5/12/11 - it was sex o'clock in america

In today's encore excerpt - for those who thought America's rebellious music and dance started with rock and roll in the 1950s, it was in fact 50 years earlier, it was ragtime, and as in 1950 the "Negro" was wrongly vilified:

"Ragtime might have been percolating throughout the black ghettos since the mid-1890s, but the style's first million-seller was achieved by Irving Berlin, with his 1911 hit 'Alexander's Ragtime Band.' It took a white man to really sell black music, as previously subterranean styles hit the mainstream as exploitable crazes. That was the deal: the new method of exchange.

"Ragtime's crossover success excited unfavorable comment, not the least because of its appeal to youth. The Musical American thought that ragtime was like an addictive drug. In 1913, the Musical Courier stated that America was 'falling prey to the collective soul of the Negro through the influence of what is popularly known as 'rag time' music.' This was nothing less than 'a national disaster,' as ragtime was 'symbolic of the primitive morality and perceptible moral limitations of the Negro type. With the latter sexual restraint is almost unknown, and the wildest latitude of moral uncertainty is conceded.'

"The link between music, race, and sexuality was confirmed in the moralists' eyes by the 'animal dances' that flooded the inner cities after the success of 'Alexander's Ragtime Band.' Beginning with the success of the turkey trot, a very fast and animated dance that evolved out of the nineteenth-century communal cakewalk, a whole bestiary erupted onto the nation's dance floors to the accompaniment of ragtime: dances like the bunny hug, the grizzly bear, the monkey glide, the possum trot, the kangaroo dip. As Irving Berlin noted in his 1911 hit, 'Everybody's doing it now.'

"In the animal dances, participants made up their moves as they went along. Instead of decorously holding each other at arm's length in the formality of the waltz and the polka, dancers whirled around the floor with their arms and legs intertwined. In the turkey trot, the lower half of the woman's body, from waist to knee, was enfolded in the legs of her male partner. The grizzly bear involved a total-body hug that went way beyond previous standards of propriety. This gliding and shimmying was an activity associated with burlesque performers and Negroes, not proper young whites. America's young didn't care. ...

"The craze went uptown. Life magazine reported in February 1912 that animal dances were flourishing 'above, below, and between. The dancing set in our town must be half a million strong.' ... Headlines like 'Movement Begins to Bar 'Turkey Trot' and 'Grizzly Bear' from Fifth Avenue' tapped into a wider panic about plummeting moral standards.

"This was summarized by a hysterical article in the August 1913 issue of Current Opinion, which seethed, 'It has struck Sex O'Clock in America: a wave of sex hysteria and sex discussion seems to have invaded this country.' Animal dances were associated with the increase in blatant prostitution and the prevalence of the white slave trade: the kidnapping and drugging of young girls for sexual purposes. ...

"The reformers and the authorities did their best to police the craze. Unable completely to close down the halls or to extirpate this dancing mania, they began to target the urban zones from which all this vice had originated. Just at the time when black American music was finding a greater national and international audience, red-light districts in San Francisco and St. Louis were segregated and then totally shut down.

"But it was too late as, in defiance of the reformers and the legislators, thousands of American youths continued to throng the dance halls every night of the week."


Jon Savage


Teenage: The Prehistory of Youth Culture:1875-1945


Penguin Books


Copyright 2007 by Jon Savage


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