Monday, April 20, 2020

NRR Project: ‘The Charleston’

‘The Charleston’
Performed by the Golden Gate Orchestra
Recorded April 2, 1925
4:11

There is little I can add to Robert Rawlins’ excellent essay concerning the iconic song and dance on the National Recording Registry website. In clear detail, he outlines its origin and the stories of its originators. He goes on to outline the multitude of talent found on the recording — including Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Red Nichols, and others.

Rawlins goes on to outline the advantages of the “Diamond Disc” recording approach utilized by the Edison Company. The technological advance allowed for better sound quality, as well as a longer recording time — four and one half minutes on a side as opposed to the standard three.

But what made the Charleston such a hit? If ever we think back to that era, we see that herky-jerky solo dance, usually executed by a flapper in a beaded, short-hemmed dress and headband. What WAS the Charleston, anyway?

It’s said to have evolved from competitive dancing among the dockworkers of Charleston, South Carolina. Physically, it’s simple. A step forward, tap, step back, tap, arms akimbo. Anyone could do it without the practice or the partner that was needed for ballroom dancing. It’s best remembered now as a solo dance, although a partnered version soon developed. Compared to the smooth, graceful, floating kind of dance done before, this was sharp, frantic, and emphatic. It also left plenty of room for individual variation.


It captured the energy of the day, the high-flying optimism of America in the afterglow of World War I. Hedonistic and heedless, wild. It meshed well with the hot jazz of the day, spread to night clubs and dancehalls across the country. Though its heyday lasted only from 1925 to 1930, it remained a vivid memory. Now its sits on the shelf of collective thinking about the Roaring Twenties, alongside Prohibition, jazz, radio, and gangsters.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: the first transatlantic radio broadcast.

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