Dancing music in the C20: jazz 1917-18


Although the most notable dance to be associated with jazz – the lindy hop – didn’t come into being until 1937, the nascent sounds of its musical accompaniment can be traced back 20 years earlier. The first recording recognisable as jazz was released on February 26th, 1917, through the Victor Label.

The Original Dixieland Jass Band’s Dixie Jass Band One Step/Livery Stable Blues release – I guess what we’d now call a ‘double A side’ – was comprised of two compositions controversially billed as originals by this group of white musicians.

Each side brought separate lawsuits. Two former members of the ODJB claimed authorship for Livery Stable Blues, although a judge ruled that neither party had copyright over the work, as not only was the tune based on a pre-existing “public domain” melody, but as none of the musicians could read or write music, the judge also expressed doubt that they could claim to have “composed” anything!

Original Dixieland Jazz Band – Dixie Jass Band One Step

Original Dixieland Jazz Band – Livery Stable Blues

A second lawsuit was brought by Joe Jordan, the sidekick to African-American minstrel pioneer Ernest Hogan – and a future collaborator of Orson Welles – who successfully proved that a portion of Dixie Jass Band One Step’s melody appeared to be lifted from his own That Teasin’ Rag, composed in 1909 for “the Queen of Cakewalk”, Aida Overton Walker.

Age June 6 1912 Ada Walker

This first ‘jass’ recording therefore acts as a case study around several issues pertinent to our discussion of early 20th century dancing music. Firstly – in contrast to later variations of the form, such as hard bop and modal or free jazz – this first jazz record was unambiguously dance music. It’s centre label even helpfully proclaimed ‘FOR DANCING’ on both sides of the record.

Secondly, it emphasises early jazz as an evolution of the cakewalk sound that had mutated through ragtime and blues via the vaudeville circuit. The ODJB were an early example of a jazz band ditching the New Orleans vaudeville scene in favour of performing at fashionable night-spots and eateries in Chicago and New York, where they made recording industry contacts under the patronage of Al Jolson.

Thirdly, it opened a legal debate that would be repeated many times throughout the 20th century, particularly in regards to dance music – and perhaps most memorably with controversies over sampling in the 1980s – that of copyright and innovation.

In these very early days of the recording industry, ownership was a somewhat mutable concept.

On the vaudeville circuit, prior to the boom in recorded music, songs were transmitted virally. Tunes would be passed from town to town as troupes travelled, with each musician putting his or her own stamp on the hot songs of the day, creating endless variations of a piece in an assortment of styles and dialects, sometimes with personalised lyrics and sometimes instrumental. In such a scenario, this orally transmitted folk music becomes difficult to assign ownership over, as evidenced by the Livery Stable Blues case.

Even composers celebrated as pioneers, such as Ernest Hogan and WC Handy, who had huge hits with their (copyrighted) published sheet music, were unembarrassed to admit appropriating pieces overheard in bar rooms or at travelling shows and train stations – anywhere where there was a pianist, guitarist or singer, and someone to listen.

Before the advent of the recording industry, this was simply how music was communicated outside of the symphony orchestra.

Whereas classical music by this point already had a centuries-old canon, these new African-American dancing musics were evolving nimbly and rapidly – their pieces could be performed by big bands, small ensembles and soloists alike, and established touring circuits meant that any evolution in the sound could be broadcast across huge swathes of working class America surprisingly quickly. An ever-insatiable appetite for dancing and entertainment ensured music as a surprisingly viable career option for anyone with showmanship and a way with a tune, and as the ODJB proved, you did not need to be able to read music or have studied at a conservatoire to take part.

Fourthly, the discussion around this debut jazz recording and the lawsuit from Joe Jordan again returns to a theme that we’ve picked at throughout this series, of whether the popularisation of ragtime, blues and jazz by white musicians constitutes what in today’s world is referred to guiltily as ‘cultural appropriation’, or whether the early iterations of these musics were genuinely more multicultural than modern day society would give credit.

Certainly, early jazz was as much of a cultural soup as its geographical birthplace of New Orleans. The 18th century precursor to the squaredance, the French Quadrille, inputted into jazz alongside 19th century biguine rhythms, themselves a hybridisation of French ballroom dance and African fertility rituals.

The ODJB themselves were graduates of Papa Jack Laine’s racially diverse early jazz band – a heavy-touring unit that never recorded, but whose 100+ alumni included many jazz originators.


The other key New Orleans outfits working in a jazz idiom during this time were Buddy Bolden’s band (pictured up top), who are believed to have recorded a wax cylinder as early as the late 1890s (but which, if it did exist, sadly has not survived), and the Original Creole Orchestra. The Original Creole Orchestra was the first band to perform jazz outside of New Orleans  (and the first band to explicitly refer to their sound as jazz), playing in over 75 cities in the USA and Canada.

Spotify playlist: early jazz 1917-18

From our Spotify playlist of the first year of jazz recordings, blues originator WC Handy is the only African-American recording artist. Again, this proportion of black to white jazz musicians is unlikely to be reflective of the working jazz musician demographic during this period.  Wilbur Sweatman’s Bag of Rags in 1917 is sometimes referred to as the first jazz recording by a black artist, although some critics consider this to more strictly be ragtime with some improvisational elements.

Improvisation is the crux of what differentiated jazz from the blues and ragtime dance music of this period. The development of blues and ragtime from military marches meant that the music was performed with a rigid precision. Jazz did away with that rigidity, gleefully swapping precision for spontaneity. In a jazz band, one player – typically the trumpet or cornet player – would follow the melody, with the other musicians improvising around that melody line. This ‘all-at-once’ improvisation gave the music a hectic, careering feel in contrast to later jazz forms, which standardised a system of players taking turns to improvise a solo.

A jazz band of this period would usually also include a clarinettist, whose job was to embellish the melody. The bassline would be held down by a tuba, with a trombone sliding between bass and melody as it fancied, often gilding the music with sound effects such as ‘slides’ and ‘smears’. Jazz was initially marching band music, performed at dances, parties and in New Orleans funeral processions, but as the music moved further away from the marching band model, drum kits, piano and string bass also increasingly featured.

Though this early period of jazz is most often referred to as Dixieland, some historians and music fans find this term problematic, as ‘dixie’ refers to the pre-Civil War Southern States. When the music migrated North from New Orleans, it would also be known as ‘hot jazz’ in Chicago, though this came with further rhythmic idiosyncrasies added by Louis Armstrong and his peers.

For the purposes of this blog, we have opted to call it simply ‘early jazz’.

The Thousand Sounds of Stellavista


“The first PT houses had so many senso-cells distributed over them, echoing every shift of mood and position of the occupants, that living in one was like inhabiting someone else’s brain”. (JG Ballard, the Thousand Dreams of Stellavista)

We are all full-time psychonauts, rambling non-stop down the pathways of other people’s brains. We do this when we enter the external projection of these people’s ideas, in an exploration that can be physical (walking inside a building), visual (watching a movie), intellectual (reading a book, parsing an idea) or social (living inside an organisation or polity).

Video games combine many of the senses above in an all-encompassing creative medium. They could provide the ultimate psychonautic tool, but this potential is rarely fulfilled because they are constrained by commercial imperatives, or by a slavish desire to represent consensual realities, instead of subjective ones.

There are of course exceptions which we love, such as Hidetaka Miyazaki’s nightmarish hallucinations, or the game we wanted to briefly tell you about today, Jonathan Blow’s The Witness.

In The Witness, you wander the biomes of an abandoned island, solving abstract puzzles which open up access to new areas. And that’s that, at a purely functional level. Which is a bit like saying that Crash is a book about car accidents.

There is much more.

Emotionally, the Witness feels very intimate. You are inside Jonathan Blow’s brain, exploring his passions, his obsessions and his ambitions. When you complete a set of puzzles, you connect a synaptic network mapped on the geography of the Island, creating an external representation of ideas in his mind, ideas that are becoming embedded in yours as you gain fluency in the game’s geometric language.

You are communicating non-verbally with Blow, and learning through play. This is a beautiful process, like a flower blooming, or a melody revealing its structure.

You eventually leave the island, but the island will not leave you.

h takahashi

The Witness doesn’t have a story or music. This makes sense. These things would get in the way, distract you from its abstract purity and its hidden lessons (for example, sound can help you solve some of the puzzles).

However, if we had to give it a soundtrack, we would use the elysian compositions in H Takahashi’s Where to Be Vol 2. tape. It is not a coincidence that this is ambient music at its purest, or that H Takahashi is a professional architect.

Like all good ambient, the songs in this tape are fractals, particles of sound knit into a delicate pattern that transforms chaotic reality into harmony.  They are also spaces full of light and clarity, like the windows of a conservatory opening into a pastoral sight, the placid shapes in the cover for Another Green World, or the zen gardens frozen in space and time through which we wander lost in thought, in The Witness.

H Takahashi – Cave Temple

The tape is sold out, but you can buy the digital album for Where to Be Vol. 2 from Where To Now’s bandcamp.


Last time we featured Thousand Foot Whale Claw in 20JFG, they provided the musical context for visions of horror during our daily commute.

In the first half of their latest tape for Constellation Tatsu, Cosmic Winds, TCFW’s synthetic explorations remain eerie, but in a way that is colder, more removed, as if they were capturing the gravitational echoes of some distant catastrophe, or summarising the universe’s indifference towards us, the fact that its infinitesimal shift of a single physical constant would make our existences impossible. Less Carpenter, more Lovecraft.

With Cassini, the album starts a transition away from this awesome bleakness. It is a Kosmische filigree wrapped in shrieking waves of synthetic noise,  perhaps a metaphor for its namesake probe, a delicate product of human intellect and craftsmanship fired into the cold universe, so that we can learn more about it, start making it our home. In the magnificent sci-fi rhythms and blissful drones that follow, we sense success, expansion, and growth, a flash of intelligence illuminating the universe before it dies and the eternal cycle starts again.

Thousand Foot Whale Claw – Cassini

Get Cosmic Winds from Constellation Tatsu.

An eternity of persuasion

Featuring : Ketev


Adverts have always been with us, from the first bison sketched in a recondite ave to showcase the fecundity of the tribe’s hunting grounds and the strength of its warriors, to today’s hyper-personalised online adverts, following you across the web like 2-dimensional renditions of Dr Who’s Weeping Angels.

Right this moment, there must be at least two zillion ad-tech R&D teams experimenting with new ways to transform technologies such as Augmented/Virtual Reality, the Internet of Things or the Collaborative Economy into new media to disseminate commercial messages, into data-sucking probes to know you better, to sell you more shit, more efficiently.

It is easy to be down on all this, á la Bill Hicks. But let us entertain, if only for a moment, the idea that a lot of beautiful art of the past was created as a form of political and religious propaganda, it was an advertising of sorts. We are able to enjoy it today because its grubbily functional aspects have faded away with time.

The variable that explains our change in attitude is our distance from the situation that the creative work (formerly an advert) was trying to influence. We are not its intended audience, its potential victims. We see beyond the risk of manipulation, perhaps we see something beautiful. We definitely learn something about the weird dead era that spawned those things.

We think that future aesthetes living in a post-scarcity world will be similarly delighted and enlightened by our informationally dense commercials, our lurid pop-up banners, our biologically monstruous magazine ads, a romantic throwback to those intense times when we had to compete, those poignant times when we could die.

Let us, in this vein, reverse the flow of information and tune into some advertising content from eras to come, let us be persuaded by Ketev.


Ketev’s Linger makes us think of those sleek, cinematic car adverts that bombard us when we go to watch a movie, telling us that our vehicular choice is a deeply existential affair with implications for whether we end up living like rugged, individualist heroes in an Ayn Rand adventure, or dead-eyed drones in a glum authoritarian labyrinth.

Of course, the emotions and vibes we get from Linger’s dark gravitational wave techno are hyper-evolved and mega-deeper than anything that could come out of a contemporary automotive multinational. We need to fast forward and zoom out of a single planet to get a stellar perspective, to see the connection.

The truth is Linger could soundtrack an advert, yes, but it wouldn’t be for a pathetic car crawling down the winding roads of some puny planet, nope. It would be for an interstellar juggernaut, miles long, powered by exotic physics and steered by a post-human pilot floating in a vat of amniotic, shock-absorbing fluid, jacked into the ship’s sensoria, getting the metaphorical skin of her forehead burnt by the marginally sub-luminar acceleration.

With its colossal beats and its soaring drones, Linger advances across giga-years of time and galaxies of distance, grimly pushing forward towards some potential end of the universe where we’ll be able to look at reality from the outside, and know it fully. We hear an echo of Ligeti’s terrifying choruses in the cosmic static that fills the silences in the cycle of its rhythmic drive, a pumping beast black like the Styx river of the unconscious flowing through a Demdike Stare hallucination. All of this is as it should be.

Who is the target market for this? The discerning post-human pilot considering what ship to acquire for her next trip to the edges of space, obviously.  If she was sensing Linger’s majestic rumble in some high-res virtual reality, she might feel a bit wary, like anyone in a target market should.  But we are not her, we are far away here in Earth, grounded, watching this beast pass us by, wishing we could go wherever it’s going.

Ketev – Linger

Every single piece in Ketev’s Traces of Weakness LP is similarly deep, astounding, illuminating. You shouldn’t miss out. Go and get it from Where to Now.

Dancing music in the C20: blues 1914-17


The ballroom, fish tail, funky butt, squat, slow drag, snake hips, mule walk and strut – all dances popular with blues aficionados during that genre’s initial incarnation in the early part of the 20th Century as populist dance music.

If you think the blues starts with BB King and ends with Johns Mayall, then you might be a little surprised by the below footage of blues fans in 1914…

Not an Eric Clapton guest solo in sight!

The second edition of our Dancing music in the C20 series examining periods of innovation in dance music from 1900 to 1999 follows ragtime to its logical progression into early blues. (Again, with the caveats that we are looking purely at the history of recorded music, rather than oral folk song, improvised or live music traditions.)

Blues historian Elijah Wald identifies a tune called I Got The Blues as the first published blues song (in 1908), penned by an Italian-American composer, Antonio Maggio.

Sold as “an up-to-date rag” that was “”Respectfully Dedicated to all those who have the Blues”, Maggio’s 12-bar ditty is a clear evolution of the ragtime sound that we looked last week.

The term ‘blues’ does not come into popular parlance for some years, yet, though. And there was little other music resembling this new descendent of ragtime, until a flurry of sheet music publications in late 1912 by the bandleader, music teacher and composer WC Handy. The first blues recording was one of Handy’s tunes, Memphis Blues, performed by the Victor Military Band in 1914.

Victor Military Band – Memphis Blues

At this point, blues was vaudeville music – the thing of ventriloquists’ acts and minstrel shows. The music was largely instrumental, still mostly informed by the military band and the march-like aspects of ragtime.

Handy – who like Joplin with ragtime, could uncontroversially be deemed the chief architect of this blues era – was black but he didn’t identify this new kind of dance music as being innately African-American, as it is now. If anything he displayed a surprisingly withering attitude towards musicians of his own race, compared with the affection he had for the Greek and Armenian singers who interpreted his songs and vaudeville entertainers, who he noted, always had an ear out for a novelty.

And as a novelty, Handy’s new music was rapidly emulated by dance bands and vaudeville orchestras around America, as our Spotify playlist proves:

Spotify playlist: early blues 1914-17

In his excellent history of the blues, Escaping The Delta, Elijah Wald compares this 1910s proto-blues dance fad with the milieu of soundalikes that accompanied Britney Spears’ rise to fame in the late 1990s.

“No one involved in the blues was calling this music art,” he asserts. “It was working-class pop music, and its purveyors were looking for immediate sales, with no expectation that their songs would be remembered once the blues vogue had passed.”

And yet Wald admits that “out of this money-grubbing, hit-centered world” came a lot of superb music, and that the DNA of practically all black American popular music can be traced back to this era and sound.

He explains:

“It has been common for historians to mention this early blues craze, then jump directly to 1920, when Mamie Smith’s Crazy Blues became the first major vocal hit by a black singer singing principally to black record buyers. This seems quite natural to those of us raised on the fiction that tastes evolved more slowly in the past than they do now, but not even the rock ‘n’ roll era saw faster and more dramatic changes in American music than the period from the teens to the thirties. This was the height of the modernist wave, with the world shaken by World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the Great Depression. Fashions changed at a dazzling clip, and musical styles swept in and out, or underwent complete transformations at a pace that makes five or six years a significant stretch of time.

“The jump from Handy’s sheet music to Smith’s recording is particularly misleading, as is the frequent listing of Crazy Blues as the first blues record. As far as I can tell, the mistake grew out of the fact that so much of the early historical writing on blues was done by people with progressive political views, who were celebrating the music as a vital cultural expression of black Americans. Obviously, this approach is vital in many contexts, and blues has deep roots in black culture, but the story is more complicated than that. Blues was pop music, and pop music rarely fits a simple political or cultural agenda.”

Sociologist and anthropologist Katrina Hazzard-Donald suggests this early blues era was more emancipatory  than perhaps Wald gives credit, however. In a new America, where African-Americans were no longer slaves, but segregated “equals”, African traditions and characteristics were no longer repressed by white slavemasters, and so took on a new displaced identity. Ritualistic and religious dancing became secular, and the dancers – unencumbered by Euro-American conventions – more libidinous.

In his autobiography, Father of The Blues, Handy himself documented a shift in Americans’ attitudes to dancing during this early part of the 20th Century. When a guitar-mandolin-double bass trio of his were performing at a dance in 1905, he was baffled by a request to play “some of our native music” so instead had his band churn out “one of those over-and-over again strains that seem to have no very clear beginning and certainly no ending at all… It was not really annoying or unpleasant. Perhaps ‘haunting’ is a better word for it… The dancers went wild.”

A few years later, when performing his song Mr Crump (the vocal version of Memphis Blues) with a small orchestra, Handy witnessed another dance floor epiphany:

“We were all settled into our chairs. I flashed the sign and the boys gave. Feet commenced to pat. A moment later there was dancing on the sideways below. Hands went in the air, bodies swayed like reeds on the banks of the Congo… In the office buildings about, white folks pricked up their ears. Stenographers danced with their bosses. Everybody shouted for more.”

And Handy’s music was genuinely multicultural. He introduced Italian rhythmic quirks and the the Spanish habanera to his blues – a viral music that spliced and mutated through Cuban, Creole and African traditions throughout the centuries. Although Joplin had already experimented with the habanera in his rags prior to its adoption in blues, Handy recalled first encountering the rhythm in the piece Maori by William H. Tyler:

“I observed that there was a sudden, proud and graceful reaction to the rhythm… White dancers, as I had observed them, took the number in stride. I began to suspect that there was something Negroid in that beat.”

In last week’s Dancing music in the C20, we commented on the irony that a primarily African-American music – ragtime – was represented solely by white musicians and entertainers in its initial recording phase, and looked at some of the reasons for that disparity.

If we breakdown the components of our Spotify playlist of the first blues recordings, we can see the early signs of a shift in recording demographic – this time, about 63% of the performers are white musicians. Some of these musicians were professional early adopters – Charles A. Prince, for instance, was one of the first ever recording musicians, having worked as a pianist for the New York Phonograph Co. as early as 1891.

The first widely-known singer of blues songs was Marion Harris, a white vaudeville star with a broadway background. In our playlist she is accompanied by two other early blues singers, baritone rag singer Arthur Collins and the Jewish-American actor, comedian and entertainer Asa Yoelson.

Arthur Collins & Byron G. Harlan – Alabama Jubilee

Collins had some previous with performing ‘coon songs’ – the racist caricature of ragtime – but Yoelson, more commonly known as Al Jolson, went as far as performing in blackface.

By the end of the decade, Jolson was the biggest star on broadway, and he was the biggest advocate for ‘black’ music.

In our 2016 world, it is particularly difficult to reconcile the notion that a practitioner of a thing we find as repugnant and instinctively ‘wrong’ as blackface could be associated with any kind of positive cultural contribution. Yet Jolson was thought of by many to be what we might consider in modern terms as an ‘ally’.

This is difficult to stomach in an era where cultural appropriation is a predominant concern among progressives, who are quick to condemn white entertainers such as Gwen Stefani or Katy Perry  for adopting the iconography of non-white cultures. Yet at his funeral in 1950, representatives of the Negro Actors Guild lined the way for Jolson’s procession. Soul singer Jackie Wilson referred to Jolson as his most critical influence and blues legend Clarence “Frogman” Henry said of Jolson: “I loved him. I think he did wonders for the blacks and glorified entertainment.”

Why was Jolson accepted by black Americans? “African Americans’ embrace of Jolson was not a spontaneous reaction to his appearance in talking pictures,” writes film historian Charles Musser. “In an era when African Americans did not have to go looking for enemies, Jolson was perceived a friend.”

In the teens, America was still adjusting to a new national identity that was not defined by slavery. Jolson frequently performed his renditions of blues, jazz and ragtime standards in the blackface idiom, which had already been popularised by proponents of ‘coon song’, but he was also an anomalously outspoken anti-discrimination activist who counted Cab Calloway and Bojangles Robinson as friends. His blackface performances did not adhere to the “dim-witted, lazy, buffoonish, superstitious, happy-go-lucky and musical” caricatures of minstrelsy, in favour of setting up his gags at the expense of white characters, so some critics have suggested that Jolson was subtly subverting or parodying the idea of “white supremacy.”

Whether that is contextually accurate or not almost feels impossible to say now. Even if Jolson’s actions were obliquely well-intentioned, to be honest, it is hard not to read the scenario as an ancient precursor of “the Ali G issue”, where the intention of the setup may well be to derive humour from stuffy white establishment figures confused by how to respond to a man that they can not accurately determine the race of, but the appeal for many viewers was simply that of being ‘allowed’ to laugh at signifiers of ‘black’ identity.

Jolson reportedly felt a strong kinship with black people, and drew many parallels between African and Jewish traditions, music and culture. But the idea of race as performative can never not be fraught. The recent revelation that the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was a white woman who presented as black because that was how she self-identified was received warmly by no one, so retrospectively affording Al Jolson a free pass feels a little weird, even if we are talking a difference in history of 100 years.

Even so, prior to Jolson, black culture had just not been a component of mainstream entertainment, of art, of culture in America. The common complaint against Elvis, of stealing and monetising black music, may also apply to Jolson, yet at least his racial transgressions gouged open a previously non-existent interface between black culture and white America. As support for this, Jolson’s Wikipedia page cites jazz historian Amiri Baraka, who wrote that “the entrance of the white man into jazz did at least bring him much closer to the Negro... the acceptance of jazz by whites marks a crucial moment when an aspect of black culture had become an essential part of American culture.”

Looking at the argument from the other end of the telescope, could it simply have been however that African-Americans tolerated Jolson because, in an era where black Americans lacked access to resources and technology and recordings of blues and jazz music were still largely performed by white entertainers, he represented their one chance to listen to the music they liked on the gramophone or wireless?

Either way, it is perhaps not surprising that some blues experts choose to regard Crazy Blues, Mamie Smith and 1920 as the real year zero of the blues – the point when black music was reclaimed for black audiences, and not rinsed through an array of problematic filters for the appeasement of whites in a brutally segregated New World.


Les Vacances de M. Silver

Featuring : CFCF


Our favourite Grammy nominated purveyor of Phil Collins ambient New Age experimentalism is back!  Back!  On one of our favourite labels no less.

Given the blissful, drifting dreamscape that makes up large parts of CFCF‘s mini-album, On Vacation, International Feel does seem like a good fit.  Although this is the still pond to label boss Mark Barrott’s bird filled forest.

Channelling all the good stuff about Eno’s ambient excursions, Lighthouse on Chatham Sound still keeps CFCF’s oar in with the early 80s AOR  worlds he’s been exploring recently.

A simple looped melody laps back and forth under a blissfully spaced out guitar.  Any key change or accumulation of sound, simply testament to quite how consumed your are by the whole blissful experience  — a fever of relaxation.

CFCF – Lighthouse on Chatham Sound

Lighthouse on Chatham Sound is taken from On Vacation, which is out today.  Get it from Boomkat or other purveyors of fine music.

Dancing music in the C20: Ragtime – 1900-13

Featuring : Vess L. Osman


It was after being sent a download promo of the excellent latest 12″ from Optimo Trax – a banging, previously unreleased early techno number from Muslimgauze – that we began to wonder, what exactly was the first techno record?

Some sources suggest this 1981 12″ as a likely culprit… but we’re getting ahead of ourselves, here. Now is not the time to talk about techno.

But this mini-investigation did lead into an appealing thought experiment. Early techno sounds exciting, partly because it only slightly resembles the music that would later be popularly referred to as techno. It sounds, instead, anomalous, out of time and more futuristic and less generic than the genre music it begat.

This ‘anomalousness’ isn’t unique to early techno, though. It’s inherent to all early adopters who – clunkily or otherwise – take significant enough steps outside of the traditions with which they are familiar and work within, that the work becomes retrospectively worthy of a new classification.

We became a bit obsessed with the taxonomy of this – these overlooked little spawnings of new musical species. So we travelled back in time, beyond techno, to see if we could construct a linear timeline of these new genre arrivals that represent an evolution of music made in the 20th century expressly for the purpose of dancing.

We’ll start at 1900, we thought, and run all the way up until 1999.

Each post in this series – ‘Dancing music in the C20’ – will assess one “period of innovation”. Arbitrarily, we have defined each “period of innovation” as the length of time it took for a given genre to accrue one hour’s worth of A-sides or notable works.

This hour of music (assembled into Spotify playlists by us) therefore represents an album-length birth of a new musical sound. What is fascinating about these compilations is that not only do they not necessarily closely resemble the popular sound of a given genre, they also rarely include a genre’s classic works.

Take disco. If we follow the popular assertion that disco’s artistic pinnacle is Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder’s megalithic 1977 single I Feel Love, we’re talking music that is light years away from the first disco records, such as The Love I Lost (parts 1 and 2) by Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes, which arrived four years earlier, sashaying out of Philly soul’s proverbial primordial ooze.

Or blues. Early blues was really a kind of pop music. It was powered by big bands, you could dance to it, and it had a strong femininity. This was very different music from the popular ‘man on a porch, twanging a guitar and moaning about his ‘woman” stereotype that would pervade blues post-Robert Johnson.

And while Kind of Blue (1957) is the canonical high watermark of jazz, recordings identifiable as jazz were circulating as early as 1917 – though admittedly more dixieland (and, again, ‘pop’) in nature than Miles’ modal hard bop.

So this ‘period of innovation’ proto-genre music that we are proposing to investigate across this occasional series may not necessarily be what is popularly thought of as “the good stuff” but it does represent that music arguably at its most pure and rule-free – when its potential seemed limitless, and its future unknowable.

Crudely copying and pasting all of these historical instances into a century-long timeline isn’t especially scientific or musicological, but it is a kind of fun way of how seeing how humanity’s craving for shaking its ass was mediated by recorded sound across the nascent age of the music industry: the 20th century.

Like any good faux-academic study, here are a list of random rules, strengths and limitations of our investigations:

  • Recorded music only. Improvised, live and orally-transmitted folk songs are all valid musical expressions that have been integral to the evolution not only of dance music, but of music overall. But we just don’t have the scope to go into it here!
  • Contemporaneously-released music only. Sheet music, unreleased gems that would go on to become classics in future decades and Smithsonian Folkways-style stockpiling of audio documents are mostly omitted here in favour of music that was pressed onto shellac or vinyl, mass-produced and marketed and distributed at a relatively wide audience.
  • One music per period. Music does not grow in a linear, clear way. It is a sprawl of division, sub-division and creativity. But we’re lazy assholes, so we’re just going to pick one genre per period of innovation. Where strong evolutions of dancing music occur in parallel, such as techno and house, we’ll pick say house – follow it for the length of time it took that genre to produce its first hour of A-sides, and then see what the next thing to be born was.
  • Each genre on the timeline does not necessarily correspond to the genre that precedes or follows it. The genres that we’re looking at just happen to have been born sequentially, we won’t be trying to carve out a literal link between, for instance early space disco (1976-77) and early dancehall (1977-80) – they just exploded in consecutive instances in the space-time continuum.
  • Music made for dancing only.

All that said, here is our first entry in ‘Dancing music in the C20’:

Ragtime – 1900-13

Ragtime didn’t arrive on the dot at the birth of the century. It evolved out of the previous century’s cakewalk style of dance music, and the man now regarded as it’s chief architect was the musically ambitious composer Scott Joplin, whose ragtime works were published in sheet music form.

By 1901, though, the first ragtime recordings had emerged.

Spotify playlist: Ragtime (1900-13)

Ragtime is an interesting case study in sociopolitics for this experiment. We might reasonably assume that our history of dancing music in the 20th century will largely be driven by African-American innovation. And certainly, ragtime, originated from the black musical communities of St. Louis and Kentucky. The first published composer of ragtime music – the broadway entertainer Ernest Hogan – was black.

But, interestingly, our Spotify playlist of the early ragtime recordings exclusively features work by white American male performers. This perhaps says a lot about which groups had access to new technologies in the early 20th century.

Outside of the issue of resources and technology, by the early 1900s something else had happened that had made ragtime an increasingly mainstream and white music.

Hogan’s second ragtime hit  was a reappropriation of a song he heard a bar pianist in Chicago play, called All Pimps Look Alike To Me. Hogan’s version – All Coons Look Alike To Me – went on to sell over a million in sheet music form.

The success of All Coons Look Alike To Me contributed to the surge of a new kind of ragtime, performed by blackface minstrels (Hogan was a regular on the minstrel circuit) and white recording artists, called Coon Song. Coon Song was a virulently racist popularisation of ragtime that, like minstrel shows, depicted African-Americans as “dim-witted, lazy, buffoonish, superstitious, happy-go-lucky and musical”.

Although Hogan was a proponent of Coon Song, the irony that an innovative and largely African-American musical form could only achieve a mass audience by appealing to the commonplace racism of early-C20 white America was not lost on him, and, by the time of his death in 1909, he had regretted his part in refashioning ragtime – otherwise a liberating, sophisticated and new dance music – as a vulgar parody of black people.

Perhaps the most notable early recording artist of ragtime was the banjo player Vess L. Ossman, who was not immune to the polluting influence of Coon Song – his repertoire of standards included All Coons Look Alike… – but who also drew on the ragtime tradition of hybridising white military marches with African polyrhythms.

Vess L. Ossman – Smoky Mokes

Vess L. Ossman – Rusty Rags

Although ragtime’s popularity was relatively short-lived – supplanted by the new styles of blues and jazz – the 1972 film The Sting saw a renewed interest in the musical form, which finally afforded global popularity and recognition to the author of that film’s soundtrack, Scott Joplin – The King of Ragtime.

The below YouTube clip is a pretty fun explanation of how ragtime contributed in practical terms to dance fads of the 1900s such as the grizzly bear,  the castle walk and even the tango.

There’s an interesting history of the original cakewalk dance over at the StreetSwing website, which suggests the moves of cakewalk were not only a mix of Seminole Native American and African Kaffir traditions, but were performed in plantation dances by black slaves as a heavily-exaggerated parody of the ballroom dancing of the white plantation owners.

Ironically though, the cakewalk became the first dance to successfully crossover from black communities to white American high society (hence the hot-stepping honkies in the banner image for this post).

Its influence was far-reaching enough to inform this 1903 supernatural  dance-horror by George Melies!


The future is disposable, and so are you (1: Solo)

Featuring : Eugene Ward, Kuedo + Photek


Got the chips and enhancements. Got the Attitude right. Got the Metal beneath my skin. I’m chippin in’

This is where we start a new 20JFG series dedicated to soundtracking character roles from the coolest RPG that ever existed, Cyberpunk 2020. The music we use will probably work for Netrunner too.

Most of the text below is excerpted from CP2020’s second edition handbook.  We begin with:

Solos: Hired assassins, bodyguards, killers, soldiers

“You were born with a gun in your hand – the flesh and blood hand, not the metallic weapons factory that covers the other arm. Whether as a freelance guard and killer-for-hire, or as one of the corporate cybersoldiers that enforce business deals and the company’s black operations, you are one of the elite fighting machines of the Cyberpunk world.”

Photek – Ni -Ten – Ichi – Ryu (Two Swords Technique)

{We have vivid memories of the first time we watched the video for Ni Ten Ichi Ryu (Two Swords Technique), Photek’s drum musique concrete tribute to Miyamoto Mushashi. It was through a dial-up modem. Pixels blurred into shadows, swords danced, beats rattled and bodies dropped.

We watched, amazed by the formal beauty, by the functional perfection of this music.}

“Rated SP20. You can walk through fire, just like the holos, choomba.”

Kuedo – Boundary Regulation

{Kuedo’s Assertion of a Surrounding Presence was one of 2015’s (20JFG) unsung heroes, a versatile but tight motherfucker of a record that sounds like Yojimbo if someone turned it into a luridly cool corporate paranoia and cyber-ninja ultraviolence caper.

Boundary Regulation is the nocturnal infiltration gone wrong inside the high-security zen-styled compound where they keep the clones of the Arasaka family.

You can get it from Knives.}

“It’s one thing to smell the fear on your opponent’s skin. But it’s another to get a four-colour digital readout of his terror; a full spectrum recording of his lies and evasions as he desperately tries to save his life

Eugene Ward – Place (Large Group)

{Eugene Ward’s Paint en Ponte contains a set of minimal dance compositions for a collaboration with choreographer Patric Kuo. The function of this music explains why it feels so aligned with today’s theme of balletic lethality.

But there is another connection – the way in which its sounds are hyper-realistically rendered, components of a system that float and fold into each other in front of our eyes, like holograms of an incomprehensible arsenal, or fossils of an alien predator.

We gaze at it fascinated by the conjunction of antithetical concepts, structure and dynamics. And then it jerks forwards, past us, it lands behind full of grace. When our blood sprays the snow, it feels so natural.

Get it from Where to Now}