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.
On one hand there was the wonderful and amazing talent as expressed by the diversity shown in the first and fourth segments of the disc. But, as they demonstrate with the second and third segments, there were also the demeaning things they used to have to do just to get their music recorded or performed and gain access to the music they were for most part denied. I can't even begin to imagine the indignity black musicians had to have felt putting on Black Face and performing caricatures of themselves in Minstrel Shows that fit white audiences stereotypes of the shuffling, stupid, black slave who just loved to sing and dance for Massa'.
Listening to tracks fifteen through twenty-six on disc one, Minstrel and Vaudeville Traditions, it's hard to get by the style and content to appreciate the artistry of the performers. The fact some of the songs were called "Coon" as a reference to style is hard enough to take, but hearing grown men forced to demean themselves by talking a kind of pidgin slave talk in order to sell their music is enough to make you sick.
Track fifteen is a recording of a black performer named Charley Case, who received acclaim for his witty and intelligent monologues. "Experiences In the Show Business" is no exception, and one can see the origins of today's stand up comics in his routines. But the underlying irony of these performances that was missing in his day is the fact that Charley Case was "passing".
Charlie's skin colour was obviously pale enough he could pretend to be white, something that black people would attempt on occasion in order to be accepted as equals in society. People who lived this lie usually did so in constant terror of being discovered especially if, like in Charlie's case, they were in the public eye. More often than not their lives ended in tragedy and Charlie was no exception as he died of apparent self-inflicted gunshot wounds.
But the reasons for trying to pass are only too evident when you listen to what other performers were being forced to do in order to have their work accepted. Ex-slave George W. Johnson was considered the first Black recording star, but from his first recordings in 1891 and onwards the music he was performing bore titles such as "The Whistling Coon" and were classified as "Coon Songs".
Due to the limitations of the recording industry he was forced to record that one song innumerable times, because that's what audiences wanted to hear. Although the music may not have been what we consider the highest quality, Johnson at least opened the door for other performers to be recorded because he proved there was a market for recorded music by black performers.
On the first half of disc one there are performances that represent the earliest attempts at popular music by Black performers. There are toned down gospel numbers, referred to as spirituals, which, as performed by groups like the Apollo Jubilee Quartet, bear little resemblance to what the rollicking, passionate sound we associate with black gospel music. These songs are far more concerned with showing off the performers' prowess with harmony and vocal technique than imbuing them with the energy contemporary audiences find so appealing.
Disc two of this set represents the other two characteristics of Afro American music at this time; attempts to broaden the base of what was "allowable" for them to perform, and the other style of music that was considered acceptable for blacks in this period – dance hall. The latter was a precursor to what we know as the big band sound, and foreshadowed both Jazz and Blues.
As there were very few black composers at the time, those performers wanting to make a name for themselves as serious vocalists were forced to perform material whose lyrical content wasn't the most appropriate. The songs of Steven Foster were popular material with white audiences so that catalogue was drawn upon, even though the titles included names like "Old Black Joe" and their content was about "happy darkies" on the plantation.
Like Paul Robson after them, male singers in these years began to do solo performances of old spirituals showing off the richness of their bass voices to good effect. It was also around the early twenties that women began to have recording careers as well with solo performances of some minor operatic solos. It was during this time as well that various black musicians began to record instrumental pieces on violin and piano.
These attempts at breaking the stereotype of the shuffling darkie met with limited success and were overshadowed by the beginnings of the dance hall music craze. Prior to World War One, the fox trot craze brought White audiences and black bands together in bars and clubs, so it was only natural that the more popular bands began to record this music. Jim Europe's Society Orchestra was popular before World War One, and their experiences in the war only served to increase their popularity.
Songs like "Darktown Stutters Ball" were given a more martial beat and a syncopated rhythm that encouraged dancing and generated new audiences for recordings. The young could now pick up their favourite dance songs and play them at home. These recordings immediately preceded the Jazz bands whose popularity really began to soar in the mid to late twenties.
Once Jazz, and subsequently Blues came onto the scene, opportunities for Afro Americans to perform any music but those two genres almost completely dried up. A few notable exceptions were able to carve out careers in movies and on stage. But even people like Paul Robson, who were world renowned, were limited to recording spirituals and show tunes like "Old Man River" from Showboat
Obviously the sound quality of a great deal of the material on Lost Sounds is poor at best, but what is surprising, when you consider the sources of so much of this material was wax cylinders that people would find in garage sales or basements, is how good the quality is. Due to the nature of the recording process a lot of the high and low ends were lost in even the originals, but with duplication the sound was even further degraded.
On occasion the sound is very thin, like listening to a voice recorded via a telephone earpiece in the days prior to mobile phones with MP3 players and portable recording studios included. But in some ways it's not the quality that's important about these songs, more the story they tell us about the nature and the shape of African American music at this time.
Segregation and the colour bar might have prevented many of these performers from having what success they did as their opportunities for live shows would have been limited. The fledgling recording industry provided them with at least some notoriety and at best some money for their efforts.
Lost Sounds: Blacks And The Birth Of The Recording Industry 1891 – 1922 supplies a fascinating glimpse into the lives of musicians prior to the days of the music that we most associate with the modern era of black music.