A lot of us grew up hearing about "the '20s"--and even young people today have some concept of the idea. It's the '20s again, whether we're ready for it or not.

Knoxville in the 1920s experienced a flowering of creativity. Part of the excitement was all the new technology of the time. Radio was new--the first real station in Knoxville went on the air in 1922. Movies were bigger and better than ever, with experiments in both color and sound. There were new fads and novelties almost by the week, and some of them, from miniature golf to chop suey, caught on. Women could vote, and the once remote and forbidding Great Smoky Mountains were open to casual visitors who had cars.

Phonograph companies were putting more popular music on record than ever before, especially jazz, blues, and country (usually called "hill-billy" in those days). When music historians think of Knoxville in the '20s, they think of some pioneers of country music. Sterchi Brothers Furniture was sponsoring some of the first country-music records, as early as 1924, and some of the first country-music legends from Fiddlin' John Carson to Uncle Dave Macon were performing shows at the old Market Hall on Market Square.

But there were quite a lot of other styles, too. Violinist Bertha Walburn Clark's "Little Symphony" was performing regularly at the Farragut Hotel. Major international performers including Jascha Heifetz and Sergei Rachmaninoff performed in Gay Street theaters in the '20s. Even Marian Anderson, the famous African American soprano whose appearance at the Lincoln Memorial a decade later would be groundbreaking, performed in Knoxville more than once in the '20s.

But far more popular in 1920s Knoxville than either country music or classical was the new music called Jazz.

Jazz was everywhere. Riverboats offered moonlight jazz dance parties, with live orchestras. Department stores and restaurants sometimes hosted jazz bands. Some restaurants--one in Bearden in particular, known as the Wayside--didn't close after the supper crowd but remained open, sometimes until breakfast, hosting all-night jazz dances.

Radio station WNOX would later be famous for live country music, boosting the careers of Roy Acuff and Chet Atkins before they were famous--but if you look at their program listings in the 1920s, Knoxville's first radio station was broadcasting a whole lot more jazz, both local and national, than anything else.

On UT campus, a new craze was the "manless dance," a jazz dance with only women, half of them dressed as men.

Maynard Baird's Southland Serenaders
Maynard Baird's Southland Serenaders | Courtesy of Tennessee Archive of Moving Images & Sound
Cal Johnson Building
Cal Johnson Building on East Vine Street, 1930s | Courtesy McClung Historical Collection