Skip to content Skip to sidebar Skip to footer

Race Records (AtoZ Challenge 2016 – Jazz Age Jazz)

RACE RECORDS (AtoZ Challenge 2016 – Jazz Age Jazz) Throughout their existence, Race Records sold practically only to African Americans and based their appeal on authenticity to a variety of qualities including musical characteristics
RaceRecord based their popularity with the #AfricanAmerican community on authenticity towards their history and culture #jazz #jazzmusic #jazzhistory Click To Tweet
R - Race Records (AtoZ Challenge 2016 - Jazz Age Jazz)

The 1920s were the golden age of the recording industry. True, it was the dawn of that business, it was still rough and clumsy, but it offered an array of entirely new possibilities to make money.

Offerings of recording aimed to a particular audience began when record companies realised there was an untapped market of new immigrants yarning for the sound of home. Catalogues of ethnic records were produced specifically for this market and included re-pressed recordings form Europe and new recordings by American immigrants artists. These records were marketed directly to the specific ethnic community and seldom found their way outside of that context.

Harry Herbert Pace was an African-American music publisher and insurance executive, and the founder of Black Swan Records
Harry H. Pace – Founder of Balck Swan Records

The first jazz record specifically labelled as such was recorded in 1917 by the Original Dixieland Jass Band, a white band originally from New Orleans. Not until 1920 black musicians and singers started to make recordings with any regularity. That was the year in which black composer and pianist Perry Bradford championed a young entertainer named Mamie Smith, who recorded a version of Bradford’s Crazy Blues with the General Phonographer’s Company OKeh label. It was a huge success. It sold 75.000 copies the first week in Harlem alone and prompted OKeh Records to launch their own ‘race records’ line, the first ethnic line produced explicitly for African Americans.
Soon, other white-owned record companies followed in OKeh’s footsteps and the outstanding success of these records had in African American communities across the nation made it possible for smaller – and often short-lived – black-owned companies to open business. Among these, Black Swan was the most pre-eminent.

Race Records were sold practically only to African Americans and based their appeal to authenticity to a variety of qualities including musical characteristics, performer reputation, the race of performers and even the race of the company employees and owners. In fact, the name ‘race records’, that whites might have connected to segregation, probably had a very different meaning for African Americans who in the 1920s were strongly called to upholding the Race pride.

Race records didn’t just offer blues, although that was the principal and more popular subject. They also featured sermons, minstrel songs, spirituals and gospel tunes, popular song and some early jazz.
Sales reached 5 million copies a year. Newsboys sold blues records. So did door-to-door salesmen. Pullman porters carried copies south with them and paddled them in whistle shops.
They were hugely popular.


Ogren, Kathy J., The Jazz Revolution. Twenties America and the Meaning of Jazz. Oxford University Press, New York, 1989

Shmoop – Race in blues music history
Encyclopedia Britannica – Race Records
The Library of Congress – African American Performers on Early sound Recordings (1892-1916)
The People History – 1920s Music
PBS – Jazz


  • Tasha
    Posted April 21, 2016 at 09:16

    It always takes one pioneer to start the gold rush, doesn’t it. I wonder what percentage of the recordings have survived, what with it being such a particular market.
    Tasha’s Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)

    • Post Author
      Posted April 22, 2016 at 05:54

      I’m no expert, but I suppose quite a lot. These records were very popular, there was a great number of them produced every year.
      Besides, it isn’t difficult to find recordings from the era even on you tube. I suppose most of them come from race records. Black music wasn’t really listen to outside the African American community, back in those days.

  • Kathleen Valentine
    Posted April 21, 2016 at 15:40

    I can only imagine how thrilling it must have been for people to have records of their own music, sermons, stories. I wonder how many have survived all these years.

    Meet My Imaginary Friends

    • Post Author
      Posted April 22, 2016 at 14:33

      I’m really no expert, but I’d guess quite a few have survived. I mean, it isn’t they were rare 😉

  • Arlee Bird
    Posted April 21, 2016 at 15:13

    Recording companies have come a long way. Wish I had some of those old records!

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host

    • Post Author
      Posted April 22, 2016 at 05:55

      Have you tried ask our mutual friend, the Internet? 😉

  • Jessica A Goodsell
    Posted April 21, 2016 at 15:25

    Wow! I would love to listen to some of those first recorded songs!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 22, 2016 at 05:57

      A lot of them are on you tube. While researching this theme, I’ve come across many reproduction of the Black Swan recordings 🙂

  • Megan Morgan
    Posted April 21, 2016 at 20:02

    I had no idea about this! Like Arlee said, I would love to get my hands on some of those old records!

  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted April 22, 2016 at 18:51

    I first heard the term “race records” when I was 20 or 21, and in the homestretch of the first draft of my first Russian historical. The source I found it in said it referred to jazz records, as a kind of euphemism for letting white folks know this was music made by African–Americans. The source also said they were typically only sold in African–American stores, in places like Harlem, never white establishments.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 22, 2016 at 21:09

      As I understand it, race records had very little to do with withes whatsoever.

  • Shilpa Garg
    Posted April 24, 2016 at 18:37

    1917!! Wow! The first Jazz record came out that early! amazing!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 25, 2016 at 08:09

      And isn’t it amazing that we can still listen to that recording, one hundred years later? It doesn’t seem possible that so much time has passed.

Leave a comment