MUSIC AND DANCE: The Role They Played In Shaping America … Then And Now

Written by Candace Hardin on October 14, 2016

Music has the power to soothe the savage breast, as the old saying goes, but what other kinds of
power does music and lyrics have on society?

The Golden Age of Radio came into play in earnest in the 1920’s through the 1950’s. Homes had radios in a central location and everyone gathered around to hear the music, programs and serials that characterized each era. Music was a big part of radio, taking the tone from the times and setting the social mood with dancing.

The Roaring 20’s brought dance music to the masses and fueled the fires of gin soaked parties, that existed in spite of the 18th amendment which prohibited the legal manufacture and sell of alcohol. Home stills and bathtub gin freely flowed. The horrible taste of the homemade hooch ushered in the creation of “mixed drinks.” The poor quality of the alcohol necessitated the addition of juice, soda or other mixers to make it palatable.

Up until the enactment of the 18th amendment, whisky was generally consumed straight or with a little mint and water.

The dances included the Charleston, the black bottom and the Lindy Hop, inspired by Lindberg’s famous flight.

Typical lyrics were about love, waiting for the one, waiting for a call, listening to the radio, and simple things pulled from rural life or city living.

The 30’s reflected the hardship of The Great Depression. Music was an escape from the dismal days, and the lyrics remained upbeat to enliven the masses. The Lindy Hop was still a sensation joined by the Jitterbug, Lindy and Swing. Traditional ballroom dancing remained as an alternative to the new dances.

The 40’s music reflected the war, optimism for a bright future, patriotism and hope that the world wide conflict would be over soon. The popular dances remained with the ballroom dancing community leaning toward the Spanish dances, such as Argentine Tango, Spanish Paso Doble, Samba, Merengue etc.

The 50’s refined swing into various categories, such as Western, and specialized forms that arose from local areas. The lyrics of the songs were still speaking of love, rural life, the tragedy of teenage romances along with the fun of being a teenager. Television brought the singers of songs into the American living room, lighting imaginations of young girls, and announcing the “dance sensations that were sweeping the nations,” on programs such as Band Stand, and the Buddy Dean Show etc. Country music was going live on television as well, with The Grand Ole’ Opry leading the way to ABC Barn Dance, The Ford Show and many others.

The homogenous elements to these four decades were love, relationships, God and country. Society had prescribed rules of what kind of behavior was acceptable and consequences for going outside of the accepted norm. Music supported this etiquette. Every line was squeaky clean and generally upbeat, featuring the virtues of living right. Almost all popular artists recorded an album of gospel songs to accompany their secular hits.

Young people received these societal lectures repeatedly from parents, schools and popular media resulting in an environment of perceived perfection, if only one followed the proper protocols for life. Any other course could ruin one’s future and go on one’s permanent record, a fate worse than death that led to exile as a pariah in your community.

Obviously, the perception of perfection in the 50’s was an illusion as the 60’s brought social change, women’s rights, the drug culture and political upheaval.

Music reflected the changes with songs like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, a song about LSD use, Helen Reddy’s, “I Am Woman” and the country women’s movement song by Loretta Lynn, “The Pill”. Jimi Hendrix wanted us to excuse him while he Kissed the Sky, and electric guitar feedback gained popularity. Folk music was in vogue as artists like Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary and the Mamas and the Papas brought back both traditional songs and new protest songs.

There were sit-ins, love-ins, Vietnam War protests, and campus riots, coupled with the Civil Rights Movement. People danced the Watusi, Frug, Twist, Mashed Potato, The Stroll and many others. Go Go dancers wearing Go Go Boots were on all the variety shows, such as Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In, and the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

The 70’s brought the love one another movement, and the music reflected the changes. Disco music brought new dances such as The Hustle. Saturday Night Fever expounded on the disco phase and clubs with mirror balls and strobe lights were all the rage.

Dance Clubs continued into the 80’s with songs of excessive wealth, material longings and more girl power, such as “Material Girl” by Madonna, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper. The girl groups such as Joan Jett and the Heartbreakers, Belinda Carlisle and the Go Go’s and the Bangles broke into the industry in a way that women had never been able to do in previous generations.

The 90’s still have some nice songs to listen to or for dancing. Hip Hop and Rap grew more and more popular, continuing into the new century.

In 2016, there is a mixture of styles. The styles are one thing, but the lyrics can be quite another.

Society’s upheaval is again reflected in the words of the songs.

Many rappers extol the virtues of keeping the “bi***es in line by domestic violence. The spew that comes from some songs are horribly offensive to anyone with a mother, daughter, girlfriend or wife.

Drugs and the “Gangsta” life are glorified. Gangsta actions can include many types of criminal activity. Hate is a main ingredient in songs. Big cities all over the USA have gang activity.

The Pop songs are not much better. You have Miley Cyrus who went from cute, sweet young lady to skank without missing a beat. Her twerking with Alan Thicke on a music awards show to his hit, “Blurred Lines”, is now infamous. “Blurred Lines” has a good beat with a very bad attitude toward women and a form of rape or date rape with the “no means yes” implication.

Is it any wonder that society as a whole is broken? Is there any doubt that morality has gone somewhere, possibly to never be resurrected?

Yes, music has set the mood in the last ten or so decades mirroring society at its best and its worst.

Image: shutterstock_26653588; ID: 26653588; Copyright: Palto

Share if you agree music and dance have incfluenced the ages for good and bad.

Candace Hardin
Candace Hardin resides in Atlanta, Georgia. She is fluent in Spanish and a student of Latin and history. She is a columnist on and has a blog, Originally from North Carolina, her writing and beliefs have been heavily influenced by the Appalachian culture and tradition.