Most of us take it for granted that African American music made a straight line from the cotton fields of the south until it hit its first crossroads, the church or the tavern. We assume the music either evolved into Gospel or one of Jazz, Ragtime, and Blues. But prior to the 1920's and the rise of those latter three genres there existed a diversity of musical expression on par with those of European descent.
Black men and women alike were performing everything from Minstrel Shows to Operatic Arias on stages and concert halls across North America and Europe. In some ways the popularity of Jazz and the other musical forms we normally associate with African Americans may have cut off some great talent in other fields because they became "black music" and a form of segregation through that delineation.
How many classically trained black musicians had careers stalled because nobody wanted to hear a black man sing the lead role of Othello in the opera Ottelo or a black women sing Aida? Were black pianists refused hearings if they tried to play a Beethoven sonata instead of a Scott Joplin Rag? We might never know for sure, but one thing we do know is the talent did exist for a far wider range of expression than was generally allowed black musicians in the twenties and thirties.
One of the reasons people of our generation were not aware of this amazing talent was, of course, the dearth of viable recording equipment, and the fact that so many of the performers lacked the means to have their music recorded. But somehow or another recordings from that period, even ones etched into Edison style wax cylinders, survived long enough to be transferred to more permanent mediums, and have held on long enough to be salvaged through digital re-mastering and made into CDs.
Archeophone Records has gathered together from numerous sources an incredible collection of over 140 minutes of music from this period on a two disc set called Lost Sounds: Blacks And The Birth Of The Recording Industry 1891- 1922 (Which in turn is a companion to the book Lost Sounds by Tim Brooks published through University of Illinois Press). Over the course of the two CDs Lost Sounds presents not only the music of the period, but attempts to recreate the historical context within which these artists were forced to work.
Instead of simply lumping the songs together chronologically, they have divided the disc into four distinct parts: Vocal Harmonies, Minstrel and Vaudeville Traditions, Aspirational Motives, and Dance Rhythms. What they have attempted to do is provide us with the two different aspects of what it was like to be a black musician at the time.