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How ‘Race Records’ Turned Black Music Into Big Business

Urban Marketing Group Staff

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In 1926, a self-taught musician named Big Bill Broonzy found his way to Chicago. A sharecropper turned soldier, he had left Mississippi and headed north to escape the pervasive racism of the Jim Crow South along with thousands of others of African-Americans in the Great Migration. Like many other black men, he worked as a janitor and a Pullman porter and a cook. But when he found himself in front of a microphone in a recording studio, the blues musician knew he had found his niche.

Broonzy’s recordings were sold as “race records”—music for and by black audiences. But though he recorded hundreds of songs in just a decade, responding to a national hunger for black voices and black music, he barely made any money. “I didn’t get no royalties, because I didn’t know nothing about trying to demand for no money, see,” he told Alan Lomax in 1947.

Broonzy was just one of thousands of black recording artists who helped fuel the phenomenon of race records between 1920 and 1940. But though these artists pioneered new sounds in blues, jazz and gospel, most labored for no recognition and little pay

At the time, America had segregated schools and buses. Black people had to watch movies and theatrical performances from hot, dirty balconies and were excluded from much of white culture, especially in the Jim Crow South. And even popular culture was segregated. “Race” media—music, films, and publications—was created by and for African-Americans, and white audiences seldom knew or cared about these creative art forms.

Read more by Erin Blakemore @ The History Channel HERE

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