Masthead Image

Per Caritatem

Non intratur in veritatem nisi per caritatem. St. Augustine



Feb

2

2013

Black Swan Records and Early Attempts to De-racialize Musical Categories and Aesthetic Standards

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

February 2, 2013

Black Swan AdvertisementBlack Swan Records was a small, black-owned record company created in the early 1900s under the direction and leadership of Harry H. Pace, a former student of W. E. B. Du Bois.[1] Although Black Swan’s lifespan was brief, an examination of its history and activities provides a glimpse into the complex, racialized music and recording industry in the early twentieth century. Discrimination in the world of music was just as prevalent as discrimination in other spheres of society, making it difficult for African American musicians to earn a stable, living wage. Moreover, white ownership of clubs, hotels, concert halls, and record companies created a power differential, which when operative within a racialized society, meant that white musicians often received the best performing venues—both economically and with respect to cultural capital. In contrast, blacks were given less prestigious performance sites and regularly received inadequate and incommensurate pay for their artistic contributions and musical performances. Given these conditions, Pace and his colleagues decided to create a black-owned record company that would promote and support African American musicians, treating them with respect and paying them commensurate with their talents. In addition, Black Swan Records had a lofty mission that included a desire to reshape negative racialized conceptions of black music, as well as to develop strategies for greater “access to, and control of, material resources” that would “support and encourage African American business development and economic self-sufficiency.”[2]

Early on when record companies finally agreed to allow African American artists to record their music, the industry only permitted styles that conformed to white stereotypes and negative valuations of black music. Thus, so-called comic “coon songs” and minstrelsy—the only styles endorsed by the industry for recording purposes—were established as qualitative standards for African American musical contributions.[3] In other words, the industry’s own racially biased judgments of African American music, combined with its selective, gatekeeping practices played a key role in constructing and perpetuating racialized conceptions and evaluations of black music as non-serious and subpar in comparison with European high art music. Within this rather hostile context, Pace, an entrepreneur eager to enact his own variation of Du Bois’s notion of racial uplift and socio-economic equality, established the first black-owned record company, Black Swan Records. Well aware of the racial prejudice, stereotypes, and negative estimations of African Americans and the alleged limits of their musical contributions, Pace devised a plan to record a variety of music performed by black artists. Among the wide spectrum of styles to be recorded were the following: blues, spirituals, opera, and concert music.[4] Racial uplift, economic independence, proper artistic esteem of African American music (as well as a simultaneous challenge to and subversion of white stereotypes and negative appraisals of black music) were all key components of Pace’s visionary project.

Although African American music quickly became a major force in American popular music culture, black artists and performers “exercised little control over the terms of their employment or the kinds of music they could produce professionally, and by the late 1910s they were even being displaced as the primary interpreters of the musical styles they had originated.”[5] Finally after constant pressure from the African American community as well as key court decisions and patent expirations that allowed new record companies to compete in the market, African American singer, Mamie Smith, was allowed to record with Okeh Records. Smith’s two records were released in February and August of 1920 and were instant hits, selling extremely well among African Americans.[6]

Even though Smith’s success opened up possibilities to record for other, up-and-coming African American artists, the white-owned music industry continued its race-based discriminatory practices. For example, Pace and W. C. Handy, the well-known blues musician, wrote several songs together and formed their own publishing company, the Pace & Handy Publishing Company (hereafter, Pace & Handy).[7] Although their firm was doing relatively well and had now relocated to New York, it continued to encounter racial barriers. On one occasion, a white-owned record company would not allow white singers to perform a blues piece penned by Pace & Handy. On another occasion, a white recording manager “refused to issue records of songs published by Pace & Handy because he did not want the black publishers to earn royalties from the phonograph company’s records.”[8] Pace also approached record companies about the possibility of recording African American artists performing music other than the blues—for example, opera and other “high art” and classical styles. Here again Pace encountered widespread racialized views of blacks and their musical abilities. In fact, the white managers were quite frank, informing Pace that “white prejudice made it commercially impossible” for their company to record black artists who performed music outside blues and other so-called “low art” forms. Classical music was associated with a civilized, cultured white society and “high art,” whereas blues music was alleged to be more suited to the “raw” vocal styles and less cultivated music of African Americans.

Eventually, Pace parted ways with Handy in order to establish Black Swan Records—a company dedicated to his vision of racial uplift, the achievement of social equality, and black economic independence and self-determination. Central to the realization of this vision was the promotion of African American musical talent. On the one hand, gifted black artists producing excellent music encouraged and strengthened the black community, fostering pride in African American artistic achievements. On the other hand, black musical achievement challenged white society’s negative valuations and confining, racially biased stereotypes regarding African Americans and the status and range of their musical abilities and aesthetic contributions. Thus, Pace’s plan was to record talented black musicians in order to actively shape and re-shape public opinion regarding African Americans. Du Bois likewise believed that music could be, and indeed must be given the circumstances, deployed for social and political purposes. For example, in his essay, “Criteria of Negro Art,” Du Bois writes, “until the art of black folk compels recognition they will not be rated as human.”[9]

Although Black Swan Records issued a wide range of music performed by black artists—everything from the “serious” music of concert vocalists Revella Hughes and Carroll Clark to the more popular styles of blues, ragtime, and jazz—the company’s financial stability depended largely upon its production of popular music. In fact, the enormous success of blues singer Ethel Waters’s first record in the early 1920s among both black and white audiences not only kept the company afloat but also enabled it to turn a small profit.[10] Waters’s musical ability and her wide-reaching success was such that it helped to reshape and to challenge the notion of blues as a lower and disreputable form of music—a notion held by many in both black and white populations. Even so and in spite of the commercial success of its increasingly popular blues records, Black Swan “remained committed to middle-class ideas of refinement and self-control.”[11] In short, tensions between Pace’s musical mission to foster “a taste for high musical culture,” his ambivalent position on popular music and his strategic use of popular music to further his more lofty musical mission ultimately proved incompatible and unresolvable.

Other factors likewise contributed to the company’s downfall—the advent of radio, an ill-timed business decision, and the increasing popularity of blues and jazz.[12] Regarding the rising popularity of blues and jazz, Suisman highlights a certain irony in that the success of Black Swan’s recordings of blues artists encouraged other white-owned record companies to sign and promote African American blues artists. In other words, because of the company’s selectivity regarding signing contracts with certain more respectable blues musicians, once the “‘hotter,’ rougher-edged artists” grew in popularity, it became “more difficult for Black Swan to promote its program of musical uplift and increased the economic power of Black Swan’s rivals.”[13] Thus, its commercial success with the blues and other popular music artists it chose to promote made it impossible, economically speaking, for Black Swan to fulfill key aesthetic components of its broader vision (that is, musical uplift). Moreover, Black Swan simply could not compete with the larger budgets of white-owned record companies; consequently, many of their singers choose to sign contracts elsewhere.

The emergence of radio in the music industry also negatively impacted Black Swan’s momentous yet brief existence. As millions of dollars were invested to fund radio broadcasting, the entire phonograph industry witnessed a sharp decline in sales.[14] Under economic duress and facing the possibility of losing his company, Pace made a decision that contradicted his musical and social mission to promote exclusively black artists and their musical endeavors.[15] Although it was originally conceived as a desperate, temporary measure, Pace began issuing records of white artists under pseudonyms creating the impression that they were black artists.  Undoubtedly, Pace’s decision involved deception and was less than optimal; yet, from an analytical perspective, it presents us with an interesting historical case that challenges the cogency of racialized musical categories or labels. That is, a key aspect of Pace’s project was to confront and critically question various racialized views of music, in particular, those views claiming that African Americans were incapable of producing and performing music exhibiting the seriousness, complexity, and aesthetic value of their European counterparts. In addition, as musical styles such as blues and jazz became increasingly popular with both black and white audiences, these styles became associated with African American artists.  Such an association is not completed unwarranted, since at the time the leading innovators in these genres were by and large African American. However, if issued as essentialist claims regarding black music, such assertions are problematized and rendered incoherent by the examples of Black Swan’s white artists who, as it were, “passed” as black artists. That is, when audiences heard the white performers’ music, the alleged racial difference was not perceived. Ironically, as Suisman observes, “the deception demonstrated the contingent, extrinsic character of racial categories in music, which [in fact] had been one of Black Swan’s basic goals. […] Racial difference was not audible; rather, it was artificially and arbitrarily assigned.”[16]

Despite its short career, Black Swan Records under Pace’s leadership accomplished much for African American artists and the black community as a whole, especially when one takes into account the structural injustices and discriminatory practices firmly entrenched in American society during that period. By promoting black musicians and showcasing the wide range of styles and musical capabilities of African American artists, Pace challenged many common racial stereotypes and negative appraisals of blacks’ abilities to make significant aesthetic and cultural contributions. However, one could argue that Pace himself employed and furthered a racially biased aesthetic standard. That is, through his adoption of musical categories and descriptors such as  “high” and “low” musical art and his urging of potential African American customers to purchase “higher class” concert and other “serious” music performed by blacks, Pace casts a shadow on the artistry and cultural contributions of blues and jazz. In short, his statements imply that European, classical traditions are the standards by which one must judge musical excellence.

Notes

[1] For a detailed historical study of Black Swan Records, see David Suisman, “Co-workers in the Kingdom of Culture: Black Swan Records and the Political Economy of African American Music,” The Journal of American History 90 (2004): 1295–1324. The present section on Black Swan Records draws heavily from Suisman’s article.

[2] Suisman, “Black Swan Records and the Political Economy of African American Music,” 1295.

[3] Ibid., 1296.

[4] Ibid., 1297. As Suisman explains, “blues” in this context refers to “vaudeville blues,” which typically consisted of a female singer accompanied by piano or a small band (ibid., 1307).

[5] Ibid., 1299.

[6] Ibid., 1300.

[7] Ibid., 1301.

[8] Ibid., 1302.

[9] W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Criteria of Negro Art,” in The New Negro Renaissance: An Anthology, ed. Arthur P. Davis and Michael W. Peplow (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1975), 496. On Du Bois’ complex “elitism” and his anti-dualistic notion of art as an “aesthetic politics” that weds Beauty, Truth, and Freedom, see Ross Posnock, “The Distinction of Du Bois: Aesthetics, Pragmatism, Politics,” American Literary History 7 (1995): 500–524.

[10] Suisman, “Black Swan Records and the Political Economy of African American Music,” 1307–8.

[11] Ibid., 1310.

[12] Ibid., 1316. I focus on two of the three factors listed here. For a detailed account of the ill-timed business expansion, see Suisman, “Black Swan Records and the Politial Economy of African American Music,” 1316–17.

[13] Ibid., 1318.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 1319–20.

[16] Ibid., 1320.


Leave a comment