Lost SoundsBlacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919
University of Illinois PressCopyright © 2005 Tim Brooks
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780252073076
Introduction LOST, STOLEN, OR STRAYED?
One of the most honored television documentaries of the late 1960s was a CBS NewsHour written by Andy Rooney and Perry Wolff called "Black History: Lost, Stolen,or Strayed?" That title kept coming back to me during the years in which this bookwas being researched. African Americans made significant contributions to the recordingindustry in its formative years, from 1890 to 1919, and their recordings revealmuch about evolving African American culture during that period. Yet little ofthat aural history is now available, and less has been written about it. Is this anotherpiece of black history that is lost, stolen, or strayed?
The stories of the first black recording artists turned out to be fascinating onseveral levels. It would be easy to write a book about the injustices done to AfricanAmericans over the course of the nation's history. From the cold shackles of slaveryto the more subtle discrimination of modern times, America's attitude towardits black citizens has always been a stain on the national character and a source ofembarrassment. The examples are many and obvious. As tempting as it might be tofocus solely on the racial injustices of early twentieth-century America, it is arguablymore productive-and helpful to our own time-to examine the ways in whichthose injustices were gradually ameliorated. How did change come about?
The stories of the first black recording artists are stories not only of barriers, butof how some of those barriers were reduced. Progress-slow and halting, to be sure-was won not so much by changes in the law, or by dramatic confrontations between"good" and "evil," as by the actions of ordinary people who when faced with instancesof unfairness quietly and without fanfare "did the right thing." Throughtheir actions they acknowledged that the "color line" was fundamentally wrong. Westill have a considerable distance to travel in ensuring equal rights for all. The lessonsof those times can help guide us today.
One agent of change that has been little recognized was the early recording industry.
The First Modern Mass Medium
Before television, before radio, before even motion pictures, an earlier mass mediumbegan paving the way for the shared social experience that has so profoundlychanged modern society. It startled and amazed the citizens of the late nineteenthcentury. Who could ever have imagined an entertainer, orator, or famous personbeing "bottled up," only to spring to life, as if by magic, simultaneously in hundredsof remote locations? Nothing in five thousand years of human history anticipatedsuch a possibility. And yet here it was-recorded sound.
The public was first teased with the possibility of "bottling sound" in 1878 whenthirty-one-year-old inventor Thomas A. Edison demonstrated his new tinfoil phonograph.At first it was only a laboratory curiosity. Not until a decade or so later didmore or less permanent wax cylinder recordings of singers, orators, and jokesmithsbegin to be heard in hamlets across America. Eventually even presidential candidatessent out prerecorded speeches on cylinders and discs in which they personallyexplained the issues and exhorted voters. The idea that a singer or speaker couldbe heard across the land, and that a person could be heard after death, was nothingshort of a miracle, even to citizens in the Age of Wonders.
Generally overlooked has been the effect this revolution had on the integrationof minorities into the social mainstream. Jews, Italians, and others who wouldhardly have been welcomed into the neighborhood in person carried their culturalvalues into many a genteel Victorian parlor through the medium of recordings.Once there, it can be argued, they gradually became less threatening. Blacks facedthe most difficult challenge of all. Considered no more than animal chattel in thedays of slavery, barely thirty years earlier, they lived in a rigidly segregated, inferiorworld. Entertainment was one of the few fields in which they could achieve someprominence, but until the advent of mass media this was largely a localized phenomenon.It was one thing for a black man named Bert Williams to become a stagestar in liberal New York, but once his recordings began to be bought and played inhomes and neighborhood entertainment establishments everywhere, at least asmall step had been taken toward the acceptance of his race.
Blacks' entry into the recording studio was not easily accomplished, but it tookplace much earlier than most historians acknowledge. Our focus will be on the firstthirty years of the industry, from 1890 to 1919, prior to the explosion in black recordingin the 1920s. These are the stories of the very first black recording artists.
Mass Media and the Integration of Minorities into the Mainstream
Several overarching themes emerge from these performers' biographies. The firstis the way in which a new technology provided opportunities for a minority thatwas excluded from other fields of endeavor. Then, as now, technology tended togradually break down social barriers. The white, and mostly young, entrepreneurswho were struggling to build the new recording industry did not set out to changethe social order. They simply did not have the luxury of enforcing irrational socialconventions like "the color line." Looked down upon themselves by more establishedinterests, such as banking and commerce, the "talking machine men" recruitedany performer who could induce people to buy their records and drop nickelsinto their automatic music machines. If that was a black man singing "TheWhistling Coon" or a black quartet singing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," so be it.In the same way that media such as movies, radio, and television would later opendoors to previously excluded minorities, the new medium of recording offeredblacks an opportunity to be heard across America precisely because it was not runby the old-line, white establishment.
Despite the relative openness of the recording industry, any path was rarely easyfor blacks during this era. Considering what these pioneers had to overcome, theirstories resemble a kind of "profiles in black courage." George W. Johnson, an ex-slave,could gain employment only by singing songs mocking his own race; likewise,Williams and Walker had to begin as "Two Real Coons" before stardom allowedthem to soften their material. Even then they were boycotted by bigoted white performerslike Walter C. Kelly, who would not appear on the same stage with them.In 1910 Williams was almost prevented from joining the Ziegfeld Follies due to theprotests of white cast members. To placate them, Florenz Ziegfeld promised thatWilliams would not appear on stage with any white females.
Conservatory-trained baritone Carroll Clark chafed at being allowed to sing onlysentimental songs about the Old South, while his picture was never published andhis label concealed his race. Charley Case, a very popular stage humorist, lived withan even greater frustration, the persistent rumor that he was "passing for white." Heeventually shot himself. On the other side of the racial divide, Polk Miller, a wealthywhite Southerner and apologist for slavery, toured American with a black quartetillustrating the black music he had grown up with on his father's Virginia plantation.His 1909 Edison recordings are perhaps the most direct musical link we haveto black music in the pre-Civil War South. Ironically, he was forced to quit touringby the same prejudice he had encouraged when audiences refused to accept a whiteman on stage with blacks.
Others tackled barriers no less formidable. Jim Europe fought successfully toestablish high musical standards and improved working conditions for black musiciansin New York, despite opposition from white unions. He pioneered in bringingsyncopated black music to a white audience through his records. He faced downracists in the South during his Army days and became a war hero in France beforebeing stabbed to death by one of his own musicians in 1919. His protege, DanKildare, was on the path to a brilliant career as a bandleader and composer when heapparently fell under the influence of drugs and died in a triple homicide in Londonin 1920.
Crusty composer Will Marion Cook fought other types of battles. After payinghis dues in early black theater, he began to insist on artistic integrity and music thatreflected his black heritage in the face of commercial pressures to do otherwise. Theteam of Sissle and Blake, on the other hand, largely "sold out" and gave the whitefolks what they wanted. They nevertheless achieved unparalleled success, and reopenedthe Broadway stage to black musicals in the early 1920s.
Roland Hayes overcame incredible odds to make the first records of black concertmusic. W. C. Handy showed that a black man could extract himself from theclutches of white publishers and successfully own and publish his own music. Itwasn't easy, and he almost lost everything in the early 1920s. Almost every story toldhere contains examples of the struggle to bring black musical culture to America.
A second major theme that emerges from these stories concerns how whitesinteracted with these early black artists. Race relations in the United States were nota simple matter of black versus white. To be sure there were extremists, dyed-in-the-woolracists who fought fiercely to maintain the status quo, and reformers whofought just as strongly for equality. Most whites were somewhere in the middle.Many accepted the prevailing assumption that blacks were an inferior class (e.g.,ethnomusicologist Natalie Curtis Burlin's patronizing characterization of them as"a child-race") but nevertheless provided a helping hand. Sometimes they evendefied the law, as in the case of the Moore family of pre-Civil War Virginia whenthey took George W. Johnson into their home and taught him to read and write.Later the son of Johnson's one-time owner came to his defense in a questionablemurder trial, as did numerous other whites who knew him. White boxing authoritiesand some politicians intervened on behalf of Jack Johnson when racists weretrying to run him out of the sport, and even biased newspapers had to admit thathe had won his title fairly. Vernon and Irene Castle enthusiastically promoted thecareer of black bandleader Jim Europe, as did Joan Sawyer that of Dan Kildare (Sawyerwas a suffragist, which may have given her some perspective on what it meantto be denied one's rights). Showman Flo Ziegfeld was color-blind in promoting BertWilliams and bandleader Ford Dabney, and many white hands helped Sissle andBlake, W. C. Handy, Roland Hayes, and Harry T. Burleigh further their careers.
On a human level segregation and "the color line" collided with a basic Americanvalue-that of fairness. This was perhaps most blindingly clear in the case of JackJohnson. Eventually, something had to give.
How It All Began: The Birth of the Recording Industry
The phonograph was invented, as most schoolchildren know, by Thomas A. Edisonin 1877. It was first demonstrated to the public the following year. Edison's originalinvention was a clumsy affair that recorded indentations on a strip of tinfoilwrapped around a revolving drum. It was barely audible, and a few playings of anewly recorded piece of tinfoil quickly obliterated it. Moreover, the tinfoil could notbe removed from the drum without destroying it-hence, there were no permanentrecordings. The fact that sound had been reproduced at all was a miracle, but clearlythe equipment needed a lot of work. Unfortunately, after several months of demonstratingthe device to an easily-awed public, Edison was compelled to put it asidein order to concentrate on his rapidly developing (and more lucrative) electric light.
For nearly ten years the phonograph lay fallow, a laboratory curiosity. Otherinventors puttered with it and gradually improved it enough to arouse Edison's jealousyand anger. It had been, after all, his invention. In 1886, with characteristicenergy, he plunged back into the field and within a year produced an improvedmachine, recording on more or less "permanent," removable, wax cylinders. At firstboth Edison and his competitors believed the phonograph's principal use would befor business dictation and for household appliances such as talking clocks. Whatmay be the oldest playable recording now in existence (from c. 1878) is in fact thevoice of a man slowly reciting "one o'clock, two o'clock, three o'clock...."
The production of entertainment records began on a small scale in 1888 byEdison and a few local companies, but it remained for a group of entrepreneurs inWashington, D.C., to become the principal promoters of recordings as an entertainmentmedium. Their enterprise was incorporated in 1889 as the Columbia PhonographCompany and is the lineal ancestor of today's Sony/CBS Records. At first theirproducts were sold not to individuals but to exhibitors who demonstrated them atfairs and in other public places. Automatic music machines (much later dubbed"jukeboxes") were set up where curious patrons could drop a coin in the slot andhear the latest popular song. The first commercial phonographs were large, expensive,battery-driven units. By the late 1890s smaller and less expensive spring-drivenmodels had been developed and were being sold to the public at large. Records, bothcylinders and the newer discs, began to find their way into the home.
During the 1890s few established performers deigned to record for the fledglingphonograph companies, which probably could not have afforded them anyway. Foran established star, stage work was far more lucrative, and the primitive, squawkingphonograph was a novelty item some felt was "beneath" them. In addition,recording required a special kind of voice, one that penetrated through the still-severelimitations of the technology and could at least be understood. Clarity andarticulation were greatly valued (how times have changed!). Women generally didnot record well, nor did softer instruments such as the piano or ensemble strings.As a result, most recordings were made by the same small group of performers, littleknown in the larger world of entertainment and located mostly in the recordingcenters of the Northeast. Virtually all of them were white, as were the businessmenwho ran the industry. The phonograph was a white middle-class toy, and in the rigidlysegregated America of the 1890s the idea that this "mass" medium might reachinto other strata of society scarcely occurred to most people. Anyone, that is, exceptthe hard-pressed recording companies struggling to survive. A dollar is a dollar, andseveral of the early entrepreneurs recognized that their white customers would payto hear blacks entertain them on those coin-in-the-slot juke boxes, and at least someblacks would pay to hear "their own."