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Session 4-45 (IASPM-SAM)
Black & White / Folk & Commercial: Music and Cultural Politics

Travis A. Jackson (University of Michigan), Chair

 

The Only Genuine Colored Record:
Black Swan and the Cultural Politics of the First Black-Owned Record Company

David Suisman (Dept. of History, Columbia University)

Established in 1921, Black Swan Records was more than the first black-owned record company. It was a unique and revealing experiment in the use of music, phonograph technology, and private enterprise to enact a program of economic and cultural uplift. This paper draws on autobiographies, advertisements, and unpublished correspondence to trace Black Swan's history and its aim to provide an alternative to the exclusion and musical pigeon-holing African Americans faced in their dealings with white-owned record companies. Through the company's advertising in the radical and mainstream black press and its exhortations to consumers to support an all-black business, Black Swan actively politicized music consumption and racialized music production. Meanwhile, the company's innovative project attracted some of Harlem's sharpest musical and political activists. Pioneering civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois sat on the board of directors, and a striking number of other people associated with Black Swan later achieved great distinction in music, politics, or both. However, while the company tried to harness and exploit the combined power of music and business, low record sales called into question Black Swan's commitment to issuing only records by African Americans. By the mid-1920s the company had collapsed. However brief, Black Swan's unusual history details the complex power relations that shaped the music business in the 1920s, illuminates the challenges African Americans faced in trying to control their own cultural capital, and exposes the promise and contradictions inherent in using music for political ends.

 

"All Songs is Folk Songs":
Working Musicians and Southern Music Markets Before the Blues

Karl Hagstrom Miller (New York University)

In the early twentieth century, southern "folk" musicians often crossed or blurred the lines between ethnic music styles and showed little deference for distinctions between folk and commercial genres in their everyday attempts to make money making music. Scholars have paid little attention to the ways in which musicians denied or confounded these distinctions. Instead they often have used racial categories and the supposed line between folk and mass-mediated culture to define the scope of their inquiry, focusing attention upon artists whose music best exemplifies the distinct musical traditions they examine.
This paper reframes the history of vernacular and popular music in the early twentieth-century South. It explores several musicians' personal histories in order to develop three inter-related themes. First, Southern musicians and audiences for generations had their ears (and often pockets) open to commercialized music. Second, Southern vernacular musicians were professional artists long before a few of them were courted by international recording companies. Their art was shaped by the contingencies of multiple audiences and local markets. It rarely represented the insular or singular worldview assumed by many collectors. Third, Southern vernacular music belied strict categorization according to race. Combined, these themes will help highlight the ways in which the assumptions and categorizations employed by the collectors who preserved the region's music have profoundly shaped our understanding of race, culture, and capitalism in the early twentieth-century South.

 

Crossing Racial Boundaries:
The Role of the Southern Grassroots Music Tours in the Civil Rights Movement

Lydia Hamessley (Hamilton College)

The role music played in the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s and 60s is well-documented. However, little attention has been given to southern mountain music from white communities and the way it participated, in partnership with African-American music, in the civil rights struggle. In 1965, a group of white students founded the Southern Student Organizing Committee, which functioned as a white counterpart to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. As a fund-raising venture, the organization sponsored music tours coordinated by Anne Romaine. Initially, the group imagined the tours would feature northern white musicians such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Before the first tour, however, Anne met Bernice Johnson Reagon, who encouraged Anne to use black and white southern musicians for these tours throughout the deep South and Appalachia. Grassroots musicians from white mountain and rural black communities traveled together for the two-week tours in April and October. The concerts emphasized the cultural and racial links between musics of the south, and the accompanying political workshops focused on southern heritage and the interdependence of black and poor white populations. Some tour members crossed racial boundaries for the first time; all members were subject to violent threats and actions from surrounding segregated communities. These tours, established by two women, one black, one white, played a notable role in the civil rights movement. This paper investigates the history of the Southern Grassroots Music Tours, focusing on its unique mission to celebrate southern culture and the connections between black and white music and communities.

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