Recorded Music in American Life: The Phonograph and Popular Memory, 1890-1945

By William Howland Kenney | Go to book overview

6
AFRICAN AMERICAN BLUES AND THE PHONOGRAPH
From Race Records to Rhythm and Blues

They don't care nothing about me. All they want is my voice . . . If you colored and can make them some money, then you all right with them.

--Blues singer Gertrude "Ma" Rainey as portrayed in August Wilson, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

I invented Louis Armstrong.

-- Ralph S. Peer, Okeh and Victor Record Producer

Commercial recordings of music made by African Americans, discs designed by record companies to sell to African Americans, finally emerged in the 1920s as a further extension of earlier ethnic music recording programs. The phonograph's mediation of the musical experience for both performers and listeners emerges clearly enough in ethnic records, but all the more so in those marketed to African Americans. The process whereby recordings of members of this particular group came to be made the way they were at a given period in time indicates how society helped to shape the uses of recording technology. As African Americans undertook a historic emigration from the rural South to northern industrial cities during this time period, their music tended to become more secular, individualized, and commercialized while retaining powerful elements of African and southern Black musical culture. 1 Those who sang and played the blues in recording studios recognized in their experiences with sound technology bright new possibilities in the musical entertainment business but also expressed a deep ambivalence

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