blues

Black Swan Records

Welcome to Sonosphere the podcast that explores the sounds all around us, in art and music movements through history.

Today we discuss the first black owned recording company Black Swan Records which sold popular music to black audiences. Its existence was brief, it was only active for two years from 1923 to 1925. During this time however, the label released over 180 records – more than any other black owned record company until the 1950s. Today we’ll talk about the historical context in which the founder, Harry Pace, began and operated the label with mentor W.E.B. DuBois and how his partnership with Memphis blues man W.C. Handy kicked off Pace’s interest in the music industry.

We begin our story of Black Swan Records by setting the context of the times. Performers of recorded songs were becoming pop icons and American celebrities. By the end of WWI recorded music began to take precedence over live performances as proof of musicianship. There is not a lot of information on Black Swan Records, we rely mostly on a website called Black Past, and two dissertations by graduate students Stuart Lucas Tully from LSU, and Jacqueline Brellenthin from Univ of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as well as David Suisman’s  Co- workers in the Kingdom of Culture: Black Swan Records and the Political Economy of African American Music.

According to David Suisman writing about the Political Economy of African American music, “Black Swan’s burden was to chart a course between elite culture and popular culture, between the color blindness of music and the racism of the music business, between ideologically based enterprise and the impinging realities of capitalist markets.”

Singer and actor Ethel Waters wearing costume and seated backstage, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, February – April 1940. (Photo by Charles ‘Teenie’ Harris/Carnegie Museum of Art/Getty Images)
James P. Johnson

Founder, Harry Pace was viewed as a key figure along with W.E.B. DuBois in personifying black entrepreneurialism in the 20th century and beyond.

Track List:

  1. Alberta Hunter – He’s a Darn Good Man
  2. Mamie Smith – Crazy Blues
  3. James P. Johnson – If I could be with you
  4. Ethel Waters – Down Home Blues
  5. James P. Johnson – Liza
  6. W.C. Handy – St. Louis Blues
  7. W.C. Handy – Yellow Dog Blues
  8. Katie Crippen – Blind Man Blues
  9. Carroll Clark – Carry me back to Tennessee
  10. James P. Johnson – Charleston
  11. Charles Wakefield Cadman – At Dawning (David Wright)
  12. James P. Johnson – Snowy Morning Blues
  13. James P. Johnson – Blue Note Boogie
  14. Ethel Waters – I got Rhythm
  15. Mamie Smith – Da Da Strain