Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry author Tim Brooks

May 10th, 2004



Lost Sounds is the first in-depth history of the involvement of African Americans in the earliest years of recording. It examines the first three decades of sound recording in the United States, charting the surprising role black artists played in the period leading up to the Jazz Age.

Applying more than thirty years of scholarship, Tim Brooks identifies key black artists who recorded commercially in a wide range of genres and provides revealing biographies of some forty of these audio pioneers. Brooks assesses the careers and recordings of George W. Johnson, Bert Williams, George Walker, Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, W.C. Handy, James Reese Europe, Wilbur Sweatman, boxing champion Jack Johnson, as well as a host of lesser-known voices.

Many of these pioneers faced a difficult struggle to be heard in an era of rampant discrimination and “the color line,” and their stories illuminate the forces — both black and white — that gradually allowed African Americans greater entrée into the mainstream American entertainment industry.  The role played by the mass medium of sound recording in enabling change is also explored.

Because they were viewed as “novelty” or “folk” artists, nearly all of these African Americans were allowed to record in their own distinctive styles, and in practically every genre: popular music, ragtime, jazz, cabaret, classical, spoken word, poetry, and more. The sounds they preserved reflect the evolving black culture of that tumultuous and creative period. #

In a May, 2004 interview with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita, Brooks discusses many of these fascinating topics, as well as shed light on how these historic recordings are withheld from students and scholars today because of stringent U.S. copyright laws.  At the conclusion of the interview, you may enjoy a visit to the photo gallery, filled with historic pictures, quotations and sound samples from the era.  Thank you to Tim Brooks for allowing use of the photos and text.



Editors Note: Some of the photographs and quotations within the interview may be objectionable to contemporary readers. It is important to remember the times and the context in which they were made. They are included to help illustrate the complexities of the culture in which these artists performed.

George W. Johnson, the first black recording artist, in the only photograph of him at work in the recording studio, from Phonoscope, July 1898


“Before television, before radio, before even motion pictures, an earlier mass medium began paving the way for the shared social experience that has so profoundly changed modern society.  It startled and amazed the citizens of the late nineteenth century.  Who could ever have imagined an entertainer, orator, or famous person being “bottled up,” only to spring to life, as if by magic, simultaneously in hundreds of remote locations?  Nothing in five thousand years of human history anticipated such a possibility.  And yet here it was — recorded sound.”

– Tim Brooks


Listen to George W. Johnson perform Laughing Song


JJM  Your book is a fascinating look at an overlooked history that took you thirteen years to complete. What was the genesis of this project?

TB  I have been interested in early recording for a long time. When I was in high school, a kid I knew had a subscription to Billboard magazine, which is kind of unusual since it is a trade publication. In addition to their charts listing contemporary hits, they had a “Ten Years Ago” on Billboard chart. Each week this chart would evolve just as the current chart did. I found that to be interesting, and I followed the chart from week to week. In addition to this chart, there was one from fifteen years prior, and maybe even another that was twenty. While I didn’t know any of those songs, I watched them go up and down the charts, and I became quite interested in that. These charts made me begin thinking about the music recorded before that listed on the charts. Billboard didn’t have charts from earlier eras, so I started digging back and found some books with information about records from way back — some of them hits from the twenties — and jazz music I was interested in. It kindled a curiosity about what was recorded even before this era. I kept going back further and further until hitting a wall in the 1890s, which is when they started making records. I couldn’t go any earlier than that because there weren’t any records before that.

I discovered that there wasn’t much written about the recording artists of this time, and learning more about these early times and personalities became my hobby. During the years of my research, I learned more about Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and other famous African Americans who changed American music in the twenties and beyond, but also those who came before them and who weren’t recognized much at all. One of the musicians was the one who got me started on this book, George W. Johnson, who was a whistler in the 1890’s — a time when the record industry was just beginning. While there were a few stories written about him by collectors, they seemed to contradict each other. They were full of guesswork and speculation with colorful anecdotes, like how he was hanged for murdering his wife, which is not at all true. While such stories were proven to be false, they kept appearing anyway, and by the late 1980’s, a number of articles and album liner notes repeated these stories that I knew by then were wrong. As a result, I thought that I would research his life, find out what truly happened, and write a real article about him. I knew it could pose a challenge considering how long ago he lived and that nobody had done any serious research on his life.

I began digging into it and found it to be quite a task at times, and the trail was frequently cold since he had died in the early 1900’s and this was now the late 1980’s. His records had been out of print for eighty years at that point. The more I dug into it, however, I kept finding things nobody else had found. The story of Johnson was turning into a very interesting article, but it got so big that it wasn’t really an article anymore — it was too big for that. While researching Johnson, I kept running into other personalities who lived during this time as well — quartets who had recorded in the nineties, the big Broadway star Bert Williams, and so many others. I realized that there is a whole group of fascinating people beyond Johnson nobody seems to know much of anything about who were the foundation for all this history that we do know about.

JJM Yes, the book is filled with fascinating biographies. Before we get into some of the personalities, I would like to ask some questions about the industry they were part of. What was Thomas Edison’s initial vision for the phonograph?

TB  Edison was very much a business man. As many did during the Victorian age, he had a business orientation and aspired to be a mogul. When he invented the phonograph in 1877, he communicated his vision for it, and at the top of the list was using it a business dictating machine. He also imagined that it could be used for elderly people to record their reminisces to be played at their funeral. The idea of talking clocks and talking appliances was also high on his list. Using the phonograph for amusement was not a priority at this time. In the 1890’s, when the equipment finally improved and it became practical to market, he still thought it was going to be a business machine. He disdained the entertainment uses of it. So, somebody else had to come up with the use for which it was eventually adopted.

JJM  The technological limitations must have hindered the vision of even using it for recording music.

TB  Well, the early technological limitations precluded it for the use of much of anything. The recording equipment was quite crude. It is interesting, though, that when you read accounts of people of that time, they thought the quality was miraculous, and suggested that every word was crystal clear; then when you listen to it you can’t hear a thing and wonder what they were thinking.

JJM  No matter what the quality was, I am sure the technology seemed miraculous.

TB  Yes. Think about what your first computer was like, and compare it to those of today and it will seem slow and virtually useless. But at that time it was a revelation. It is not how well the horse can dance, but that it can dance at all. A recording at the time was typically accompanied by the text of what you were listening to, so listeners would read the letter while the person on the recording recited it. The same with music — you read (or knew) the song while the singers sang it. But because the recording standards were so low, it was very difficult to record certain instruments and certain kinds of voices.

JJM Given these technological restraints, did the recordings accurately reflect what was popular at the time?

TB  That was one of the interesting things that came out during the research for this book. I discovered that there was a big difference between the music recorded by mainstream white performers, and that recorded by the African American artists I profile. Much of the music on the cylinders recorded by white musicians during the 1890’s are what we would call “stilted,” which means they sing right from the music on the beat, the lyrics very carefully enunciated and quite loud, and with very little modulation in them. It is very unreal in many ways. The idea was to make it understandable, above all else, even if it was stilted and contained no looseness or anything like that in the music. The few African Americans who recorded were considered to be novelty artists. They weren’t in the mainstream, and weren’t the artists the buyers went to first, in most cases. They were basically a novelty for the record company’s catalog. The recording technicians didn’t understand what the musicians were doing, all they knew was that somebody out there found their work to be kind of novel and different. The technicians concern was that, whatever it is that they did, do it in a way that the recording horn can pick up the sound. The African American musicians were given a lot more freedom, and as a consequence, they recorded much closer to the way they performed in real life — whether it was a street singer like George Johnson, or a jubilee quartet, or the incredible Bert Williams/George Walker duo recording their stage routine into a horn. Basically, they were allowed to record naturally, whereas the white singers were not, which makes them very interesting sound documents.

JJM  Were these recordings made specifically for the black audience, and when did they emerge?

TB  They were actually made predominantly for the white audience and emerged, contrary to most historians, at the very beginning, 1890, which was the first full year of what we would now call the record industry. In those days, the industry was on a very small scale, of course, and the records were made basically for exhibitors rather than for people in their own homes. Entrepreneurs would buy a phonograph, put it in a case on the back of their wagon, and take it around the country. They would set up in a town and charge admission for people to hear this wonderful invention of Mr. Edison’s. This was the first exposure most Americans had to the phonograph, and the exhibitors needed something to play. People didn’t want to hear dictation records, they wanted to hear music — marching bands and singers. So, that was the market for these recordings at the time, and from the very earliest incarnations — even the experimental ones in 1888 and 1889 that I write about in the book — a handful of black artists were being recorded. When I say artists, their primary work may have been as a waiter in a hotel, or they may have been street corner quartets, or it might have been a street singer like Johnson, who was encountered in a ferry terminal and asked to come down to a recording company’s laboratory and sing. It was very easy to get a musician to record.

JJM  There were three major record companies during this period — Victor, Columbia and Edison. What was their artistic vision, and did they differ from one another?

TB  They basically wanted to appeal to the middle class, and to some extent the upper class — although that came a little later with the classical Red Seal label. Although the lower class was huge at the time, they were not attempting to reach this market because they didn’t feel they had enough money to put the nickels in the machines or to buy the phonographs. So, their primary market was the large Victorian middle class, and the way to reach them was to record a wide range of artists. Every record company wanted to build up a large catalog, and in order to show this wide selection, they created sections within them — all the band recordings in one place, all the tenor recordings in another, and the quartet recordings in another. They would mix in a few operatic arias with popular songs, and with traditional songs. You can pretty much tell by the prevalence of older music from another era, including many Stephen Foster songs written thirty or forty years earlier, that they were selling to a fairly conservative, white audience.

JJM As to be expected considering the era, there was a fair amount of racism in the marketing of the music and the performers. Columbia Records described Bert Williams’s 1906 recording of “Nobody” as follows: “The July record ‘Nobody’ by Bert Williams created such a sensation that this merry monarch has sung it also on cylinder No. 33011, with orchestra accompaniment. Here is Negro character by the funniest Negro artist on earth, genuine colored philosophy by an African logician, whose records are made exclusively for the Columbia Phonograph Company.” How did racism of the era affect their marketing techniques?

TB  Racism was part of the fabric of American society at that time. It is hard to imagine the kind of language they used, and the kind of relationships between people that existed then, yet no one thought it was particularly unusual. Today, it seems unthinkable to say such things and relate to people that way.

Much of the most exciting and vibrant musical innovations of that time were all tied up with this racism. Many of the songs that ushered ragtime and ultimately jazz and blues to the American public have lyrics and titles we find very offensive today. So there is this creativity all mixed in with this gumbo of racial mores of the time — which today are quite uncomfortable — and it is hard to disentangle them and look at them from today’s perspective. But, it was a feeling that was ingrained in our society at the time, this order of things that featured a perceived superior group and a perceived inferior group. That is how everything was approached at that time.

Over the course of the thirty years I chronicle in the book, very interesting, fundamental social changes took place. Williams and Walker are good examples of this. When they started out, they were billed almost explicitly as a black group who sang songs full of racial stereotypes. Once they became successful in the early 1900’s, they began softening their material, and were no longer marketed as they were originally. While they still performed in black face — as did practically everyone at that time — they sang more about the human failings that anybody could relate to. It wasn’t specifically black anymore. As Bert Williams went on as a solo artist in the teens, he became the “Jonah man,” the downtrodden guy for whom everything always goes wrong and who struggles along everywhere. Well, that is not a racial stereotype, it is a human condition. As soon as his career got enough traction, he made this very intentional change in his material, and other artists did as well. George Johnson was looked down on just ten years later by the New York Age as an “Uncle Tom sellout,” because they were pioneering better self-esteem among black Americans.

JJM  Yes, in 1905, the influential critic Sylvester Russell wrote in the Freeman, “Men who write words for songs can no longer write such mean rot as the words of ‘Whistling Coon’ and expect respectable publishers to accept it no matter how good the music may be. Composers should not set music to a set of words that are a direct insult or indirect insinuation to the colored race. This style of literature is no longer appreciated.”

TB  Russell was a thought leader of the time, and it would take more years for what he said to actually take hold. It was really the 1920’s before racial stereotypes started to settle down at all, and many lingered on into the thirties and forties. However, this sort of thinking was beginning to happen, and it was because of critics like Russell and artists like Bert Williams, who toned down his material and made it more human once he became influential. Williams and an artist like Will Marion Cook began to show white America that blacks brought to the art form an insight into human nature that was equally valid to any group of people, and was not in any way inferior.

JJM  As you said, the culture was at one level in the 1890’s and at another in the 1920’s. Around 1910, Booker T. Washington said of Bert Williams, “Bert Williams is a tremendous asset to the Negro race. He is an asset because he has succeeded in actually doing something, and because he has succeeded, the fact of his success helps the Negro many times more than he could help the Negro by merely contenting himself to whine and complain about racial difficulties and racial discriminations.” Four years later, in a fascinating interview James Reese Europe gave the New York Post, he was quoted as saying, “You see, we colored people have our own music that is part of us. It’s us; it’s the product of our souls; it’s been created by the sufferings and miseries of our race. Some of the old melodies we played Wednesday night were made up by slaves of the old days, and others were handed down from the days before we left Africa. Our symphony orchestra never tries to play white folks’ music. We should be foolish to attempt such a thing. We are no more fitted for that than a white orchestra is fitted to play our music…” That’s a pretty courageous thing to say considering the era.

TB  Yes, and it is evidence of what the thought leaders were saying, and it is very fundamental to what happened in American music at the time, and more broadly to American culture. America was enormously influenced by African American music and cultures — some say it is the defining element of American culture. Dvorak certainly thought so, and all of jazz, rock and rhythm and blues comes out of the black experience, which is just an underpinning of who and what we are as a people. It is what is unique to America in many ways.

This is the period when that was just emerging, because if you go back into the mid-1800’s, black America was literally walled off from white America. There was very little cultural contact between the two at all, and what little there was emerged in the late 1800’s in the form of the minstrel show, which was a total travesty, of course. From roughly the 1890’s to the 1920’s, black American mores, culture and music began to infiltrate, and once it did, it was irresistible. Many white people understood that. One of the premises of my book is that the phonograph has been underrated as one of the major agents of societal change and racial tolerance, because you could have records by a George W. Johnson or a James Reese Europe playing in the phonograph player of a proper Victorian parlor where you might not have them there in person — or if you did they would have to come in through the back door. Once white Americans began accepting that, and accepting their music, their language, and their point of view, they began accepting them as people too.

JJM  Yes, I thought you did a fine job stating how the recording industry played a vital role in reducing racial tensions around the country during this era.

TB  It was a period of very high tensions. I write about the 1900 race riot in New York that involved several of these artists, actually, who ended up being chased out of their theatres. So, while it was a period including several flash points, over a period of time, black culture became more exposed and understood, until the explosion of acceptance in the 1920’s.

JJM The black artist whose music was most closely identified with the emerging phonograph player was George W. Johnson, who you have brought up already…

TB  He is a link with the old pre-civil war African American in America’s days of slavery, and he was looked on in that way. One of the reasons he was so accepted is because he was considered — in the terms of those times — “safe.” He could appear non-threatening while holding his own. He was in his forties — considered an older man for the era — and while he wasn’t exactly servile, he had an ability to get along with people and get people to like him. He was very intelligent and endlessly fascinating.

In an era when everything was copied by everybody, and when it wasn’t the artist but the song that was popular, his two famous songs, “The Laughing Song” and “The Whistling Coon,” became totally identified with him. Nobody could copy them. When he got into real trouble and was accused of murdering his wife in 1899, people came to his aid and spoke up for him, including the son of the slave owner who formerly owned him. He came all the way from Virginia — a long trip in those times — just to be there for him. That speaks volumes about how well accepted he was, and it showed the people who ran the record industry that recording a black man and promoting him as one was not going to get you run out of town. In fact, he could sell a lot of records for you. Even though he had to sing demeaning material that today would be considered offensive, his work was a real breakthrough, and it opened the door for artists who came later like Bert Williams, the Dinwiddie Quartet, and Charley Case. If Johnson hadn’t been there, it would have been at least another decade for them to be accepted.

JJM  Was his music — particularly “The Whistling Coon” and “The Laughing Song” — indicative of what the music of the pre-Civil War South sounded like?

TB  No, I wouldn’t say that. Polk Miller is probably the most authentic musical connection we have to that. Johnson was primarily a street entertainer. One of his two big songs, “The Whistling Coon,’ was a minstrel tune that had been written ten or fifteen years earlier. It is still not clear who wrote his other big song, “The Laughing Song,” but my guess is that somebody with Johnson probably worked it up. These were novelty street songs of their period, basically. He was a link in terms of people and personalities and acceptance. Much was made of the fact that he was an ex-slave — that was always mentioned in stories about him. He was considered to be a link with the black experience during slavery, and a link to that era. It is not likely many of his recordings made it to the South, but he was certainly very popular in the North, Northeast, and Midwest. I write about Polk Miller in the book, even though he was white. He was fascinated by the music of blacks of the pre-civil war era, and he brought their musical sensibilities to his performances in 1909.

JJM  What was black America’s response to Johnson’s music?

TB  With the exception of Russell and some of the thought leaders of the time — and even that is ten years later — he was accepted as a black man who had made good. Blacks did not patronize records all that much. They didn’t have the money to do so. When phonographs began to be sold in the late 1890’s and were heavily marketed in the early 1900’s, African Americans were never a market. None of the sales literature Columbia, Edison and Victor put out for their salesmen ever discussed targeting the black audience, and that was purely economic. So, Johnson’s recordings were basically introducing the work of a black artist to white listeners, as opposed to appealing to African Americans themselves. Marketing to African Americans didn’t start to happen until the very end of the World War I period, when people like George Broome and Roland Hayes specifically put out records for an upscale black market, and the broader black market was not really addressed until the 1920’s.

JJM How did the improving technology signal the end for Johnson’s career?

TB  He was a leather-lunged individual, and very robust. When he started in 1890, there was no practical way to duplicate cylinders, which is what they were making then. Every record was essentially an original recording. They could make three or four at a time by literally putting three or four machines in front of him, each with its horn sticking up. This was imperfect and at times only two or three of the machines produced a good copy. Then he would sing it again, and now they have three more copies, and he would sing it again, etc. He would sing all afternoon and build up a stock of approximately fifty cylinders to sell. It was really a hand made industry, and the artists who were successful had to sing or play the selections over and over again just to build up stock. He had hundreds upon hundreds of recording sessions just to produce stock of these two big songs.

JJM  And since the business model at the time was to pay by the session, when they figured out how to mass produce these recordings, the artists didn’t have to record as much, and their opportunity for income was reduced rather substantially.

TB  Yes, that is right. He got paid by the session, or by the “round,” as they called it — a round being each time he sang the song. While they were paid only a few pennies per round, it added up, and it was possible a performer like Johnson would receive three or four dollars per session, which was a lot of money in those days. When duplication did come in, a master would not be permanent but they were able to duplicate two or three hundred copies from it, yet they were still paying three or four dollars per session. If it was a good seller, they would come back in and record another master and make another three or four dollars. But the technology got better as time went along, and by 1902, the cylinder and disc companies both came up with much more robust mass production facilities. As a result, they could now make thousands of copies from one original, and that basically put George Johnson out of business since he had just the two songs consumers wanted.

JJM You also profile George Walker and Bert Williams, one time quoting Williams as saying, “Talk to me about the infusion of white blood for the betterment of the Negro race. I do not believe in it. I tell you the black man’s’ future lies in the development of his faculties — physical and mental — as a Negro. I think the white race has not realized the latent possibilities in us.” Were Williams and Walker successful at moving away from the most offensive stereotypes while not alienating white audiences?

TB  Yes they were, and after Walker died, Williams continued on as an extremely successful solo act for the Ziegfeld Follies shows, and performed high class vaudeville during the 19-teens and right up until his death in the early twenties. He wrote a lot of his own material, and most of it was personality oriented and had almost nothing to do explicitly with race. The songs were about the “Jonah man,” the downtrodden guy for whom everything goes wrong, which “Nobody,” his most famous song, epitomized. By the end of his career in the early twenties, he was a beloved American, and was revered as someone who never sang the old-fashioned coon songs. Probably the most interesting recordings we have of his are his stories. He recorded a couple of twelve inch discs — extended into four minutes or more — which are the exact stories that he told while performing on stage. They are stories that almost anyone can relate to, even if it is about a black preacher. It is leagues from what he was doing in the early 1900’s. That is not to say this material is appropriate for today, because these stories would still be offensive on some levels, but it clearly shows an improvement over that time. And this growth was intentional on his part.

JJM You devote a lot of attention to the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

TB  Some of these artists I profile have not been very well accepted by modern scholars, or they have been dismissed altogether. The Fisk Jubilee Singers, for example, were left out of the Blues and Gospel Discography — which has been the standard discography in that field for years — on the basis that they weren’t “authentic.” That is a terribly slippery word, but they weren’t considered authentic because they performed mostly for white audiences. However, once you go back and really study their career, you learn that they were a very important element in the development of black musical culture and its effect on white America. They weren’t trying to be authentic, they weren’t representing themselves as singing as how field hands sang in Louisiana in the pre-Civil War days. Their music was concert hall music, it was music for educated people. It was music that had a kind of soul to it that white concert music didn’t have, yet it was orchestrated and carefully performed by trained singers. There was nothing wrong with that. It was important that a large class of people understand that blacks could sing that kind of music. Prior to the Fisk Jubilee Singers, blacks didn’t sing in concert halls, they would clean the hall up after the white people left! That was about the only access they ever had to concert halls. When the original Fisk Singers were touring in the 1870’s and would get up on stage, some of the writers didn’t know what to make of them — they thought it was some sort of minstrel show because they had never seen properly dressed, properly trained black singers singing formally. By the time they recorded for the first time in 1909, they were quite famous, but their type of music had never really been on record before, therefore had never been widely distributed to white America. Most of them didn’t go to churches to hear the concerts the Fisk Singers had been giving for years, but they bought their records — they were very big sellers.

JJM  You described the Fisk Singers as being one of the original cross-over artists.

TB  That’s right. One of the many incredible things I learned while writing this book was the vast kaleidoscope of the types of black culture that was represented here. This is not a book just about blues, or just about jazz. Sure, it is about those things, but there are so many facets of black culture that were captured on these recordings, including concert and formal music. There is a whole world of that.

The lives they led were fascinating, and they came from such different backgrounds. I can’t imagine, for example, that Roland Hayes and George W. Johnson would have had anything in common, but they both represented a part of black culture, as did the Fisk Singers, the Reverend Myers, who did the earliest recitations of Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s poetry, and Edward Sterling Wright, who did more of it a couple of years later, as well as the boxer Jack Johnson.

JJM I had forgotten that Jack Johnson was a sort of pioneer of spoken word and wellness recordings.

TB  That was an eye opener, because I knew him as the Muhammad Ali of his day — a high living, poke-your-finger-in-the-eye of white America kind of personality. He was such a courageous, outgoing personality considering the era in which he lived. It is remarkable how he got away with what he did. How did he get away with it? Well, people who have written of him turned him into a total caricature of a loud mouthed, flashy black man taunting America during a period of intense racism. The fact is that when you go back and really study what he said and then listen to him speak, he was a very smart guy who knew just how far to go, and how to play the theme of fairness.

Whatever we think about what happened on any many horrible levels regarding race relations during that era, there was a fundamental belief among many Americans that fairness looms very large in America. Johnson showed how this feeling of fairness absolutely collided with racism. He asked how Americans could say they are fair when an entire class of people are shoved out the door. Relating to his own career, he questioned how a fighter — in his case the best fighter — fights by the rules but is not given the opportunity to compete for the title. That argument resonated with sports fans in America. Even racists knew that he was a good fighter. Listen to him on these recordings talk in his conciliatory way and communicating his “May the best man win” slogan, and then hear him discuss health and conditioning and the importance of drinking lots of water as the key to a longer life and ask yourself, “How can I find that objectionable?”

JJM  Concerning Black Swan Records, the label owned by W.C. Handy’s partner Harry Pace, you write, “According to publicity put out by (black publisher Harry) Pace, Black Swan caused a stir in the industry. ‘When the announcement was made that a company had been formed to manufacture phonograph records of selections by our (black) artists a great uproar was caused among white phonograph record companies who resented the idea of having a Race company enter what they felt was an exclusive field.’ Pace would later claim that the white companies had tried to prevent him from lining up pressing facilities, even going so far as to buy a failing pressing plant he was using in order to shut him out. He later bought the plant himself.” Was Black Swan able to compete with the white owned record companies?

TB  Yes, and despite his chest thumping in this quote, it failed basically because it did not have the financing that the white companies did, and there were some problems with its artistic vision too. White companies were less racist than opportunistic. It isn’t as if they came to work each morning thinking how to best suppress blacks — they came to work in the morning to sell more records than the other guy. Unlike an industry such as banking and older, more established businesses where racism was part of their fabric, this didn’t appear to be the case with the recording industry. This technology really helped minorities.

I am not as convinced that he was hindered or driven out of business by racism as I am that the oligopoly that existed in the business prevented him from competing. Therefore, it was harder for him to get distribution, it was harder for him to get artists, and it was harder to get financing for his company. Pace started Black Swan at the time of a major economic downturn — the recession of 1921 — that drove even the mighty Columbia Records into bankruptcy and severely damaged Edison and Victor as well. The only company that grew into anything significant during that period was Brunswick, and probably only because they had the deep pockets of the Brunswick Pool Table company behind it.

We were talking before about the artistic vision of the early record companies, and Pace’s vision, at the beginning, was to have the broadest range of music. He had his own classical artists and a Red Seal label to show that he could do that, but it was only the blues records that sold. If he had been a smarter business man, he probably would have turned his back on the classical stuff until he could get this company off the ground, and only produce what people wanted to buy. He could have gone full bore after the market white companies seemed to have difficulty picking up on. He got too creative before he was able to keep the lights on. Although Harry Pace was a good businessman in other areas of his life, he kind of blew it with Black Swan. However, he left us with some great recordings in the process.

JJM Many of the personalities you profile were breaking new ground and displayed incredible courage for their times.

TB  Yes. You ask people you interview about their childhood heroes, and, while I didn’t know these people when I was growing up, W. C. Handy would have been a hero of mine for what he did. He has been thought of badly in some ways, and the purists don’t really like him, but my goodness, he accomplished so much and brought such great music to America during his life. He was a skillful entrepreneur, and while he was almost driven out of business in the twenties, he managed to get his copyrights back and inspired the support of some white people who helped him along the way. He was a proud man, and an amazing visionary.

Roland Hayes is an incredible character study. He was dirt poor, from a farm in Georgia, yet he would not take “no” for an answer, and knocked down so many walls in the process of opening the concert hall to blacks. He started his own record company and went after the esoteric repertoire of the era — the classical arias and spirituals no one else wanted African Americans to record — so he was not appealing to the popular culture. His company released the earliest classical recordings by a black artist. Like Handy, he was an enormously proud and determined man who moved through tremendous barriers just from the force of his personality.

JJM  How many commercial recordings were made by black artists prior to 1920, and how many are in print?

TB  I have identified roughly eight hundred distinct recordings by black artists prior to 1920. That doesn’t count all the remakes of the same song — like Johnson doing copies of his two songs, for example. Of those, because of the sweeping copyright protection laws in the United States, four hundred are still under copyright. The other four hundred are available as a result of companies going out of business so they fell into the public domain as a result of disuse, or through donations to the government like that made by the McGraw Edison Company in the fifties. That leaves four hundred still under copyright, which is a sad story, because of those four hundred, after thirteen years of searching, I have only been able to identify two that have been made available by the copyright holders.

JJM  Come on…Only two of these recordings out of four hundred currently under copyright are available to buy?

TB  That’s right, and both of them are Bert Williams recordings. The rest of the recordings have not been paid any attention to. All of the masters have been destroyed — they have all been thrown out years ago. Victor literally blew up its vault in the sixties, making way for a condominium.

JJM  That was visionary, wasn’t it?

TB  Yes, very visionary. Nevertheless, Congress has given the record companies pretty much everything they want. Whenever they come to Congress concerning this issue, they win, partially because they have big lobbying groups there, and partially because the people who are trusted with the public interests — the universities and the associated scholarly associations — haven’t spoken up, and haven’t yet figured out how to make the case for public accessibility of these records. As a result, the laws regarding copyright protection have become more and more sweeping. They were last extended in 1998 by the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which basically threw out twenty years worth of public domain recordings in this country. One of the subsections of the Act specifies that recordings will be protected by copyright through the year 2067. So, if we all live long enough, in 2067 these recordings will suddenly become available — unless there is another copyright extension, of course. It is one thing if the companies that owned them were at least making them available to us, but they aren’t, nor will they make them available to independent marketers.

JJM  So, if you and I wanted to get together and put an anthology of the one hundred critical recordings of this era, and went to the copyright holder for permission to publish these recordings, they wouldn’t allow that?

TB  They may allow it, but then it becomes an issue of economics. They would charge something like one thousand dollars a track, and not because the recordings are valuable but because their lawyer’s time is costly. So, if we put out a CD with twenty songs on it, that is a twenty thousand dollar investment right there, even before we get into marketing and distribution costs. Most music enthusiasts and independent record companies who put these kinds of packages together can’t justify these kinds of expenses.

JJM  Yes, especially given the condition of today’s music market. You might get lucky and sell three or four thousand copies.

TB  Maybe that many. However, if you would like to move to England, you could do it just fine. In fact, foreign labels have reissued much of the American culture that can’t be reissued here. It is ironic. Our laws serve to let the rest of the world see our culture and keep it out of our hands.

JJM  I see some pretty amazing box sets coming out of England in the stores.

TB  The law is pretty porous, and it is violated as much as it is observed. The problem is that it is mostly violated by small operators. You really have to go through a lot of work to get that stuff ordered from overseas, and good luck if you have ever tried to transfer small amounts of money overseas to buy a record. After thirteen years of diligence I have been able to collect most of these recordings, but it has been a long, hard search. The institutions like the Smithsonian and the Association for Recorded Sound Collections — an association I belong to — would be happy to reissue a lot of this if we were not afraid of being sued by the copyright holders. Because they won’t give entrepreneurs publishing rights for a reasonable amount of money, it has put a complete damper on the public interest in these recordings. Meanwhile, go over to England and pick these up. Document Records, which started in Austria but it is now located in England, has released practically every jazz and blues recording made before World War II that isn’t available somewhere else.

JJM  The good news is that given the distribution of imports over the Internet now via retailers like Amazon, recordings like these may be relatively easy to obtain.

TB  Yes, and I should say that many of these sets are put out with loving care, carefully restored and documented, so they are not “cheap” reissues. People who put them out love the music. Our laws, ironically, serve nobody’s interests — certainly not the record companies interest because they are not making any money from them — and they certainly don’t serve the public’s interests either, because they can’t get their hands on the records with any real consistency. I am hopeful my book will help address this.

JJM  What has the most value of any of the recordings you write about in your book?

TB  The recordings that sell for the largest amounts of money in an Ebay type auction are generally early jazz recordings. Recently there was an auction going on for a Williams and Walker recording that probably sold for one thousand dollars. The Dinwiddie Quartet has taken on a certain amount of cache among rock collectors because they recorded a number of things that sound very “rhythm and blues-ish.” They recorded in 1902, and on the rare occasions those records become available they usually sell for between five hundred and one thousand dollars.

JJM  Last question…Have you discovered any artists since the book was published that should have been included?

TB  Well, the reason the book is six hundred pages long is because I included every black artist I could locate within the time span of 1890 and 1919. I am confident in saying the book is quite comprehensive in its coverage. There are no other black artists I know of who recorded prior to 1920 who are not mentioned in the book. That doesn’t mean one won’t show up, but I don’t think anyone of significance will show up — not unless we discover Al Jolson was really black…



Lost Sounds:

Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890 – 1919


Tim Brooks

About Tim Brooks


JJM  Who was your childhood hero?

TB  I was always fascinated with music and television. In music, I would have to say that Elvis was a childhood hero of mine. When I was growing up, he was just becoming popular, and was the voice of my generation. Fortunately, I didn’t adopt all of his lifestyle choices, or I wouldn’t be here today. As for a hero in broadcasting, early on in my life I liked James Garner. I liked actors and people who had an off beat sense of humor about them.




Tim Brooks is Executive Vice President of Research at Lifetime Television. He is co-author of the award-winning Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows and The Columbia Master Book Discography, and the author of Little Wonder Records: A History and Discography. He is past president of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections and a frequent contributor to scholarly journals.



Photo Gallery

Editors Note:  Some of the photographs and quotations within the photo gallery may be objectionable to contemporary readers.  It is important to remember the times and the context in which they were made.  They are included to help illustrate the complexities of the culture in which these artists performed.

Photos used by permission of the author

Phonogram, December, 1892

George W. Johnson, c. 1892, when he was in his mid-forties.  It is the earliest known picture of Johnson.


“George W. Johnson was a New York City ‘street artist’ when he began recording, a poor black man who whistled and sang jaunty tunes for the coins of passersby and a well-known character in the city’s tenement-filled lower West Side.  His life — spanning some of the most significant eras in American history, the Antebellum South, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and the inception of the age of modern mass media — began in a social order far removed from anything we can imagine today.”

– Tim Brooks


Collection of Tim Brooks

Cover to the sheet music for “The Laughing Song,” published in 1894


“‘The Laughing Song’ was Johnson’s other big number, and it proved just as popular as ‘The Whistling Coon.’  It was evidently written by Johnson himself (at least, it was copyrighted by him, and no other composer was ever credited with it).  Its clever, intricate lyrics, with phrases such as ‘a quiet bit of chaff’ and ‘if he had not been a quince,’ suggest a talented, literate writer — or someone who had a lot of help.  It was, however, the same ‘coon song’ mockery of the black man.

“What made this silly little song irresistable was its chorus, in which Johnson laughed in time with the music.  It sounds nonsensical, and it was, but it never failed to draw grimaces, smirks, and guffaws from the most jaded listeners to the coin-slot machines.  Who would not find amusement in the sound of uproarious laughter accompanied by a catchy melody?”

– Tim Brooks


Laughing Song


Columbia Record, August, 1907

The last known picture of George Johnson, at age sixty, 1907


“One of the most unique characters in the talking machine world is George Johnson, who is now working for all the companies, doing ‘laughing songs.’  Johnson is said to be the most infectious laughter in the country.  He is described by the talking maching men as the original ‘haw-haw’ man, and practically every laughing song heard on the phonograph is sung by him.  He even figures in some songs which have only a few bars of laughing chorus or a laughing line.  Johnson is a Negro who has been making a living by his exhuberance for years.  In the old days, it is said, he once sang the same song 56 times in one day, and his laugh had as much merriment in it at the conclusion as when he started.”

Music Trades Review, 1906


Library of Congress

Johnson in the recording studio, 1898


“…the ability of the record companies to produce large quantities of discs from single master recordings through improved production methods was beginning to have a significant negative impact on artists’ incomes.  Fewer sessions were required to maintain the companies’ stocks.  Some rerecording was still done to take advantage of improved recording techniques and replace worn-out masters, but artists felt the effects of technological unemployment.  Johnson, with his limited repertoire, was particularly hard-hit.  For example his first Victor session took place in December 1900.  He returned to the Victor studios in September 1902 and May 1903, but never again.  Even though his recordings remained in the Victor catalog until 1910, his services were no longer needed.”

– Tim Brooks


Library of Congress

A traveling phonograph exhibitor in the early 1890’s


“My patrons are of all classes — rich and poor, young and old, male and especially female.  I go to schools, colleges, asylums, etc., etc., wherever I have paying inducements.  I have lately had a call to go to a grove near this place for a Sunday exhibition, but I get about all the work I want during the six days, without [working] the seventh.

“I carry fifty selections and try to have them all good…Johnson’s ‘Whistling Coon’ and laughing song are immensely popular, and I presume they will always be.  There is more call for them than for any other selections…

“My last customer after listening to ten selections remarked, as he laid down the ear tubes, ‘Well, that is d—-d nice,’ and this about what they all say.”

–  A New England traveling phonograph exhibitor, from Phonogram, July, 1892.


Bert Williams in the recording studio, c. 1920


“Bert Williams is often referred to as the first black ‘superstar’ of the twentieth century.  He achieved enormous success in vaudeville and on the Broadway stage, and was popular with black and white audiences alike.  But we need not remember him only by old photographs and the memories of those who saw him.  Often overlooked is the fact that in addition to being a top-rank actor and comedian, he was also an extremely popular recording artist and the best-selling black artist of the pre-1920 period by far.  His recordings managed to convey his unique stage persona in a manner that appealed to both black and white record buyers.”

– Tim Brooks


Everybody Wants a Key to My Cellar


Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, July, 1897/photo courtesy David Jasen

Bert Williams and George Walker, at the start of their career, 1897


“In September 1900 Williams and Walker staged their greatest hit to date, Sons of Ham…The plot concerned the attempts of Tobias Wormwood (Williams) and Harty Lafter (Walker) to masquerade as the sons of an old man named Ham, in order to inherit his fortune.  They soon discovered that the real sons were away studying to be acrobats and were about to return.  A great deal of physical comedy ensued before the imposters were finally forced to flee.  The plot was hardly sophisticated, but most ‘musical comedies’ at this time were really extended variety shows, held together by a thin story line and containing interpolated acts of all kinds.  While plenty of its elements would be considered offensive today, it was relatively free of of the extreme stereotypes found in other ‘black’ shows then running.  Williams and Walker had already begun to focus on human, rather than racial, comedy.  Commented one black reviewer, ‘chicken stealing gags and crap game songs are conspicuous by their absence, this is delightfully refreshing.'”

– Tim Brooks


photo courtesy David Jasen

Bert Williams and George Walker, starring in In Dahomey, c. 1903


“Williams and Walker are a great deal to blame for being the originators and establishing the name ‘coon’upon our race.  They met a white man in San Francisco by the name of McConnell, who put them on the [vaudeville] circuit.  In order to achieve success and to attract the attention of the public they branded themselves as ‘the two real coons.’  Their names, accompanied with ‘coon’ songs, were soon heralded North, East, South and West…Williams & Walker and Ernest Hogan were not old enough then to know the harm they had brought on the whole race.  They needed the money, what little they received, and the white people needed the laugh [and made the money].  Colored men in general took no offense at the proceedings and laughed as heartily on hearing a ‘coon’ song as the whites.  But where the rub came is when the colored is called a ‘coon’ outside of the [theater].”

– A 1909 Freeman editorial


My Little Zulu Babe


Columbia Records supplement, April, 1921

Bert Williams, the blackface “Jonah Man”


“Williams has certainly been remembered, though more for his contributions as a black man than for his talents as an entertainer.  Had he been white, his career would have been long forgotten.  Appreciation of his accomplishments has been tempered somewhat by modern discomfort with the mere acknowledgment of the racial climate in which he lived.  Any mention of coon songs, blackface humor, and his ‘shuffling darkey’ persona still makes some people uncomfortable.  (According to several sources, a planned scholarly reissue of the 1901 Victor recordings by the Smithsonian Institution in the 1970s was suppressed due to complaints by a black staff member).  To ignore these realities is to ignore the very forces against which he had to struggle, and thus to misunderstand profoundly the contributions he made.”

– Tim Brooks




photo courtesy Doug Seroff

The Fisk Quartet, 1909


“The saga of the Fisk University Jubilee Singers is one of the most remarkable chapters in the annals of African American music.  This unassuming chorus from a small southern college was the first performing group to bring black music suitable for the concert stage to an American public that had previously seen the race mostly through the prism of minstrel stereotypes.  The few black concert performers who preceded them, such as Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield (known as the Black Swan), who was active in the 1850s and 1860s, had emphasized standard white repertoire.  The great and lasting contribution of the Fisks was the introduction of the spiritual to America’s musical literature.”

– Tim Brooks


Little David/Shout All Over


Edison Phonograph Monthly, January, 1910

Polk Miller


“Polk Miller…[a white man]…organized, toured with, and recorded with a black quartet.  Those recordings, made in 1909 and very nearly not released, provide perhaps the most direct aural link we have with the music of black America in antebellum times.”

– Tim Brooks


Edison Phonograph Monthly, January, 1910

Polk Miller’s “Old South Quartette”


Genuine Negroes

They Look, Act and Sing Like the “Old Times”

With a view to giving the general public a true and faithful reproduction of Plantation Life and Scenes before the War, Mr. Polk Miller of Virginia, who is recognized as the very best delineator of Southern life and character in the Negro sketches, has organized and drilled for the purpose a quartette of the best Negro singers ever heard on the platform. They are taken from the tobacco factories of Richmond, Virginia, and, as types of his subject, could not be improved on.  Their singing is not of the kind that has been heard by the students from “Colored Universities,” who dress in pigeon-tailed coats, patent leather shoes, white shirt fronts, and who are advertised to sing Plantation Melodies but do not.  They do not try to let you see how nearly a Negro can act the White Man while parading in a dark skin, but they dress, act and sing like the real Southern Darkey in his “workin'” clothes.  As to their voices, they are the sweet, though uncultivated, result of nature, producing a harmony unequaled by the professionals, and because it is natural, goes straight to the hearts of the people.  To the old Southerner it will be “Sounds from the Old Home of Long Ago.”  To others who know of Southern Plantation Life from much reading, it will be a pleasant and Educational Pastime.

A 1910 Polk Miller program brochure


Jerusalem Mornin’


Sound Wave, August, 1914/courtesy of British Library

Jack Johnson at the Edison Bell Studios, England, August 1914


“Jack Johnson was one of the most inflammatory black men in America in the early 1900s, lionized by most blacks and despised by many whites.  It is not generally known — and biographies omit to mention — that he visited the recording studios several times during his heyday, recording descriptions of his fights (including the famous ‘Great White Hope’ fight in 1910), talking about his exploits outside the ring, and giving advice on health and fitness.  Not only do we have silent films of this extraordinary athlete and lightening rod for racial tensions, we have his own voice describing his life and philosophy.”

– Tim Brooks

Runnin’ Down the Title Holder


Talking Machine News/courtesy of British Library

Jack Johnson recording at Edison Bell, without a script, July, 1914


“Ladies and gentlemen, first of all I want to thank each and every one for this grand occasion.  I am here this afternoon to speak a few words on physical culture.   Some people seem to think that one that is fat, to get that fat off, that they will have to diet themselves. It is absolutely untrue.  First you must take exercise — strut, and walk, and perhaps a little run.  You can use dumbbells.  You can use the medicine ball.  You can also use what we term as a punching ball.  That alone will take all of the excess flesh [?] off of anyone that will use it.

“Some people seem to think if you drink water it will make you fat.  Water is the most strengthening thing that we can possibly use.  We can go two or three days without food, but we cannot go so long without water.  Water, it makes the blood…rich, but also gives strength to the heart.  And you will notice, one that drinks a lot of water, he, or maybe she, will never have any trouble with their kidneys.  And they always have regular beats of the heart, and it also gives one a very enticed appetite.  I myself, after a long, hard jog on the road, before breakfast, I will come in, and after I have my rubdown, I will partake perhaps a quart of water or a little more.  Then I have gained some two or three pounds of strength.  Not in weight, strength alone [that] will help one to overcome any pain.”

– Jack Johnson, from his 1914 Edison Bell recordings


Talking Machine News/courtesy of British Library

Jack Johnson and his wife, Lucille, surrounded by onlookers, outside the Edison Bell Studios, August, 1914


Edison Phonograph Monthly, December, 1913

Edward Sterling Wright, 1913


“Most ‘platform speakers’ were white, but African Americans understood better than most the value of education (which they had been long denied), and some of their own entered the field.  One of these was New York’s Edward Sterling Wright, who left us an unusual legacy in the form of readings of the poetry of the famous black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, recorded on Edison cylinders in 1913.  These are among the earliest spoken-word recordings dealing with serious literature. ” 

– Tim Brooks


A Little Christmas Basket/Howdy Honey Howdy


“One of the most influential and revered black musicians of the 1910’s is, paradoxically, one of the less remembered today.  Murdered at the age of thirty-nine, James Reese Europe was in the early stages of a brilliant and colorful career that might well have earned him a more prominent place in history books had he lived into the 1920s.  As it is, we know him primarily from a handful of interesting and innovative recordings.  He was the first black bandleader to record in the United States, and his records are fascinating precursors of big band jazz.”

– Tim Brooks


Darktown Strutter’s Ball


Talking Machine World, May 15, 1919

Pathe Records promotional art, 1919


“The Tempo Club contains about two hundred members, all musicians, and from this body I supply at present a majority of the orchestras which play in the various cafes of the city and also at the private dances.  Our Negro musicians have nearly cleared the field of the so called gypsy orchestras…

“Yet we Negroes are under a great handicap.  For ‘The Castle Lame Duck Waltz’ I receive only one cent a copy [sheet music] royalty and the phonographic royalties in like proportion.  A white man would receive from six to twelve times the royalty I receive, and compositions are far less popular than mine, but written by white men, gain for their composers vastly greater rewards.  I have done my best to put a stop to this discrimination, but I have found that it was no use.  The music world is controlled by a trust, and the Negro must submit to its demands or fail to have his compositions produced.  I am not bitter about it.  It is, after all, but a slight proportion of the price my race must pay in its at times almost hopeless fight for a place in the sun.  Someday it will be different and justice will prevail.

– James Reese Europe, in a November, 1913 interview with the New York Tribune




Collection of Tim Brooks

Will Marion Cook


“Will Marion Cook was one of the most respected black composers of the early 1900s.  His career extended from the beginnings of the black musical theater at the turn of the century to the spread of jazz in the 1920s, and he was a key figure in both.  His name is frequently cited in histories of black music in America.  As with a number of icons of black musical history, though, it is not generally known that he recorded some of his best-known works.”

– Tim Brooks


Swing Along


Victor Records supplement, January, 1915

The Tuskegee Institute Singers at the time of their first recordings


“We are told to our faces often that though our quartet is one of the best that has been heard up here, they would like us better if we would ‘play the Nigger’ — their own words — more…every day we are made to understand that if there was less refinement about us and more fool, we would do better…When I have about three persons ask for the [spirituals] and about four score ask that we dance and sing songs which tell of Negroes stealing chickens, I make no pretensions to try to please.”

– Tuskegee Quartet member Isaac Fisher, c. 1900


Good News


Collection of Tim Brooks

Wilbur Sweatman made his name in vaudeville playing three clarinets at once


“Although he doesn’t get much respect from jazz historians today, Wilbur Sweatman was one of the great pioneers of recorded African American music, during the transitional years from ragtime to jazz.  Legend has it that he made the first recording of Scott Joplin’s ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ on a locally made cylinder around 1903.   He made what are arguably the first jazz clarinet recordings in 1916 and what are undeniably some of the first, and most popular, ‘jass’ band records in 1918 – 19.  First and foremost, though, Sweatman was an entertainer, and his highly successful career as a vaudeville novelty performer has for some obscured his musical accomplishments.”

– Tim Brooks


Ev’rybody’s Crazy ‘Bout the Doggone Blues, But I’m Happy

Down Home Rag


Columbia Records supplement, November 1918

Wilbur Sweatman’s Jazz Band at the Columbia studios in 1918.  Sweatman is at far left.


Sweat Blues


Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle from their 1923 short film, Snappy Songs


“Among African Americans who recorded prior to 1920, two of the best remembered are the team of Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake.  In their day they were major stars of vaudeville and the Broadway stage, but probably the chief reason their names live on is the extraordinary success (as a composer) and longevity of Eubie Blake.  Blake became a major celebrity in his eighties and nineties, playing and talking about the ragtime music he loved to a generation far removed from the era in which it was created. He lived to the age of one hundred, and his death in 1983 made national headlines.  Sissle and Blake each first recorded in 1917, making them pioneers among black recording artists.”

– Tim Brooks


Sounds of Africa, by Eubie Blake


Emerson Records ad, Phonograph and Talking Machine Weekly, March 16, 1921

Noble Sissle’s Sizzling Syncopators, with Eubie Blake at the piano


Love Will Find a Way

Great Camp Meetin’ Day


Collection of Tim Brooks

W.C. Handy, later in his life


“W.C. Handy, ‘Father of the Blues,’ is one of the best-known black Americans of the twentieth-century and his ‘St. Louis Blues’ is one of its best-known songs.  Less well known are the struggles he endured, the important role that records played in popularizing his innovative music during the 1910s, and the story of his own recordings, most of them made between 1917 and 1923.”

– Tim Brooks


St. Louis Blues


Because W. C. Handy’s band members didn’t want their picture taken, Columbia commissioned this 1918 drawing


“You do not attempt to describe the music of Handy and his Jazz Orchestra.  You dance to it.  When the ‘Livery Stable Blues’ is turned over to the tender mercies of a dozen negro musicians equipped with all the instruments of an ordinary orchestra added to a various assortment of barn-yard implements, you find yourself in a maze of melody from which the only escape is to dance.

“W.C. Handy is the originator and composer of all the famous ‘Blues,’ the most typical, modern truly American dance of the day.  Handy’s complete orchestra, Handy himself and all his ‘Blues’ is the latest Columbia dance achievement.  Ragtime sits ten rows back of the ‘Blues’ when it comes to the vital spark of super-syncopation!  Remember Handy and his orchestra play only for Columbia.

“The following ‘Blues’ and jazz dance selections are played by Handy’s full orchestra.  The entire organization made a special trip from Memphis, ‘the home of the Blues,’ to make these unique Columbia records.”

– Columbia Records promotional copy of a 1918 Handy recording


Snakey Blues


Boston Symphony Orchestra program/Boston Symphony Orchestra archives

Black classical music singing peformer Roland W. Hayes


Do you own a phonograph of any make and have you tried to purchase records which would bring to your home the singing and playing of the best Negro artists?  Of course you were offered records of popular airs and popular music and possibly a few records of quartet songs by Negro singers.  But that wasn’t what you wanted. You wanted to bring to your home and to your family and to your friends the voice of the individual Negro singer or the playing of the individual Negro performer who would take high rank among the invisible makers of music and singers of song whom the phonograph has brought to cheer your spare moments after the grind of the day’s work is done.

At last this is possible.  Roland W. Hayes, the acknowledged leading singer of the Negro race, has brought out his first record and he has plans for many others in the very near future.  Nothing else could so well introduce the series as the favorite and plaintive Negro melody, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”  The record sells for $1.50 and can be used on any machine using disc records.

– A Roland Hayes placed advertisement in the May 1918 Crisis, the national magazine of the NAACP


Arioso, from Pagliacci


Tim Brooks products at Amazon.com


This interview took place on May 10, 2004


If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Bessie Smith biographer Chris Albertson


Other Jerry Jazz Musician interviews

# Text from publisher.

Photos and text used with the consent of the author.




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painting by Vaino Kunnas
Jazz…in eight poems...A myriad of styles and experiences displayed in eight thoughtful, provocative poems…

Jazz History Quiz #172

photo of Teddy Wilson by William Gottlieb
Teddy Wilson once said this about a fellow jazz pianist:

“That man had the most phenomenal musical gifts I’ve ever heard. He was miraculous. It’s like someone hitting a home run every time he picks up a bat. We became such fast friends that I was allowed to interrupt him anytime he was playing at the house parties in Toledo we used to make every night. When I asked him, he would stop and replay a passage very slowly, showing me the fingering on some of those runs of his. You just couldn’t figure them out by ear at the tempo he played them.”

Who is the pianist he is describing?


photo via Picryl.com
.“Community Bookshelf, #2"...a twice-yearly space where writers who have been published on Jerry Jazz Musician can share news about their recently authored books. This edition includes information about books published within the last six months or so…

Contributing Writers

Click the image to view the writers, poets and artists whose work has been published on Jerry Jazz Musician, and find links to their work

Coming Soon

A new collection of jazz poetry; a collection of jazz haiku; a new Jazz History Quiz; short fiction; poetry; photography; interviews; playlists; and lots more in the works...

Interview Archive

Eubie Blake
Click to view the complete 22 year archive of Jerry Jazz Musician interviews, including those recently published with Richard Carlin and Ken Bloom on Eubie Blake (pictured); Richard Brent Turner on jazz and Islam; Alyn Shipton on the art of jazz; Shawn Levy on the original queens of standup comedy; Travis Atria on the expatriate trumpeter Arthur Briggs; Kitt Shapiro on her life with her mother, Eartha Kitt; Will Friedwald on Nat King Cole; Wayne Enstice on the drummer Dottie Dodgion; the drummer Joe La Barbera on Bill Evans; Philip Clark on Dave Brubeck; Nicholas Buccola on James Baldwin and William F. Buckley; Ricky Riccardi on Louis Armstrong; Dan Morgenstern and Christian Sands on Erroll Garner; Maria Golia on Ornette Coleman.

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