Race relations, social change, and American music

Minstrel show poster 1910

Minstrel show poster, 1910, showing two portraits of Billy Van

Race relations in the US are probably better than at any time in history. The recent racially motivated mass murder at a prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina demonstrates that they are not good enough.

Many simmering misunderstandings and controversies rooted in racial tension likewise show that we have a long way to go achieve racial harmony.

Harmony. That’s a musical term.

The history of American music reflects the history of race relations. Music has also played a role in bridging the racial divide.

American race relations in the late 19th early 20th centuries

From emancipation to the start of the Jim Crow Era, there was no legal distinction among white, black, and mixed race people. Even in the South, people of all racial categories patronized the same businesses, ran for and held political office, and otherwise exercised the rights guaranteed to former slaves by the Reconstruction Era constitutional amendments.

Southern states began to enact laws to force racial segregation in about 1890. Socially and legally, white people became superior to everyone else. Black people could not hold office, drink from the same fountains as whites, or even overtly demonstrate superior knowledge or intelligence.

The Progressive Era began at about the same time, but it was marred with racism from the start. Theodore Roosevelt, who became President in 1901 is acknowledged as America’s first progressive President. As William McKinley’s running mate in 1896, he declared that America’s treatment of Native Americans provided an adequate model for dealing with the non-white people (Puerto Ricans and Filipinos) in the territories that the United States had won in the Spanish-American War.

From Reconstruction until the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, the second progressive President, federal government agencies had been integrated, even though the rest of Washington was as rigidly segregated as anywhere else.

Wilson was Governor of New Jersey when elected President, but he was born and raised in the South—the first Southern President since Zachary Taylor. He regretted that the South had not prevailed in the Civil War.

Wilson immediately resegregated the military and civil service. No longer could blacks and whites serve in the same units or work together in the same offices. When a delegation of black professionals visited the White House to protest, he declared, “segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.”

A mass migration of blacks from the rural South to Northern cities took place during the First World War, much to the dismay of the cities’ white residents.

Black soldiers returning from the war ostenibly fought to “make the world safe for democracy” met with denial of constitutionally mandated basic rights, along with lack of access to adequate housing. They became increasingly militant.

Since before the Civil War, race riots in the US had been sparked by white violence against black victims. The Chicago race riot of 1919 may have marked something of a turning point. On July 27, a black teenager, Eugene Williams, crossed the unofficlal border between the black and white portions of a beach at 29th Street. Some white men knocked him unconscious by throwing stones at him, and he drowned.

Police refused to arrest the man black eye-witness identified as the one responsible. Angry crowds gathered, and a riot erupted that lasted until August 3. The article I have linked to does not say which side escalated the tension to the point of a riot. If the blacks did, it marks the first time in American history.

From segregation to integration in musical taste and performance

Kid Ory's Original Creole Band

Kid Ory’s Original Creole Band

Trombonist and band leader Kid Ory personifies the nadir of race relations after the Civil War as much as anyone. His father was white. His mother was of mixed race. He had six white great grandparents, one Native American great grandparent, and one black great grandparent.

According to the racial classifications prevalent throughout much of the 19th century, he was a octoroon. According to Jim Crow laws, anyone with “one drop” of black blood was considered black. So Ory, born about the same time as Jim Crow started, was a black man.

In 1920 record producer Ralph Peer decided to release a series of recordings aimed at the black audience and coined the term “race records” to describe it. Since society as a whole was segregated (de jure in the South and de facto elsewhere), it seemed natural that white and black audiences would like and buy different music. “Race records” was not intended as a pejorative term, but simply as a marketing short-hand.

Billboard, the recording industry’s principal trade magazine, began publication in 1942. Among other things, it kept charts of record sales. The record-buying public, then as now, had such wide tastes that a single chart made no sense.

Like Peer, Billboard assumed that the public’s tastes were segregated along racial lines. It called its “black” chart Harlem Hit Parade at first and changed it to Race Records in 1945, recognizing that black music and its audience were broader than simply the music played in Harlem. By 1949, the chart was called Rhythm and Blues.

After a few more name changes, there is still a R&B/HipHop chart to this day, although it has no particular racial significance. White audiences began to purchase and enjoy music from this chart, by whatever name, in the mid-1950s.

Apparently the first recording session of a mixed-race ensemble took place in 1929. Black pianist Fats Waller had to play behind a screen in order to preserve at least the semblance of segregation.

For public performance and radio broadcast, white and black bands were completely separate, even though they often played similar music. Or even the same music. In 1934, Benny Goodman, white, was starting his band and bought some of the best arrangements of Fletcher Henderson, a black band leader with no business sense who needed money. Eventually, Henderson joined Goodman’s staff.

Benny Goodman Trio

Teddy Wilson, piano; Benny Goodman, clarinet; Mel Torme, drums. Photo probably from the 1940s

The following year, Goodman invited black pianist Teddy Wilson to help form a trio that performed at Chicago’s Congress Hotel.

It may not have been the first time black and white musicians performed on the same stage, but Goodman had already become nationally famous.

The trio soon became a quartet with the addition of Lionel Hampton, another outstanding black musician.

In 1938, the Goodman band, joined by members of the Duke Ellington and Count Basie bands, became the first jazz ensemble to perform at Carnegie Hall. It appears that Goodman did not thumb his nose at tradition to make a political statement, but simply because he wanted to surround himself with the best musicians he could obtain, regardless of race.

An eccentric record collector named Harry Smith, on the other hand, deliberately set out to subvert the appearance of segregated musical taste. He became an acclaimed maker of experimental films in the 1940s and began to collect recordings. He decided to concentrate on “race records” and “hillbilly records” (terms he despised) mostly because they were cheap; no one else was collecting them.

Smith moved from San Francisco to New York in 1950 and met Moses Asch, who had started Folkways Records in 1948. Asch, a kindred spirit, had no interest in making a fortune by finding new pop stars. He chose to record whatever the other record companies ignored, including not only various kinds of American folk music, but spoken work recordings in numerous languages, and sounds from nature and machines.

Anthology of American Folk MusicBy the time he arrived in New York, Smith owned thousands of 78s and soon ran out of money. He asked Asch to buy his collection. Asch countered with a proposal that Smith could compile an anthology from his collection and produce it on LPs.

Smith chose 84 songs, limited to recordings made between 1927 (when recording technology could first reproduce sound accurately) and 1932 (when the Great Depression halted most production of folk recordings). Asch issued the Anthology of American Folk Music in three volumes of two LPs each in 1952.

In building his collection, Smith learned that white and black musicians had influenced each other all along, so he organized the anthology at least in part by juxtaposing white and black performers to show musical similarities.

The folk music revival of the 1950s took the Anthology as its starting point. White audiences started to enjoy music previously sold only to blacks, despite the record industry’s vigorous attempts to maintain separation by finding white artists to cover black hits.

As noted, Billboard still has an R&B/HipHop chart, but no one is under the illusion that only blacks buy the recordings on it. Taste in popular music has become color blind. Martin Luther King’s dream of an America where people are not judged by the color of their skin cannot come true until society as a whole follows the same example.


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