A history of the hot music and provocative dancing that lit up the Gilded Age.
Cockrell (Emeritus, Musicology/Vanderbilt Univ.; Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World, 1997) offers a colorful panorama of New York City nightlife from 1840 until the start of World War I. In the mid-19th century, music became wild: “exhilarating rhythms, a brassy sound, the thumping bass, and sinuous melodies” responded to—and incited—new dance crazes that swept the nation. Young people, and especially lower-class patrons, flocked to dance halls, a cheap and alluring form of entertainment, where they “tough danced,” a term applied to energetic dances such as “the walk back, the hug-me-tight, the lovers’ two-step” and sexy animal dances, such as the bunny hug, kangaroo squeeze, jackass step, and the grizzly bear. All of them gave men and women a chance to embrace, gyrate their bodies, and twirl madly. In 1909, Cockrell discovered, 95 percent of young working-class women in New York went to dance halls, some every night, most at least once a week. “Shaking of hips, shimmying, twisting, and thrusting of the lower body were all parts of the accepted repertoire of moves,” writes the author. Sex was in the air: in music, dancing, and prostitution, which flourished in dance halls and saloons, inspiring determined private and public reform efforts. Drawing on newspaper reports, court records, song lyrics, reform tracts, and travel guides, among many other sources, Cockrell fashions an abundantly populated narrative featuring musical performers and composers (Irving Berlin, for one, whose hit song gives the book its title), dancers, club owners, madams, prostitutes, gangsters, reformers, preachers, policemen, politicians, and exuberant patrons of dance halls, bars, and saloons—some of which served special clienteles. “Dive,” for example, was a term for a saloon frequented by blacks and whites, located in “below-sidewalk cellars”; when “dive” became applied more broadly to disreputable venues, Black-and-Tan came to refer to racially integrated establishments; and the Slide catered to gay men and women.
A well-researched and spirited cultural history.