Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919by Tim Brooks
The first in-depth history of the involvement of African Americans in the earliest years of recording, this book examines the first three decades of sound recording in the United States, charting the surprising role black artists played in the period leading up to the Jazz Age. Applying more than thirty years of scholarship, Tim Brooks identifies key black artists who recorded commercially in a wide range of genres and provides revealing biographies of some forty of these audio pioneers. Brooks assesses the careers and recordings of George W. Johnson, Bert Williams, George Walker, Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, W. C. Handy, James Reese Europe, Wilbur Sweatman, Harry T. Burleigh, Roland Hayes, Booker T. Washington, and boxing champion Jack Johnson, as well as a host of lesser-known voices.
Many of these pioneers faced a difficult struggle to be heard in an era of rampant discrimination and "the color line," and their stories illuminate the forces -- both black and white -- that gradually allowed African Americans greater entree into the mainstream American entertainment industry. The role played by the new mass medium of sound recording in enabling change is also explored. Because they were viewed as "novelty" or "folk" artists, nearly all of these African Americans were allowed to record in their own distinctive styles, and in practically every genre: popular music, ragtime, jazz, cabaret, classical, spoken word, poetry, and more. The sounds they preserved reflect the evolving black culture of that tumultuous and creative period. The book also discusses how many of these historic recordings are withheld from students and scholars today because of stringent U.S. copyright laws. Lost Sounds includes Brooks's selected discography of CD reissues, and an appendix by Dick Spottswood describing early recordings by black artists in the Caribbean and South America.
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Lost SoundsBLACKS AND THE BIRTH OF THE RECORDING INDUSTRY, 1890-1919
By Tim Brooks
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2004 Tim Brooks
All right reserved.
IntroductionLOST, STOLEN, OR STRAYED?
One of the most honored television documentaries of the late 1960s was a CBS News Hour 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 book was being researched. African Americans made significant contributions to the recording industry in its formative years, from 1890 to 1919, and their recordings reveal much about evolving African American culture during that period. Yet little of that aural history is now available, and less has been written about it. Is this another piece of black history that is lost, stolen, or strayed?
The stories of the first black recording artists turned out to be fascinating on several levels. It would be easy to write a book about the injustices done to African Americans over the course of the nation's history. From the cold shackles of slavery to the more subtle discrimination of modern times, America's attitude toward its black citizens has always been a stain on the national character and a source of embarrassment. The examples are many and obvious. As tempting as it might be to focus solely on the racial injustices of early twentieth-century America, it is arguably more productive-and helpful to our own time-to examine the ways in which those injustices were gradually ameliorated. How did change come about?
The stories of the first black recording artists are stories not only of barriers, but of 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 instances of unfairness quietly and without fanfare "did the right thing." Through their actions they acknowledged that the "color line" was fundamentally wrong. We still have a considerable distance to travel in ensuring equal rights for all. The lessons of 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 medium began paving the way for the shared social experience that has so profoundly changed modern society. It startled and amazed the citizens of the late nineteenth century. Who could ever have imagined an entertainer, orator, or famous person being "bottled up," only to spring to life, as if by magic, simultaneously in hundreds of remote locations? Nothing in five thousand years of human history anticipated such a possibility. And yet here it was-recorded sound.
The public was first teased with the possibility of "bottling sound" in 1878 when thirty-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 did more or less permanent wax cylinder recordings of singers, orators, and jokesmiths begin to be heard in hamlets across America. Eventually even presidential candidates sent out prerecorded speeches on cylinders and discs in which they personally explained the issues and exhorted voters. The idea that a singer or speaker could be heard across the land, and that a person could be heard after death, was nothing short of a miracle, even to citizens in the Age of Wonders.
Generally overlooked has been the effect this revolution had on the integration of minorities into the social mainstream. Jews, Italians, and others who would hardly have been welcomed into the neighborhood in person carried their cultural values into many a genteel Victorian parlor through the medium of recordings. Once there, it can be argued, they gradually became less threatening. Blacks faced the most difficult challenge of all. Considered no more than animal chattel in the days of slavery, barely thirty years earlier, they lived in a rigidly segregated, inferior world. Entertainment was one of the few fields in which they could achieve some prominence, 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 stage star in liberal New York, but once his recordings began to be bought and played in homes and neighborhood entertainment establishments everywhere, at least a small step had been taken toward the acceptance of his race.
Blacks' entry into the recording studio was not easily accomplished, but it took place much earlier than most historians acknowledge. Our focus will be on the first thirty years of the industry, from 1890 to 1919, prior to the explosion in black recording in 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 first is the way in which a new technology provided opportunities for a minority that was excluded from other fields of endeavor. Then, as now, technology tended to gradually break down social barriers. The white, and mostly young, entrepreneurs who were struggling to build the new recording industry did not set out to change the social order. They simply did not have the luxury of enforcing irrational social conventions like "the color line." Looked down upon themselves by more established interests, such as banking and commerce, the "talking machine men" recruited any performer who could induce people to buy their records and drop nickels into their automatic music machines. If that was a black man singing "The Whistling 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 open doors to previously excluded minorities, the new medium of recording offered blacks an opportunity to be heard across America precisely because it was not run by the old-line, white establishment.
Despite the relative openness of the recording industry, any path was rarely easy for blacks during this era. Considering what these pioneers had to overcome, their stories 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 allowed them to soften their material. Even then they were boycotted by bigoted white performers like 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 the protests of white cast members. To placate them, Florenz Ziegfeld promised that Williams would not appear on stage with any white females.
Conservatory-trained baritone Carroll Clark chafed at being allowed to sing only sentimental songs about the Old South, while his picture was never published and his label concealed his race. Charley Case, a very popular stage humorist, lived with an even greater frustration, the persistent rumor that he was "passing for white." He eventually shot himself. On the other side of the racial divide, Polk Miller, a wealthy white Southerner and apologist for slavery, toured American with a black quartet illustrating 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 have to black music in the pre-Civil War South. Ironically, he was forced to quit touring by the same prejudice he had encouraged when audiences refused to accept a white man on stage with blacks.
Others tackled barriers no less formidable. Jim Europe fought successfully to establish high musical standards and improved working conditions for black musicians in New York, despite opposition from white unions. He pioneered in bringing syncopated black music to a white audience through his records. He faced down racists in the South during his Army days and became a war hero in France before being stabbed to death by one of his own musicians in 1919. His protege, Dan Kildare, was on the path to a brilliant career as a bandleader and composer when he apparently fell under the influence of drugs and died in a triple homicide in London in 1920.
Crusty composer Will Marion Cook fought other types of battles. After paying his dues in early black theater, he began to insist on artistic integrity and music that reflected his black heritage in the face of commercial pressures to do otherwise. The team of Sissle and Blake, on the other hand, largely "sold out" and gave the white folks what they wanted. They nevertheless achieved unparalleled success, and reopened the Broadway stage to black musicals in the early 1920s.
Roland Hayes overcame incredible odds to make the first records of black concert music. W. C. Handy showed that a black man could extract himself from the clutches of white publishers and successfully own and publish his own music. It wasn't easy, and he almost lost everything in the early 1920s. Almost every story told here contains examples of the struggle to bring black musical culture to America.
A second major theme that emerges from these stories concerns how whites interacted with these early black artists. Race relations in the United States were not a simple matter of black versus white. To be sure there were extremists, dyed-in-the-wool racists who fought fiercely to maintain the status quo, and reformers who fought 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 even defied the law, as in the case of the Moore family of pre-Civil War Virginia when they 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 questionable murder trial, as did numerous other whites who knew him. White boxing authorities and some politicians intervened on behalf of Jack Johnson when racists were trying to run him out of the sport, and even biased newspapers had to admit that he had won his title fairly. Vernon and Irene Castle enthusiastically promoted the career of black bandleader Jim Europe, as did Joan Sawyer that of Dan Kildare (Sawyer was a suffragist, which may have given her some perspective on what it meant to be denied one's rights). Showman Flo Ziegfeld was color-blind in promoting Bert Williams and bandleader Ford Dabney, and many white hands helped Sissle and Blake, 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 American value-that of fairness. This was perhaps most blindingly clear in the case of Jack Johnson. 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. Edison in 1877. It was first demonstrated to the public the following year. Edison's original invention was a clumsy affair that recorded indentations on a strip of tinfoil wrapped around a revolving drum. It was barely audible, and a few playings of a newly recorded piece of tinfoil quickly obliterated it. Moreover, the tinfoil could not be removed from the drum without destroying it-hence, there were no permanent recordings. The fact that sound had been reproduced at all was a miracle, but clearly the equipment needed a lot of work. Unfortunately, after several months of demonstrating the device to an easily-awed public, Edison was compelled to put it aside in order to concentrate on his rapidly developing (and more lucrative) electric light.
For nearly ten years the phonograph lay fallow, a laboratory curiosity. Other inventors puttered with it and gradually improved it enough to arouse Edison's jealousy and anger. It had been, after all, his invention. In 1886, with characteristic energy, he plunged back into the field and within a year produced an improved machine, recording on more or less "permanent," removable, wax cylinders. At first both Edison and his competitors believed the phonograph's principal use would be for business dictation and for household appliances such as talking clocks. What may be the oldest playable recording now in existence (from c. 1878) is in fact the voice 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 by Edison and a few local companies, but it remained for a group of entrepreneurs in Washington, D.C., to become the principal promoters of recordings as an entertainment medium. Their enterprise was incorporated in 1889 as the Columbia Phonograph Company and is the lineal ancestor of today's Sony/CBS Records. At first their products were sold not to individuals but to exhibitors who demonstrated them at fairs 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 and hear the latest popular song. The first commercial phonographs were large, expensive, battery-driven units. By the late 1890s smaller and less expensive spring-driven models had been developed and were being sold to the public at large. Records, both cylinders and the newer discs, began to find their way into the home.
During the 1890s few established performers deigned to record for the fledgling phonograph companies, which probably could not have afforded them anyway. For an established star, stage work was far more lucrative, and the primitive, squawking phonograph was a novelty item some felt was "beneath" them. In addition, recording required a special kind of voice, one that penetrated through the still-severe limitations of the technology and could at least be understood. Clarity and articulation were greatly valued (how times have changed!). Women generally did not 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, little known in the larger world of entertainment and located mostly in the recording centers of the Northeast. Virtually all of them were white, as were the businessmen who ran the industry. The phonograph was a white middle-class toy, and in the rigidly segregated America of the 1890s the idea that this "mass" medium might reach into other strata of society scarcely occurred to most people. Anyone, that is, except the hard-pressed recording companies struggling to survive. A dollar is a dollar, and several of the early entrepreneurs recognized that their white customers would pay to hear blacks entertain them on those coin-in-the-slot juke boxes, and at least some blacks would pay to hear "their own."
Excerpted from Lost Sounds by Tim Brooks Copyright © 2004 by Tim Brooks. Excerpted by permission.
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