“Race Records”

Wikipedia: “Race records were 78 rpm phonograph records marketed to African-Americans during the 1920’s through the early 1940’s. They primarily contained race music, comprising a variety of African-American musical genres including blues, jazz, and gospel music, though comedy recordings were also produced. These records were, then, the majority of commercial recordings of African-American artists in the US (very few African-American artists were marketed to the “general audience”).”

One source says that “During the Great Migration — the northern exodus of southern blacks that began in 1917 — approximately 1.5 million African-Americans left the South in search of a better life in the economically thriving North. Record companies such as Okeh, Paramount, Vocalion, and Columbia soon began to market special labels of “race records” — music by and for an African-American audience, especially recent migrants longing for Southern sounds.”1

It’s hard for someone who has grown up with the current intersection of black and white music to understand to what extent music – like the country – was very much segregated. (Interestingly, musicians always seemed to play together and singers like Frank Sinatra didn’t worry about the color line).

Artists like B.B. King – who we know became a world-renowned bluesman – had to travel the black “chitlin” circuit and could not stay in “white” hotels. And so the segregation that was manifest in the country was repeated in the music.

Strictly speaking, it wasn’t until Elvis came along and started playing black blues and gospel that there was any real crossover. Sam Phillips of Sun Records said, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.”

And in looking back, it’s easy to see why Presley (and the other early rockers) was such a threat. Not only was “dirty” sexuality right out there for all to see, compromising the morals of young white girls everywhere, but this was clearly leading towards a breaking down of the race wall, which was largely unacceptable in ’50’s America.

According to Wikipedia, when the Columbia label decided to release race records, the very first one was “Cemetery Blues” by Bessie Smith in 1923. (I have an HBO movie about her on my DVR that I’ve yet to watch).

How are things today? Well the fact that most blues fans and many rap fans are white, and that Beyoncé and Jay Z are two of the biggest artists in the world should speak for itself. However, I have been to over a hundred concerts in my life and I still wonder why the audience for rock is still overwhelmingly white. Is it a comfort level? This one puzzles me. I can count on one hand the number of concerts I’ve been to where the audience was integrated. So yes there’s crossover, and yet……

  1. Jazz: A History of America’s Music. By Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns.