11th Grade: The Left-Handed 1920’s

Greetings,
This week we wrapped up the Versailles treaty and introduced the “Roaring 20’s” in America, a time when the mood of the country shifted significantly away from the values of the Progressive Era, and what it meant to be an individual in America took on new meaning.  We discussed a few different things:
1. The Automobile
We take cars so much for granted these days we might forget about how they changed so much of ordinary  life when originally mass produced.  How did cars change things?
  • They made us more personally independent and mobile in general, although in time this became especially true for youth.  Cars became the equivalent of what making a name for yourself in the western frontier might have meant for generation in the 19th century.  Americans love cars, and not just for convenience sake, but because cars still feed our sense of identity and independence.
  • The car freed people from geographical limitations.  But this “freedom wasn’t free.”  The increase of our geographical mobility lessened ties to our local communities and families.  In an age less overtly Christian than previous ages, people would find their concept of community increasingly in the nation itself.
2. Prohibition
Prohibition failed in nearly every respect and must rank as one of our worst legal experiments.  It’s genesis had to do with a weird conflagration of unusual interests.  For example, the KKK backed prohibition as part of their overall anti-immigrant anti-Jewish agenda, but many women’s groups did as well.  The political power of women’s movements grew in the years prior to Prohibition, which culminated in the 20th Amendment giving them the right to vote.   In any case, Prohibition’s failure led to some good questions for us to discuss.
Why did it fail so badly?
Prohibition served as the last gasp of the Progressive Era, a time of energetic communal action to make things “better.”  But one can wind things so tight for only so long.  The war had exhausted much of that energy, and Warren G. Harding propelled himself to a landslide victory in 1920 based on his made up phrase, “A return to normalcy.”  And yet we picked just this time to forbid people from doing something they had always done, a juxtoposition made all the more awkward by the increased independence given by the car and the nation’s newfound status as a global economic power.
Here are a few indications of that failure, the first being crime rate:
Prohibition Era Crime Rate
 People were certainly not drinking less during Prohibition. . .
What comparisons can be made with the Drug Wars of Today?
Many have compared our current failures in the “War on Drugs” to our failure during Prohibition.  Is such a comparison justified?
Prohibition and Crime Rates
Despite some important similarities, alcohol has been used and abused in every age.  It has formed the fabric of many religious rites and celebrations across time and space.  Narcotics simply do not have the roots in human experience that alcohol does.
Another difference is that, while the vast majority use alcohol appropriately, narcotics destroy the lives of most all who use them.
This does not mean, however, that practical realities may not force our hand in some respect.  Some in the class advocated strongly for much less tougher laws on even the strongest narcotics.
3. The Culture that Was the 1920’s
“Ragtime” reflected and helped fuel the image and feel of the 1920’s.  Here is Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag”
We can see how the tempo and bounciness of the song reflects the spirit of the times.  But the innovation of “Stride Piano” in the later 20’s only fueled this sense of ‘movement.’  Here is James Johnson’s famous “Carolina Shout.”  Note the active and “bouncy” left hand in the bass clef, and how he plays around with standard meter.  The herky-jerky unpredictability of the song can be seen in sections like .49-1:12.  In the topsy-turvy world of prohibition, cars, women voting, and so on, here was music to fit its time.
To see a modern stride pianist where you can visually get a sense of the movement in the left hand, see the video below (fast forward to the 2:00 mark if you get impatient:)
Most of the time the right hand leads the way in piano music, but here the left steals the show, which again makes things seem upside down.   Music and society connect once more.
Hope you enjoy the music,
Dave Mathwin
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