Musical Space: Prohibition

Jan 15, 2019

Prohibition began with the ratification of the 18th Amendment on Jan. 16, 1919. This didn’t change much here in Kansas: We had a constitutional ban on alcohol going back to 1880. But it did put Kansans into the national divide between the partygoers and the teetotalers. 

The former group is always the trendsetters; forcing drinkers underground in effect made lawlessness stylish and lucrative. Popular musicians found themselves caught up in the same economic infrastructure as speakeasies, bootleggers, and gangsters. This was the jazz age, and I think the millions that went into the liquor trade was what made jazz popular.

We think of it happening in New York, where the upper class would “take the A train up to Harlem,” drink, and dance to Duke Ellington’s band at the Cotton Club when they wanted to feel naughty. But crime in our region was no less organized or swanky. The business of Kansas City crime boss Tom Pendergast guaranteed that illegal clubs would thrive there, fostering a jazz scene that was every bit as vibrant as that of New York, and the territory bands that played there made their way to Wichita, too.

(Music: Duke Ellington, “Cotton Club Stomp,” (recorded 1929)


Sadly, live music no longer carries the budget or illicit thrill of organized crime, but we can pretend. A couple newer local venues are billing themselves as “speakeasies” and, just like the cocktail recipes that were designed to mask the flavor of bathtub gin, we can still enjoy the music made for the scofflaws of a century ago.


Listening list:


Walter Page w/ The Oklahoma City Blue Devils, “Squabblin’” (recorded Kansas City, 1929)

Walter Page was from Kansas City area, ran his territory band between Kansas City, Wichita, and Oklahoma City. That’s a young Count Basie playing the piano intro.

Bennie Moten w/ the Kansas City Orchestra, “Pass Out Lightly,” (recorded 1927, Kansas City)


Mississippi Sheiks, “Bootlegger's Blues” (1930)

Country blues

Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy “Drunken Barrelhouse Blues” (1934)

More country blues

Jerry Hahn Brotherhood, Captain Bobby Stout (1970)

Written by Lane Tietgen, Kansas songwriter for The Serfs; wrote 7 of the 10 songs on that album.
Not about liquor per se., but a different type of prohibition