Black Swan Records, The Blues, and Musical Memory


1923, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.



Last week, our class examined the women who helped to establish the musical style known as the blues. We talked about the lives and music of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. These women sang about their relationships, hardships, and sexuality openly, and through the musical medium of the blues. We also talked a bit about these women as some of the first to record and sell blues records as popular music. Many black artists during this period recorded their music with black-owned label companies, which marketed music to a black audience. A particularly well-known example was Black Swan Records.


Although Black Swan Records only operated from 1921 to 1923, they represented African American artists in all genres of music, including blues, ragtime, comic songs, opera, spirituals, and classical music. [1] Started in Harlem by Harry Pace, a music publisher and professor, as a branch of his Pace Phonographic Corporation, Black Swan was named after African American opera singer Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, who was called “The Black Swan.” [2] The board of directors, which included W.E.B. Du Bois, sought to inspire other African Americans through small business development, to breakdown stereotypes, and to raise awareness about uplifting the black community and promoting social justice. [3] With these goals in mind, artists like Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter, and Trixie Smith launched their careers by recording music with Black Swan.


Despite putting out blues records by many African American artists, Black Swan played it safe by ensuring that the songs produced were not too sexual or violent in nature. Consequently, they distanced themselves from these tunes, deemed exciting, but a bit too rough around the edges for middle-class respectability. They even turned away Bessie Smith, whose music was considered too coarse, forward, and unruly. [4] The type of gritty blues, which focused on the realities of the hardships faced by many African Americans, didn’t fit with the lighter material that Black Swan Records produced. Bessie Smith went on to record with Columbia, and became the highest selling blues singer of the 1920s. [5] It turned out that the blues which were a bit steamier, and more real, were the better bet for selling records.


Due to a number of circumstances, including the advent of the radio, the emergence of larger and more successful phonograph record companies, and steep competition in the blues and jazz fields, Black Swan folded, and issued its last records in the summer of 1923. [6] The company was bought by the label Paramount, which continued to issue Black Swan’s popular catalogue of African American artists. It may seem from their history, that their goals of cultural and economic uplift for the black community contributed to their downfall as a company, but Black Swan Records is still remembered as a label that brought African American music into the popular and mainstream music business.







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