The Roaring Twenties

The Great War was over. It felt like victory. An entire generation had been exposed to foreign culture and returned with high expectations for a prosperous future. The industrial revolution had helped create a vast middle class that was ready to enjoy its leisure time and extra spending money. It was an era of prosperity and optimism.

Despite the efforts of the temperance movement to stop the evil influence of alcohol, there were no shortages. Speakeasies and bathtub gin were the order of the day. Without government regulation the drinks could be as strong as the public demanded. Before prohibition, it was rare to see a non-working girl in a bar. After prohibition, it appeared that everyone drank. It was much more exciting that way.

It was the “Roaring Twenties”: the decade of the model T, the first transatlantic flight, the $5 work day and moving pictures. Anything was possible. The action and the money were in-town and the nation responded by flocking to urban areas. Calvin Coolidge declared that the business of America was business. For the first time in our history the average citizen could participate in the ups and downs of Wall Street.

It was the decade of the Flapper, the raccoon coat, ukuleles on college campus’, Jazz, Dixieland and urban nightlife. The music was raucous and danceable. Dance Halls flourished. Men and women just wanted to cut loose. The pre-marital birth rate rose to a level that wasn’t matched until the 1970s.

At the same time, the twenties can be seen as a period of growing intolerance and isolation. It witnessed the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the anti-radical hysteria of the Palmer raids, restrictive immigration laws and prohibition. Taken as a whole, the decade can be seen as a period of contradiction: of great hope and great despair, of increasing and decreasing faith, of rising optimism and falling into cynicism. In other words, a wild time of cultural turbulence.

Musical examples of the Twenties

‘The Charleston’, by composer/pianist James P. Johnson, originated in the Broadway show ‘Runnin’ Wild’ in 1923. It was a dance that became one of the most popular hits of the decade. The African-American jazz rhythm fit the tenor of the time and entered mainstream dance music.


Salvatore Massaro (October 25th, 1902 – March 26th, 1933), better known as Eddie Lang, was considered by some to be the first modern Jazz guitar virtuoso. He played a role in the development of the jazz sound on the 1920s that became ‘mainstream’ through movies, radio and recordings. He worked with the greats — Frankie Trumbauer, Jack Teagarden, Jean Goldkette, Paul Whiteman, Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman, Bessie Smith, Roger Wolfe Kahn, Smith Ballew, Fred Rich, Red Nichols, Noel Taylor, Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards, King Oliver, Hoagy Carmichael, Don Vorhees, Adrian Rollini, and Lonnie (J.C.) Johnson. His most famous association was with violinist Joe Venuti, with whom he recorded under many different titles. In 1933 a botched operation unexpectedly ended Lang’s life.

Eddie Lang was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of an Italian-American banjo and guitar maker. He began studying violin and sight reading at age 7 and stuck with the lessons for 11 years. At age 9, his father fashioned a small guitar. The boy eagerly took to the new instrument. While in school he became friends with violinist Joe Venuti. The two hit it off musically and continued to work together throughout Lang’s carrier. Their work over the next decade as a jazz duet would set the stage for a young Django Reinhardt in France to team with English classical violinist Stephan Grappelli and reshape the sound of swing in both Europe and the US.

By 1918 Lang was playing violin, banjo, and guitar semi-professionally. His focus at the time was tenor banjo, but this expanded to a hybrid 6-string guitar-banjo (the same way Django Reinhardt started). By 1922 he was easily finding musical work and by 1923 he fully made the transition to guitar.

He worked with various bands in the American North-East, and briefly in London (late 1924 to early 1925), finally settling in New York City. He had no trouble finding work with the jazz bands and musicians of the day for accompaniment on recordings, radio and film – all new forms of public media.

On February 4th, 1927, Lang was featured in the recording of “Singin’ the Blues” by Frankie Trumbauer and His Orchestra featuring Bix Beiderbecke on cornet. Lang traded guitar licks with Beiderbecke on cornet. The session became a landmark jazz recording of the 1920s.

In 1928 and 1929 Lang played under the pseudonym Blind Willie Dunn on a number of blues records with New Orleans legendary guitarist Lonnie Johnson.

In 1929 he joined Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra and appeared in the movie The King of Jazz, the first color feature film.

In 1930 Lang played guitar on the original recording of the jazz and pop standard “Georgia On My Mind”, recorded with Hoagy Carmichael and His Orchestra. Joe Venuti and Bix Beiderbecke also played on these sessions.

In 1931, Bing Crosby became the nation’s top vocalist and decided to leave the Whitman organization and strike out on his own. Eddie Lang left with him as his accompanist.

In 1932, Lang can be seen with Crosby in the 1932 movie Big Broadcast.

Lang died following a tonsillectomy in New York City in 1933 at the age of 30. He had been urged by Crosby to have the tonsillectomy so that he might have speaking parts in Crosby’s films. Lang’s voice was chronically hoarse, and it was hoped that the operation would remedy this. The operation did not go well and Lang died of excessive bleeding.

Eddie Lang played a Gibson L-4 and L-5 guitar. The L-5 was new — an ‘F’ hole archtop redesigned by Lloyd Loar for Gibson to increase the instrument’s volume and projection. The guitar-buying public hadn’t yet come to appreciate the new developments until Eddie Lang gained prominence in film and recordings. Suddenly, the new instrument design gained popularity as the Jazz instrument of choice — it was an ideal rhythm instrument (chording & comping) and a powerfully expressive solo instrument. It worked equally well in an orchestral setting, as a combo instrument, as a duet rhythm and solo instrument and as single accompaniment to vocals.

Eddie Lang’s compositions (based on the Red Hot Jazz database) included “Wild Cat” with Joe Venuti, “Perfect” with Frank Signorelli, “April Kisses” (1927), “Sunshine,” “Melody Man’s Dream,” “Goin’ Places,” “Black and Blue Bottom,” “Bull Frog Moan”, “Rainbow Dreams”, “Feelin’ My Way”, “Eddie’s Twister”, “Really Blue”, “Penn Beach Blues”, “Wild Dog”, “Pretty Trix”, “A Mug of Ale”, “Apple Blossoms”, “Beating the Dog”, “To To Blues”, “Running Ragged”, “Kicking the Cat”, “Cheese and Crackers,” “Doin’ Things,” “Blue Guitars”, “Guitar Blues” with Lonnie Johnson, “Hot Fingers,” “Have to Change Keys to Play These Blues,” “A Handful of Riffs”, “Blue Room”, “Deep Minor Rhythm Stomp”, “Two-Tone Stomp.” “Midnight Call Blues,” “Four String Joe,” “Goin’ Home,” and “Pickin’ My Way” (1932) with Carl Kress.

George Van Eps said of the legacy of Eddie Lang: “It’s very fair to call Eddie Lang the father of jazz guitar”.

Barney Kessel described him: “Eddie Lang first elevated the guitar and made it artistic in jazz.”

Les Paul credited him: “Eddie Lang was the first and had a very modern technique.”

In 1977, Lang’s recording of “Singin’ the Blues” with Frankie Trumbauer and His Orchestra featuring Bix Beiderbecke on cornet was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

In 1986, Lang was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame.

It can be said that Eddie Lang was the first ‘Jazz Guitar Star’ and the single most important jazz guitarist in the world until the rise of Django Reinhardt in 1934 and Charlie Christian in 1939. Before Lang, the banjo was the stringed instrument of Jazz. His prominence on the guitar and exposure by movies, radio and recording was a strong influence on many banjo players of the age to switch to guitar. After all, he was the epitome of ‘cool’ at the time — he made the guitar seem to be the natural jazz instrument of the age.

By recording with Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, King Oliver & Lonnie Johnson he helped expose the American public to the true roots of jazz and blues and helped diminish the race barrier of the day.

Nick Lucas (1897-1982) was also starting his career as a guitar man. Lucas would become the inspiration for players like Merle Travis and Chet Atkins. Among his many contributions to the music of the day were some of the first recorded guitar instrumentals.

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