The spectacular success of Mamie Smith’s recording of “Crazy Blues” in 1920 was partly due to a wave of black nationalism sweeping the nation, especially the southern part, immediately following the end of WWI. The Roaring Twenties were aptly named for the hedonism that prevailed in that decade in spite of, or more accurately, because of Prohibition that drove the consumption of alcohol underground, but did not stop it. The “Harlem Renaissance,” also called the “New Negro Movement” was in full swing during the entirety of the 1920s. Not only in music and the arts, the cultural boom in Harlem gave black actors opportunities for stage work that had previously been withheld. Traditionally, if black actors appeared onstage, it was in a minstrel show musical and rarely in a serious drama with non-stereotypical roles. The Harlem Renaissance changed all that, making the area a new mecca for all sorts of black entertainers and artists.
Bessie Smith’s breakthrough recording showed white recording companies of the time that black music could be profitable and it also opened the door for the first black-owned recording company – Black Swan Records – which became, for a short time, a pillar of the Harlem Renaissance. Wikipedia claims that the Harlem Renaissance was a turning point in black cultural history. It helped African American writers and artists gain control over the representation of black culture and experience, and it provided them a place in Western high culture.
“Based in Harlem, Black Swan Records was founded in 1921 as the record division of Pace Phonographic Corporation by Harry Pace, a music publisher and former professor of Greek and Latin. Pace named the division after African American opera singer Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield (1809-1976), known as ‘The Black Swan’. The label’s mission was to serve black stockholders, employees, singers and musicians,” writes Michelle Cranfield in the Black Past online blog.
If Black Swan records was one of the pillars of the Harlem Renaissance, then blues singer and entertainer Ethel Waters (1896-1977) became the cornerstone of the company. Her biography on IMDb states that she was “the child of a teenage rape victim. Ethel Waters grew up in the slums of Philadelphia and neighboring cities, seldom living anywhere for more than a few weeks at a time. ‘No one raised me,’ she recollected, ‘I just ran wild’.”
Recognition of Ethel’s smooth singing voice came slowly through performing in church choirs. Then came her big breakthrough. Her 1921 recording of “Down Home Blues” skyrocketed to number five on the charts of the day, putting Ethel in the Harlem and national spotlights. She recorded for Black Swan from 1921 through 1923. Her contract with Harry Pace made her the highest paid black recording artist at the time. Some of the song’s lyrics are as follows:
“Woke up this morning, the day was dawning,
And I was feeling all sad and blue,
Lord, I had nobody to tell my troubles to;
I felt so worried,
I didn't know what to do.
But there's no use in grievin’,because I’m leavin’,
I'm broken-hearted and Dixie-bound;
Lord, I been mistreated, ain’t got no time to lose.
My train is leaving,
And I got the down-home blues.”
In early 1924, Paramount bought Black Swan, and Waters stayed with Paramount through the year before moving to Columbia Records. She later became the first African-American star of a national radio show. In middle age, first on Broadway and then in the movies, she successfully recast herself as a dramatic actress. “Devoutly religious but famously difficult to get along with, Waters found few roles worthy of her talents in her later years,” concludes her biography.
During its brief but spectacular existence, Black Swan Records specialized in jazz and blues recordings; it also became the first company to record black classical musicians. From 1921 to 1923, Black Swan Records would release over 180 records, a number that far surpassed any subsequent black-owned record company until the 1950s. It is not an exaggeration to state that Black Swan Records paved the way forward for generations of black recording artists.
Ethel Waters sings “Down Home Blues”