Flappers, Vamps, and Sweet Young Things


The mass conscription of the First World War led to women replacing men in many factories and offices, where they were industrious, and for the first time liberated from what was often a tedious and boring home life. After the war, many stayed on, finding that a career of their own was a welcome alternative to becoming a household drudge or a fading spinster. They had considerable spending power from their own earnings which they could use without any embargo applied by husbands or fathers. Make-up, cigarettes, drinks and bright clothes were bought in quantities that would have been unthinkable even ten years earlier. Together with their male contemporaries they were ‘The Bright Young Things’, deplored by their elders as debauched, if not seriously depraved; seekers of ever new experiences and the arbiters of popular taste in art, fashion and music.

Flappers, Vamps and Sweet Young Things were by no means the only young women about during the 1920s, but these particular classifications are ones that readily spring to mind when describing the world of the jazz age. Flappers were the young, pretty, good-time girls; barely into their twenties, but already with experiences that their mothers had never known (nor in most cases, would wish to). They went out alone with men at night, danced with them until dawn, drinking ‘White Ladies’, ‘Bronxes’ and other inventively named cocktails, cut their hair as short as men and wore the absolute minimum of clothes. By 1925, skirts had shortened dramatically and now stopped above the knee, showing acres of bare thigh sheathed in sheer silk stockings enticingly topped with gaudy suspenders. The effect was frankly sexual, and startled parents, already horrified by the spread of easy contraception, now feared that casual sex at pajama parties would lead their young daughters into prostitution.

The Sweet Young Things were barely distinguishable from the Flappers, except that they tended to have posher accents, better fingernails and looked down demurely when talking to men. They were just as slim, just as pretty but did not giggle quite so much, and usually did not work, having a doting father somewhere in the background to pick up the bills. The Vamps, on the other hand, were quite different. They were usually slightly older, very curvy (if not plump) and often already married. Men were in awe of their predatory reputations and Flappers suspicious of the comfortable and easy techniques they were supposed to have evolved to ensnare their prey. 

On this album, twenty of the most popular girl singers of the period reflect in music the interests, aspirations and affections of the new modern woman of the 1920s. Marion Harris sums up the Flappers appreciation of jazz… “Classics don’t mean a thing at all, give me a hot band in a hall. A wicked saxophone has me on the go and when a cornet goes ‘oo-wa’, I’m in for the night. I like my music hot! I’m off my nut about the strut – The Blues Have Got Me now…” Jane Green’s adenoidal I’m Gonna Meet My Sweetie Now gives a spirited insight into the Flapper’s everyday preoccupations – new hats, manicures, shampoos and boyfriends… “Oh what kisses and petting I’ll soon be getting – I can hardly wait!” If she shared Zelma O’Neal’s beau, she would probably have to, as he is painfully shy… “I look for your petting, but what am I getting? What are we waiting for? Oh Do Something to me…” Margaret Young’s Red Hot Henry Brown could scarcely be more different, a toe-tapping extravert who dances the Charleston all night long and who would make the ideal companion for Helen Kane’s Dangerous Nan McGrew. The song has a classic opening line… “I’ve been a bad girl all my life, I pick my teeth with a carving knife…” Kane was the archetypal Flapper with her thin and squeaky voice and her records and films were extremely popular. The most popular singer of all was Ruth Etting, heard here in Irving Berlin’s It All Belongs To Me, a slightly ambiguous song, as the verse suggests that it should be performed by a man. However, Ruth’s clever phrasing soon makes it clear that she is really singing about herself… “100 pounds of what is mighty neat, a million dollars of flying hips, I’ll let you look but you mustn’t touch…”

Lilian Roth was a Flapper in real life as well as imitating them on the screen. She got involved with drink and drugs and her own tragic life story was turned into the 1950s film ‘I’ll Cry Tomorrow’ starring Susan Hayward as Lilian. This rare soundtrack recording of Why Am I So Romantic? shows a girl newly in love and enthralled by it… “All the boys used to say I was made of stone, colder than Frigidaire – till you came along…” For a Flapper’s manual of love-making, listen to Esther Walker’s Ya Gotta Know How To Love… “Nobody’s hard to get, all they need is a shove – gaze into his eyes, sigh little sighs and tell little lies…” The boisterous performance makes the lyric very believable.

The Vamps had some difficulty in transferring their cushiony delights to wax. Singers who indicated this ideal usually did so with langorous songs of unrequited love delivered in a throaty and husky purr, although there were also the Red Hot Mamas, who gave direct and straightforward advice. Sophie Tucker was an absolute mistress of this, and If Your Kisses Can’t Hold The Man You Love is a charter for the wives of adulterous husbands… “Laugh and the world laughs with you, weep and you sleep alone…” Blossom Seeley was another cheerful and outgoing personality. She is heard in a musical catalogue of her man’s attributes and talents… “With a new kind of bliss that couldn’t miss, he’s A New Kind Of Man, With A New Kind Of Love For Me…”

In the 1940s, Kate Smith was to become the voice of America in song (rather like Gracie Fields in Britain and Gladys Moncrieff in Australia), but in the late 20s she was a young up and coming singer, and among her best work was Maybe, Who Knows? a song of imminent separation part-written by Ruth Etting. I’ll Get By is now a standard, but when it was recorded by Aileen Stanley in 1929, it was simply another ‘love will conquer all’ song. She has put her man on a pedestal, and despite rain, darkness and poverty, hopes he will stay around. Naturally enough, he does not, and Moanin’ Low describes the time later in the day, when he has finally gone. This classic recording by Lee Morse (complete with Mae West groans) has a rather self-pitying lyric, as do so many songs in this genre, but the superb playing of her Blue Grass Boys raises it far above bathos. The song was orginally sung by Libby Holman, who specialised in these ‘doom along with me’ numbers, and her other great hit, Am I Blue, is in the same vein of rejected love. Continental singers were adept in this type of work, and Greta Keller’s Blue In My Heart brings back a sense of perspective… “What can I do, now that we’re through – I go on…” Mildred Hunt, having finally split up from her lover makes the civilised request, Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone.

The Sweet Young Things are in shorter supply on record, much as they were in reality. Annette Hanshaw really was sweet though, with a fresh style of eager innocence. You Wouldn’t Fool Me, Would You? finds her worried about the long-term intentions of her boyfriend, but she sings the second chorus as a glorious impersonation of her close friend, Helen Kane, who coached her for the role. Gertrude Lawrence may sound sweet, but the Gershwin brothers wrote a very knowing song for her in … “Do Do Do what I do do do adore, baby, you know what a beau should do baby…”

Helen Morgan’s You Remind Me Of A Naughty Springtime Cuckoo, with Hutch’s delicate piano, is all about adultery, but disguised as maidenly innocence genteely decribed as… “Investigating someone else’s nest…” Finally, three very Sweet Young Things in the Brox Sisters, in a salutation to Red Hot Mama, the sweetest girl in town who is so hot she melted all the snow at the North Pole and should be in the Ziegfeld Follies.

Many of the singers heard on this record were in the Ziegfeld Follies, or in vaudeville or musical comedy. Some had reputations which have lasted to the present, sadly many have been almost forgotten in the fifty-odd years since the original recordings were made. Yet all of them, in their various ways, celebrate the exuberance of the Twenties. All of the songs are in one way or another about sex. Sometimes overt, more often direct and to the point, and all with an immense amount of charm. The real Flappers, Vamps and Sweet Young Things of the 20s eventually grew up and became respectable citizens, ready in their turn to be outraged by the antics of their own daughters. I suppose that if any one thing is a constant in life, it is the older generation’s perennial certainty of the wickedness of youth. So if any young punks should happen upon this record – don’t worry, you too will have your turn to be Mrs. Grundy.