Black Swan Records

By NY Times 7/31/11

Q. The liner notes for one of my albums mentions a Black Swan Records in New York. It sounds interesting. Could you tell me about the company?

A. Black Swan Records formally existed only from 1921 to its bankruptcy in 1923, but its cultural influence was profound. “By 1924, Black Swan was known not only as a pioneering black-owned business, but also as a radical experiment in black politics and culture,” David Suisman, a history professor at the University of Delaware, wrote in Humanities magazine last year.

The first major black-owned record company, it was founded by Harry H. Pace, a banking and insurance worker who had graduated valedictorian of his class at Atlanta University, where he became a disciple of one of his professors, W. E. B. Du Bois, the sociologist and founder of the N.A.A.C.P. Pace worked as the business manager of an early Du Bois journal of black ideas and culture. Later, in 1912, he met W. C. Handy, the “father of the blues,” in Memphis, and they formed the Pace & Handy Music Company, combining Pace’s business knowledge and Handy’s creative genius. In 1918, they moved Pace & Handy to the Gaiety Theater building on Broadway, which they promoted as the Home of the Blues and their company as the Leading Colored Music Publishers.

In early 1921, Pace struck out on his own, taking most of the office staff with him to found Pace Phonograph Company — its first office was in his home on West 138th Street — and starting Black Swan Records. It was aimed at recording black performers at a time when many big record companies would not. Pace’s goal was to challenge white stereotypes by recording not just comic and blues songs, but also sacred and operatic music and serious ballads. Du Bois was one of Black Swan’s directors.

The label’s name honored Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, a 19th-century concert singer known as the Black Swan. The pianist on Black Swan’s earliest releases was Fletcher Henderson, a future big-band leader and arranger, who was also the company’s recording manager. An aspiring chemist, he had been hired by Pace & Handy as its song demonstrator.

The company’s earliest releases were fairly pedestrian until Pace signed Ethel Waters, whose recordings of “Down Home Blues” and “Oh Daddy” were a sensation. So was a vaudeville tour of Black Swan artists that Pace organized. Within a year, the label was a national one.

Black Swan was quickly a victim of its own success; it had alerted other record companies to what they were missing. White-run companies began to bid competitively for top black musicians. It also suffered from a conflict between its goals of commercial success and musical uplift.

“A paragon of middle-class decorum, music director Fletcher Henderson ensured that the music never got too hot,” Professor Suisman wrote. Black Swan passed up the opportunity to sign Bessie Smith, who made a fortune for Columbia.

“For Black Swan, blues was acceptable only to the point that it did not threaten middle-class respectability,” Professor Suisman wrote. “But, of course, this was exactly what made Bessie Smith’s music so exciting.”

By the time it folded, he noted, Black Swan had issued more than 180 records across the United States and abroad, begun the recording careers of Fletcher Henderson, Ethel Waters, Trixie Smith and Alberta Hunter, and given many other musicians an opportunity to record. It also woke up the music business. 

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