, and purified its adherents while ragtime and jazz were, in contrast, repugnant productions imposed upon ignorant consumers by a venal horde of unscrupulous music publishers. They consistently argued that a livable, civilized future lay in venerating tradition rather than in embracing the latest novelty manufactured to amuse the masses. For both Black and White traditionalists, the past denoted a realm safe from the vacuous mob and the market that privileged its unenlightened choices.

Traditionalists stridently rejected the argument justifying the worth of ragtime and early jazz based on their widespread and ever growing appeal in the mass marketplace. Furthermore, critics refused to accept the notion that even if popular music truly arose from, and in response to, the people themselves, that this qualified it as a legitimate cultural production. Traditionalists strove to refute modernist arguments such as the following:

“The people” have created their popular music precisely to their need and their taste. As to its having a deteriorating effect on them, vulgarities and all, such a claim is absurd in view of the fact that it is not the music which makes the people, but the people who make the music to suit them. (“Ethics” 225)

Traditionalists countered,

Because there is a large demand for yellow newspapers, burlesque shows, saloons, gambling houses, and other dens of the underworld, could we with justice say that these things are created by and for the public, and are, therefore, creative and good? (“Dangers” 8)

In short, according to traditionalist discourse, it did not matter if popular music arose spontaneously from the people themselves because the masses were ignorant and immoral. Like children let loose in a candy store, they clamored to stuff themselves with that which made them ill. When modernists argued that “you may take it as certain that if millions of people persist in liking something that has not been recognized by the schools, there is vitality in that thing,” the obvious retort was that mass popularity denoted nothing but the power of money-hungry sensationalists to exploit the venality of the masses (“Ragtime Wrangling” 69). According to such discourse, popular music was but one of a host of media that prostituted itself in pursuit of the widest audience possible. Inevitably, this appealing to the lowest common denominator of the masses supplied

The editor with his dozen reports of murder and sexual laxity flashing from the front page of his morning paper; the novelist and dramatist with their liberal laxative of filth and crass sugaring of sentiment; the minister with his vulgarity and hypnotism; the music master with his ragtime - all these bow the knee to Baal. These men, however, insist that they are expressing the true American feeling by giving the people what they want. (“Will Ragtime” 407)

Such was the fruit of pandering to the masses. Not only did the market valorize the charlatan, the demagogue, and the acquisitive materialist but, more alarmingly, it simultaneously degraded legitimate cultural forms, such as Western classical music, as it nourished the vulgarity of the masses.

Traditionalist discourse argued that popular music contributed directly to the decay and neglect of the music the old bourgeoisie held most dear - the symphonic masterpieces of European classical composers. As early as 1900, the Musical Courier reported that "rag-time - a ragweed of a music - has grown up everywhere in the Union and its vicious influences are highly detrimental to the cause of good music" (“Rag-time Rage” 20). Almost thirty years later, critics were still vainly declaiming against popular music, asserting that jazz was a ”rhythm without music and without soul…undoubtedly it stifles the true musical instinct, turning many of our talented young people from the persistent, continuing study and execution of good music” (“Damrosch” 26). This strand of traditionalist discourse argued that popular music positively hindered a “musically uncultured person in gaining an appreciation of higher music…ragtime has dulled their taste for pure music just as intoxicants dull a drunkard’s taste for pure water and so fascinates them that they cannot even listen to higher music, much less enjoy it” (“Dangers” 8). According to traditionalists, a veneration of “higher music” was essential to developing one's moral, spiritual, and intellectual nature. Of course, the elevated character of classical music could not be grasped without the proper training; to grasp it required assiduous and respectful study. “By music,” clarified one music teacher, “I mean that which demands much time and thought; the music of artistic cultivation, of humble ambitions, prayerfully and earnestly followed; of obedience to teachers; of self denial” (“Music Versus” 42). A devotee had not only to be carefully trained to properly appreciate classical music but he or she must also be shielded from the infectious degradation of popular entertainment forms. 3. As an 1899 Etude editorial entitled, “The Invasion of Vulgarity In Music,” argued:

This cheap trashy stuff [ragtime] cannot elevate even the most degraded minds, nor could it possibly urge any one on to greater effort in the acquisition of culture in any phase…If you are endeavoring to cause an elementary musical mind to appreciate Beethoven, you must not let him escape you and visit a vaudeville show, even for a single night, or you will find yourself the next day set back weeks in your work. (Weld 52)

While the cultivation of an elevated character capable of appreciating “higher music” required cloistered, diligent study, indulgence in popular music required no great intelligence or aesthetic effort on the part of the listener.

Music teachers and other traditionalists invested in the maintenance and promotion of classical music decried the increasing influence of popular music over America’s youth. As the German composer Dr. Karl Muck proclaimed in 1916, “What you call here ragtime is poison. It poisons the very source of your musical growth, for it poisons the taste of the young” (qtd. in “Ragtime Wrangling” 68). Teachers echoed Dr. Muck’s trepidations. Their very livelihoods seemingly threatened, instructors despaired that popular music and mass entertainment in general discouraged the serious, long term, and expensive dedication required for achievement in classical music. Many young Americans abandoned such spiritually strenuous aspirations. In a 1922 article entitled, “Music Versus Materialism,” a music teacher decried the effects of the “amusement-mill of our suburban community life” which left young music students profoundly ignorant, superficial, conformist, and dismissive of anything (like music) not immediately and obviously practical to material ambitions. According to this author, the attitude of America’s young music student now amounted to a petulant complaint, “What good is all this high-class music, anyhow, except just to harrow up your feelings? Let’s play something lively and cut out the sob stuff!“ Again, the decline of classical tradition and civilized life in America more broadly, was attributed to shallow pragmatism and an overweening preoccupation with material success:

[T]he scion of the new democracy…not only does he frankly prefer rag-time to Beethoven, he is no longer ashamed of the fact. And he has taken a new stand – he absolutely refuses to practice. He is going to be an electrical engineer, anyhow, so what’s the use of bothering with five finger exercises and all that sort of foolishness?

Ultimately, traditionalists argued, ragtime and jazz were detrimental to the future greatness of American classical music because the public’s insatiable appetite for popular music allowed no appreciation for the geniuses who, undoubtedly, labored unrecognized in their midst. “It is my firm belief,” argued a respondent in the Musical America debate of 1912, “that many an undiscovered Beethoven, Wagner and Liszt has trashy music to thank for his obscurity. Musical nature may become truly perverted, just as a highly imaginative reader may injure his brain by constant perusal of ‘cheap, trashy’ fiction” (Hamlin 36).

The traditionalist idea that ragtime and jazz “perverted” an individual’s musical nature was rooted not only in a despair for the future of classical music but also in the perception that popular music seemed to possess a unique power over the physical bodies of its consumers. In this respect, traditionalist and modernist discourses were in substantial agreement. No one disputed the notion that ragtime and jazz were aimed at the body, rather than the intellect (as was claimed for classical music). They differed fundamentally, however, on whether popular music’s corporeal power was destructive or liberatory. For instance, while the Ladies Home Journal argued that “those moaning saxophones and the rest of the instruments with their broken, jerky rhythm make a purely sensual appeal…they call out to the low and rowdy instinct“ (McMahon 34), the Ragtime Review countered, “The fact remains that ragtime is the most popular music in the world today – the kind that makes your feet shuffle and the mouth pucker – that makes you forget your troubles and worries and feel at peace with the entire universe” (“What Is Ragtime?” 8). Both agreed that the irresistibly syncopated rhythms of popular music, bypassing one’s mental faculties and moral sensibilities, left listeners “powerless” to resist the appeals it made to the body. Although the earliest published accounts of ragtime often focused on professional entertainers, recounting “a distinct rhythm and mode, so to speak, throughout the Negro melodies… [which] lend themselves to the dance which usually accompanies the popular song when sung on the stage,” writers soon began to describe the dramatic (and often unsettling) effects of popular music on its listeners (“Music Halls” 536). In 1903, a music professor intending to dispassionately observe ragtime music at a masquerade ball instead found himself caught up in the energy:

Suddenly I discovered that my legs were in a condition of great excitement. They twitched as though charged with electricity and betrayed a considerable and rather dangerous desire to jerk me from my seat. The rhythm of the music, which had seemed so unnatural at first, was beginning to exert its influence over me.

He concluded, “The continuous reappearance and succession of accentuations on the wrong parts of the bar and the unnatural syncopations impart somewhat of a rhythmic compulsion to the body which is nothing short of irresistible” (“Musical Possibilities” 11). While the discourses emanating from social commentators concurred with the professor that popular music possessed the distinct ability to operate directly upon the body, opinion was sharply split regarding the consequences of this power. Modernists associated the enjoyment of popular music with a healthy ability to express emotion and experience pleasure. American composer Howard Brockaway opined, “It is fairly well established that only an oyster can resist the appeal of syncopated rhythm” (“Delving” 97). While traditionalist discourse agreed that popular music had the power to manifest itself directly on the body it argued, unsurprisingly, that this was a wholly destructive rather than a liberating influence. Giving oneself over to the power of syncopated rhythm resulted in the abdication of moral restraint and, consequently, the destruction of all civilized decorum.

Beginning in the early 1910’s, traditionalist discourse identifying popular music with the abandonment of moral restraint in favor of a primitive hedonism began to appear more frequently. The impetus for much of this discourse was undoubtedly the dance craze that swept America around this time. Musical America approvingly reprinted the reaction of a Polish conductor visiting America in 1912, “Day and night you Americans tingle tangle and jingle jangle ragtime band stuff with [dances like the] grizzly bear, tom cat and turkey trot. This is not music; this is madness. Awful. Terrible!” (“Ragtime Is Madness” 43). Ragtime and jazz were responsible, according to traditionalist discourse, for compelling Americans into modern dances that were “as much a violation of the seventh commandment as adultery” (“Pulpit” 894). Traditionalists regularly claimed Americans, having had enough of these immoral dances and the popular music that propelled them, were on the verge of a moralistic crusade to purge the nation of these vices. In 1913, for instance, the Literary Digest reported, “Police, church, and school authorities everywhere are stirred to conference and action over the demoralization that is plainly evident though the incoming of these indecent dances which are sweeping over the country like an epidemic” (“Carnality” 102). To their dismay, however, the appeal of popular music and the new dances only continued to grow, especially with the jazz phenomenon that gripped America near the end of World War One. By 1921, the Ladies Home Journal argued, in an article hopefully entitled, “Back To Prewar Morals” (conveniently forgetting that, in the opinion of many, America’s prewar morality had been little better than a cesspool), “In so far as jazz dancing relaxes morality and undermines the institution of the family, it is an element of tremendously evil potential” (13). Whether its target was ragtime or jazz, however, traditionalist discourse consistently recognized the corporeal appeal of popular music. The elevated, spiritual tone of classical music simply could not compete with popular music for the hearts and minds (and feet) of the masses.

Although traditionalist discourses condemned ragtime and jazz for their relentless assault upon the American body, critics also argued that the damage inflicted by popular music went far beyond the dance madness denounced from the bench as “a series of snakelike gyrations and weird contortions of seemingly agonized bodies and limbs” (“Judge Rails” 15). Some critics preached that ragtime and jazz ultimately produced mental degeneration or hysteria in their listeners. Popular music not only made Americans lose control of their bodies and their better judgment on the dance floor, but it actually rendered them mentally unstable. The earliest denunciations of popular music had characterized it as a “dangerous epidemic,” and by the twentieth century’s second decade it was increasingly associated with the degeneration of mental health. Critics tied the appeal of popular music and its relentless, hypnotic beat to the increasingly frenetic rhythm of modern American life. A 1911 article in the New York Times approvingly quoted a visiting German music professor’s opinion that ragtime would “eventually stagnate the brain cells and wreck the nervous system” (“Music in America” 10), while in a 1913 article entitled “Ragtime: The New Tarantism” (the original tarantism being a wild dancing mania, prevalent in thirteenth-century western Europe and supposedly incited by the bite of a tarantula), Francis Toye opined, “I believe that it [ragtime] is a direct encouragement to hysteria…in a society where the social needs and restraints of modern civilized life unite with subtle hereditary nervous defects to make hysteria as common as it is’” (Toye 654-655).

Critics often fused a smattering of psychoanalytic hearsay with a facile authority borrowed from the scientific realm to “prove” that popular music was mentally degenerative. As the Ladies Home Journal asserted, “That it [jazz] has a demoralizing effect upon the human brain has been demonstrated by many scientists.” This article went on to claim that a number of scientists, working with the insane, had discovered that “the effect of jazz on the normal brain produces an atrophied condition on the brain cells.” Ultimately, it concluded, jazz music inhibited a patient’s ability to distinguish between “good and evil, between right and wrong” (Faulkner 16). The orchestra leader at the Napa State Hospital wrote an article for The Metronome to warn, “I can say from my own knowledge that about fifty percent of our young boys and girls from the age of 16 to 25 that land in insane asylums these days are jazz crazy” (Guilliams 59). While many commentators stopped short of charging popular music with directly causing mental illness or hysteria, they asserted, alternatively, that popular music contributed to an emotional malaise increasingly infecting Americans. After informing readers that he did not approve of jazz because it was “doing a vast amount of harm to young minds and bodies not yet developed to resist evil temptations” the author of an editorial in the January 1925 edition of Etude went on to approvingly quote an “expert” in these matters, the “eminent” Dr. M.P. Schlapp. “We are headed for a smash in this country if we keep on the way we are going,” reported Dr. Schlapp. “Our emotional instability is the product of immigration, automobiles, jazz and the movies” (qtd. in “Is Jazz the Pilot” 7). Attempts to associate popular music with a generalized sense of psychological fragility reflecting the tenor of modern American life were increasingly common throughout this period.

Beginning in the second decade of the century, both modernists and traditionalists began to identify popular music as broadly evocative of the economic and cultural transformations remolding America. The most obvious example of this trend, of course, identifies the 1920’s as the “Jazz Age.” Despite the inability of this label to accurately characterize the complexities of an entire historical era (in the sense that all such labels are inadequate), Americans of the early twentieth century often did just this, utilizing images and attitudes associated with popular music to define the times in which they lived. The associations authors chose to take from popular music and apply to the nation more generally, of course, depended upon their stance toward industrial modernity and the marketplace. For those who embraced America’s consumerist promise of unlimited abundance and liberatory technology, the frenetic liveliness of ragtime and early jazz provided an apt metaphor. Despite its earlier appropriation of “plantation” and “darkie” images, ragtime was not often associated with the quiet repose of rural retirement or contemplation. Instead, it was “the perfect expression of the American city, with its restless bustle and motion, its multitude of unrelated details, and its underlying rhythmic progress toward a vague Somewhere” (“Great American” 317). As The Ragtime Review claimed in December of 1914:

[Ragtime] is the music of the hustler, of the feverishly active speculator; of the “skyscraper” and the “grain elevator.” Nor can there be any doubt about its vigor – vigor which is, perhaps, empty sometimes and meaningless, but, in the hands of competent interpreters, brimming over with life. (“Why Ragtime” 3)

The energy of popular music was associated with the creative forces rapidly binding the continent together, increasing the speed with which goods and information could be transferred across the nation and delivered swiftly to the benefit of consumers, fulfilling their rapidly multiplying desires. In a lyrical description of popular music’s evocation of a pragmatic, modern America, Grace Hodsdon Boutelle wrote that the rhythm of ragtime existed

in every factory and mill, on the elevated and in the subway. It sings in the wireless and flies in the aeroplane. It blossoms in the fertilized desert and flows in the toil-created waterways. It streams, visible and splendid as flying banners, along the skyline in New York Harbor. Here is architectural syncopation, if you like, an accent withheld here, anticipated there, nothing happening exactly according to the traditional rhythm of architecture, yet this very freedom demonstrates its loyalty to the basic law of building – that law which demands that skyscraper or government shall definitely meet the needs and coherently express the purpose of its builders. (qtd. in “Ragtime Wrangling” 69)

With the conclusion of the First World War, jazz displaced, or mutated out of, ragtime but the images utilized in popular discourse remained essentially unchanged. “Jazz,” wrote the Etude, “has come to stay. It is an expression of the times, of the breathless, energetic, superactive times in which we are living and it is useless to fight against it” (“Where Is Jazz” 595). For champions of modernity, popular music represented the fierce creative energy of an industrializing, urban America, the ceaseless enterprise of its people, and the mountain of desirable consumer goods it showered upon them.

Like modernists, traditionalists increasingly appropriated images associated with popular music in order to broadly characterize the tenor of American life and society. The connotations employed by traditionalists, obviously, were quite different. Traditionalists recognized the profound changes reshaping America, but they chose, in contrast to modernist discourses, to use popular music to emphasize the indecision, indeterminacy, and fragmentation of modern life. As Americans became ever more responsive to the dictates of the market, traditionalist discourses reflected a perception that the cultural authority of the old middle class was slipping away, along with the standards of conduct they espoused. The “cheap, trashy” music so popular with the masses was supposedly indicative of a malaise infecting all of American life. Careful scrutiny of ragtime music, for example, allegedly revealed that “every one of the songs is insidiously perverting; they are indicative of relaxitive morality, of disparagement of the marital tie…of the entire moral code“ (“Remarks” 22). After the end of World War One, many authors were convinced that the nation had lost its traditional moral restraints and much of this discourse, in fact, referenced the war as an explanation for the “jazz spirit” apparently affecting the nation. Discussing the rage for jazz which gripped the nation with the end of World War One, the Ladies Home Journal explained in 1921, “There is always a revolutionary period of the breaking down of old conventions and customs which follows after every great war; and this rebellion against existing conditions is to be noticed in all life today. Unrest, the desire to break the shackles of old ideas and forms are abroad” (Faulkner 16). The Journal, unsurprisingly, foresaw only disaster in Americans’ desire to “break the shackles of old ideas,” but, by identifying these urges with a transitional period following the tribulations of war, it was able to claim that jazz signified only a temporary period of readjustment; America would see a “Return to Pre-War Morals” soon enough. Jazz, however, did not immediately disappear, and three years later the Etude still found it necessary to declaim, “Jazz is one of the inevitable expressions of what might be called the jazzy morale of mood of America…when America regains its soul, jazz will go, not before - that is to say, it will be relegated to the dark and scarlet haunts whence it came and wither unwept it will return, after America’s soul is reborn” (“Where is Jazz” 595).

Mass-produced popular music, of course, never disappeared from American life, and the genres that eventually displaced ragtime and jazz, such as rock 'n’ roll and rap, would have been just as upsetting, if not more so, to the traditionalists who denounced Tin Pan Alley’s ubiquitous creations. 4. Hopes that America’s “jazz spirit” was only a peculiar manifestation of the post-war era were bound to be disappointed because the transformations so often signified by popular music had begun long before and were tied to the growth of industrial capitalism in America, rather than to a temporary upset of social relations caused by a year and a half of America’s participation in The Great War. The garish materialism denounced by traditionalists could not be reversed by their fervent denunciations of cultural decay, and the popular music they so detested grew in popularity along with the burgeoning consumer culture of the 1920’s. These changes could be resisted but not overturned by appeals for Americans to return to an orderly, pre-capitalist past sanctified and largely created in traditionalist discourse. For traditionalists, popular music symbolized the lamentable and growing hegemony of the market and its ability to commodify all that it touched. A 1921 article in Ladies Home Journal encapsulated many of their fears about modern capitalism’s omnipresence in one short passage that evoked popular music, mass amusements, the displacement of traditional religion, the vulgar materialism of the masses, the frenetic rhythm and mental confusion of modern life, and the visceral power of advertising images to permeate modern consciousness. Describing a stroll through Manhattan in search of immoral jazz dens, John R. McMahon wrote, with Beat-like intensity, “We walked up Broadway encompassed with a fierce jazz of light, barbaric in color, savage in gyrating motion, stupefying the optic nerves and conveying to the brain confused messages of underwear, chewing gum, and automobile parts. It seemed an appropriate vestibule to the temple of the modern dance” (“Back To Pre-War Morals” 13).


1. The literal and metaphoric center of the modern popular song industry, beginning in the early 1890’s and continuing through the middle of the twentieth-century, was an area originally located on New York City’s West 28th Street known as Tin Pan Alley.

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2. According to one observer in 1920, however, ”the jazz” was simply ragtime speeded up and “raised to the Nth power” (“Jazz and Ragtime” 200).

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3. Interestingly, one of the most successful popular composers in American history disdained acquiring any formal musical training whatsoever. According to author E.M. Wickes, Irving Berlin once said that “he feared to study music, as he had an idea that the knowledge of music-construction and its laws would have a tendency to kill his originality and spontaneity” (“The Birth” 893). Berlin reportedly composed all of his songs in F-sharp, constructing million-selling melodies using only the black keys on the piano.

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4. The conviction that popular music was literally everywhere constituted a prevalent theme in traditionalist discourse. In the article touching off the popular music debate in Musical America, for instance, a music teacher by the name of Minna Kaufmann argued, “In these songs, which are heard everywhere, one gets a very good idea of the state of mind and feeling of the public…The language used in the verses is always the ‘catchy’ kind. You can’t avoid quoting some of the songs, because the verses are made up of everyday expressions twisted into other and often unsavory meanings. These songs are especially bad for children, yet it is impossible to keep them in ignorance of them, for the bands, the phonographs and street singers proclaim that this is the kind of music the public wants and pays for” (“The Case” 13).

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Works Cited

“Back to Prewar Morals.” Ladies Home Journal November 1921: 13+.

“The Birth of Our Popular Songs.” Literary Digest 7 October 1916: 893.

“Carnality in Song, Dance, and Dress.” Literary Digest 19 July 1913: 101-102.

“The Case against the Popular Song.” Musical America 8 June 1912: 13.

“Damrosch Assails Jazz.” New York Times 17 April 1928: 26.

“Dangers That Lie in Ragtime.” Musical America 21 September 1912: 8.

“Delving into the Genealogy of Jazz.” Current Opinion August 1919: 97-99.

“The Drury Opera Company in Verdi’s ‘Aida.’” Colored American Magazine August 1903: 595-599.

“Ethics of Ragtime.” Literary Digest 10 August 1912: 225.

Farwell, Arthur. “The Ethics of ‘Ragtime.’” Musical America 22 June 1912: 24.

Faulkner, Anne Shaw. ”Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation.” Ladies Home Journal August 1921: 16+.

Gaines, Kevin. Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1996.

Guilliams, A.E. “Detrimental Effects of Jazz on Our Younger Generation.” The Metronome February 1923: 59.

“The Great American Composer – Will He Speak in the Accent of Broadway?” Current Opinion November 1917: 316-317.

Hamlin, George. “Popular Songs Bad.” Musical America 13 July 1912: 36.

“Is Jazz the Pilot of Disaster?” Etude January 1925: 6-7.

“Jazz and Ragtime Are the Preludes to a Great American Music.” Current Opinion August 1920: 199-200.

“Judge Rails at Jazz and Dance Madness.” New York Times 14 April 1926: 15
Kenilworth, Walter Winston. ”Remarks on Ragtime.” Musical Courier 28 May 1913: 22-23.

Mason, Daniel Gregory. ”Concerning Ragtime.” The New Music Review March 1918: 112-116.

McMahon, John R. “Unspeakable Jazz Must Go.“ Ladies Home Journal December 1921: 34+.

Meyer, Peter Frank. “The Potency of Ragtime.” Ragtime Review April 1916: 3.

Murphy, Jeanette Robinson. “The True Negro Music and its Decline.” The Independent July 1903: 1723-1730.

“Music Halls and Popular Songs.” Cosmopolitan July 1897: 531-540.

“Music in America.” New York Times 9 October 1911: 10.

“Music Versus Materialism.” Musical Quarterly January 1922: 39-42.

“Musical Impurity.” Etude January 1900: 16.

“The Musical Possibilities of Rag-Time.” The Metronome March 1903: 11.

Musser, Charles and Carol Nelson. High-Class Moving Pictures: Lyman H. Howe and the Forgotten Era of Traveling Exhibition, 1880-1920. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1991.

“Our Musical Condition.” Negro Music Journal March 1903: 137-139.

Peiss, Kathy. Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century. New York. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1985.

“The Pulpit and the New Dances.” Literary Digest 19 April 1913: 894.

“Ragtime Is Madness Says Sirota.” Musical America 23 March 1912: 43.

“The Rag-Time Rage.” The Musical Courier 23 May 1900: 20.

“Ragtime Wrangling.” Literary Digest 8 January 1916: 68-70.

“Remarks On Ragtime.” The Musical Courier 28 May 1913: 22-23.

Sherlock, Charles Reginald. “From Breakdown To Rag-Time.” Cosmopolitan October 1901: 630-639.

Smith, Wilson G. “The Vagrant Philosopher.” Negro Music Journal May 1903: 181-183.

Toye, Frances. “The New Tarantism.” English Review March 1913: 654-655.

Von Liebich, Rudolph. “The Benighted Lover of Ragtime as a Musical ‘Man with the Hoe.’” Musical America 31 August 1912: 26.

Weld, Arthur. “The Invasion of Vulgarity In Music.” Etude February 1899: 52.

“What Is Ragtime?” The Ragtime Review January 1915: 8.

“Where Is Jazz Leading America?” Etude September 1924: 595-596.

“Why Ragtime Is the True Music of ‘Hustlers.’” Ragtime Review December 1914: 3-4.

“Will Ragtime Save the Soul of the Native American Composer?” Current Opinion December 1915: 406-407.

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