louis armstrongAmerican popular culture greatly developed from 1865 to the 1920s, especially the roles of Jewish-Americans and African-Americans.  In America, popular culture meant what working class and middle class individuals enjoyed for entertainment.  Prior to the twentieth century, popular culture revolved around minstrel shows which introduced banjo music to the populace and popularized the addition of African-American speech to music through the tunes of Stephen Foster.  Entertainment shifted in the 1910s to Vaudeville and nickelodeons.  Vaudeville offered the working class an escape through its skits and black-face routines.  Ragtime music gave way to blues and jazz which were played in clubs during the new night-life.  Organized sports became popular as newspapers highlighted boxing matches and Babe Ruth’s homeruns in baseball.  The literature of Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and Zane Grey celebrated the common man.  The grandest achievement in entertainment, however, was the advent of film.  Films exposed the truth about how people lived, but they also served as an escape from daily life.  By the end of the 1920s, film developed sound in Al Jolsen’s film The Jazz Singer, a story about a Jewish boy who dreamed of becoming a jazz singer against his parent’s wishes.

Jewish-Americans played a significant role in this era of entertainment.  Jews were often over-represented in show-business, but that was because of the role anti-Semitism played.  Jews came to America with liquid assets because they had not been allowed to own land in Europe so they had the needed capital to start their own businesses.  However, anti-Semitism in America shoved them out of regular high-class business leaving only one option: show-business.

Jews-Americans first entered the entertainment sphere through Vaudeville, and many became famous for their black-face routines, such as Al Jolsen and Sophie Tucker.  Stephen Foster was the first composer to make money off his music.  Some of the most famous entertainers of the era were Irving Berlin, Houdini, Fanny Brice, and Eddy Cantor.  Jewish-Americans also founded Hollywood because they wanted to escape the structure of New York Victorianism.  The first Hollywood studios like Goldwyn-Meyer and Rogers and Hammerstein were founded by Jewish-Americans.  In the end, entertainment gave Jews a way to assimilate into American culture, and many changed their names to sound more American.

African-Americans also played a significant role in popular culture.  The biggest cultural contribution by African-Americans was jazz.  New Orleans became the “nursery” for jazz music with musicians like Scott Joplin and Louis Armstrong leading the way into a new musical era.  As interest in African-American culture rose, African-American performers entered many areas of entertainment through minstrel shows, Vaudeville, jazz, blues, and even elitist clubs like the Cotton Club.

At the beginning of the 1920s, African-Americans moved into the cities.  The Harlem Renaissance was started in New York by African-American elites who wrote about ordinary life: James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, and Claude McKay.  The wealth of African-American literature produced during this time challenged the nation about racial assimilation as W.E.B. Du Bois advocated for a civil rights movement.  The 1920s truly became a classical era because of all the events associated with the decade.

– Hannah S. Bowers

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