The first black-owned record label in the U.S. wanted to “uplift” black people through music
It rose, then fell — and popularized the kinds of songs it set out to defeat
Ashawnta Jackson Feb 22
Writer and record collector. Sometimes not in that order. Tweeting infrequently @_heyjackson
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Page from the Black Swan Records catalog, 1923. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
In 1923, an ad for Black Swan Records placed in The Crisis, the NAACP’s magazine, helpfully sorted its consumer base into three groups. The first group, it said, was the one that supported black artists and black production, but their quality filter was a bit off. The second “class of men” also supported black artists, but only in public; behind closed doors, their phonographs spun only music produced outside of the community, which is to say, white music, even if a better, black-produced option was available. Then there was the third class, the “Real Race People” who bought Black Swan records.
Black Swan didn’t shy away from these easy labels. In fact, delineating musical styles and tastes was the foundation of the whole company. The company believed that there was a “right” way to support music, and a “wrong” way. Music made the wrong way leaned into dehumanizing stereotypes about black people, and choosing to listen was as good as endorsing those attitudes. Black Swan set out to be on the right side. The music it released was meant to be about more than beautiful songs; it would convey the dignity, power, and talent present in the black community — which was there whether America at large saw it or not. This philosophy, while well-intentioned, would cause the company to struggle throughout its three-year run.
Founded in New York in 1921, Black Swan was the first black-owned record company in the country. Its 1923 ad campaign wasn’t just a marketing ploy; the label’s founder saw Black Swan’s recordings as an alternative to black popular music. The vaudeville-era minstrel songs were made by black people, sure, but not necessarily for them. Black Swan offered listeners a choice between the stereotypes and buffoonery of race records and high-quality music meant to entertain and uplift. In other words, Black Swan was interjecting a political and cultural stance into popular entertainment.
Founder Harry Pace had tested the waters of the music business a few years earlier. He was a successful businessman and community leader in Memphis when he met blues composer W.C. Handy. The two started the Pace and Handy Music Company in 1912, writing and publishing several successful songs, including Handy’s 1914 hit “St. Louis Blues.” In 1918, the men moved the business from Memphis to Harlem, where, despite their success, they still “ran up against a color line that was very severe,” as Handy wrote in his autobiography.
Record companies refused to record their songs. Others refused to issue their records. And, as historian David Suisman writes, “When Pace tried to persuade phonograph companies to record African Americans performing non-blues material, he was told that white prejudice made it commercially impossible.”
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Harry Pace, founder of Black Swan Records. (Wikimedia)
Popular music in the late 19th and early 20th centuries didn’t shy away from black performance, but much of it consisted of so-called coon songs, which were offshoots from earlier minstrel show tunes. These songs, explain Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen in their book Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop, were “racist malarky” that largely amplified horrifying stereotypes as a form of entertainment. They were also often written by black composers. “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” one of the biggest songs of 1896, was written by Ernest Hogan, a noted black ragtime composer. The song’s title was later adopted by racist groups of the era. These songs, regardless of the composers’ intentions, were political, serving only to perpetuate stereotypes. Black Swan was guided by a simple question: If music and politics were intertwined anyway, why not make the politics socially conscious?
Pace’s business background had led him to cross paths with W.E.B. Du Bois, who became an early champion of Black Swan. In fact, on Du Bois’s suggestion, the label, which Pace had founded on his own, was named for Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, a popular black singer from the mid-1800s known as the Black Swan. In announcing the label’s intention, Pace made his mandate clear: “There are twelve million colored people in the U.S., and in that number there is hid a wonderful amount of musical ability. We propose to spare no expense in the search for and developing of the best singers and musicians among the twelve million.”
Black Swan didn’t just put out records; it waved a banner singing the praises of an entire race, which made Black Swan performers and staff very visible. While black consumers were generally enthusiastic about the label, the familiar racism Pace had faced back in his music-publishing days reared its head again. Both Pace and Handy (who many thought, wrongly, was involved with Black Swan) were threatened with boycotts. Hostilities reached a dangerous peak when a bomb was discovered in a shipment to the label’s facilities.
Over the label’s life span, that battle of representation versus respectability was always present. As Angela Davis pointed out in her book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Black Swan passed up the chance to work with the now legendary Bessie Smith, calling her style too “grassroots.” One blues singer they were willing to sign, the crystal-voiced Ethel Waters, marked a turning point for the company. Waters reportedly became the highest-paid black recording artist in the country.
Despite the popularity of blues music, Black Swan most often worked with artists such as the classical vocalist Carroll Clark and put out various arrangements of spirituals and classical compositions — music that Black Swan described in ads as “the Better Class.” The company’s catalog spoke to the sort of respectability Pace wanted to have on display, rather than, as Davis writes, Bessie Smith’s “unashamed bonds with her own southern upbringing.”
Yet Pace knew what he had to do if he wanted his venture to survive. In a speech to the National Association of Negro Musicians, he explained that he’d put out the occasional blues record — albeit not gritty, Smith-style blues — begrudgingly. “We have had to give the people what many of them wanted [in order] to get them to buy what we wanted them to want,” he said. “It behooves some of us to undertake the job of elevating the musical taste of the race.”
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Ethel Waters in the 1920s. The rise of radio at the time hastened the demise of small record labels like Black Swan. (Bettmann Archive via Getty Images)
While Black Swan generally avoided some of the rougher edges of blues music, other labels had no reason to follow suit. In fact, Black Swan’s rejection of the Bessie Smiths of the time meant that those soon-to-be stars were recorded on other labels. In his 1963 book Blues People, Amiri Baraka (formerly known as LeRoi Jones) described Black Swan’s narrow view of blackness as being “cruelly absurd.”
The rise of radio, which reduced demand for records overall, also marked the beginning of the end for Black Swan. After a mostly successful run of more than 180 releases, Black Swan put out its last record in 1923. Its catalog was eventually purchased by Paramount, a company that, Baraka pointed out, “had no qualms about recording the rougher, less dignified, blues performers.”
Looking back, Black Swan recorded names that still mean something in the blues and jazz worlds: Alberta Hunter, Fletcher Henderson, Ethel Waters. Thanks in part to Black Swan, blues and jazz became popular music, each genre giving pieces of itself to R&B, soul, rock, and hip-hop. But in his need to present something more than crude stereotypes, Pace fell into another trap: policing the idea of blackness, and trying to bend the wills of music fans in the service of what he believed was the most effective form of empowerment. All the sounds — the gruff, the steely, the sweet — represented a powerful line in the story of black music, and Pace missed that. What remained was a less inclusive but no less important line of black ownership and control, a for-us, by-us ethos that carries through to today.
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