Race Records: the Good, the Bad, & the Ugly Truths By Faedra Chatard Carpenter, Production Dramaturg

“I am what is known…as a ‘race man’.”
—August Wilson, The Ground on Which I Stand

When August Wilson referred to himself as a “race man,” he was emphasizing the centrality of African American culture in his life while paying homage to the 1920s birth of self-proclaimed “race men.” It was during the ’20s that pioneering African American intellectuals, artists, and activists began unabashedly embracing the phrase “race men,” a term that symbolized the growing sentiment of pride, militancy, and unity within Black communities. Now, if we recognize this bit of colloquial history, than we can also understand how terms of the day such as “race records” and “race music” were far from pejorative epithets, but rather were coined to capitalize on Black America’s increasing sense of solidarity and cultural vivacity.

The dawn of race music is usually associated with Mamie Smith’s 1920 recording of “Crazy Blues.” While there were some blues records prior to that time, it’s reported that “Crazy Blues” sold 75,000 copies in its first month— a striking figure considering that it only took about 20 cents to make a recording disc (they sold for 35-75 cents each) and production costs were covered with a minimal sale of 5,000 records. With the unexpected success of “Crazy Blues,” the record companies realized the unmined riches to be found in targeting a Black listening audience and the race music industry was born. At its zenith, race music was a hugely profitable venture, selling upwards of 100 million records each year.

For the most part, White recording companies (such as Okeh, Columbia, and Paramount) dominated the race recordings, but there were a few—if short-lived—Black-owned record companies such as Black Patti and Black Swan. The Black Swan company often advertised in newspapers and magazines such as The Chicago Defender or The Crisis, stressing their unique efforts in recording “high class” race records. Although this distinguishing claim was not wholly accurate, it does highlight the fact that race music boasted a spectrum of genres and forms. In addition to blues and jazz, race recordings were made of jug-and-washboard bands, string bands, gospel music, sermons, and even comic routines. Furthermore, race recordings were not categorized as such just because the artists were African American—it was the perceived listening audience that determined whether or not an act would be classified as “race music.”

While it can’t be denied that race records helped to promote African American artistry, the nascent recording industry was far from equitable to the artists themselves. First of all, Black artists were paid much less than White artists for recording sessions. In addition, the naiveté of Black musicians was uniformly exploited. Misled by the cunning machinations of White agents, African American artists were often given inaccurate accounts of record sales, were told little (if anything) about the copyright laws that could have protected them, and were underpaid—or simply denied—the due royalties from their recordings.

Undoubtedly, this conflicted history of the race music industry is ripe material for a “done been wrong” or “bad luck” blues song. It’s a real-life story about the triumphs and troubles of individual artists, as well as a chronicle of an industry’s accelerated rise—and perilous fall. With the onset of the Great Depression, leading race record companies such as Paramount and Okeh would be forced to close their doors and—for good and bad—the business of race music, as it was once known, would come to a discernable end.