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The Rise and Fall of Black Swan Records

In May 1921, in a small basement on 138th street in Harlem, Harry Pace launched Black Swan Records, the first major Black-owed record label in the United States. Today on the podcast, we tell the story of the historic label and the mystery behind the man who created it.

Harry Herbert Pace (courtesy of Peter Pace)

It was the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance. The city was brimming with Black musicians, performing in bars, nightclubs and the cabaret circuit. But when it came to recording music, opportunities were few. The white-owned labels — Columbia, Victor, Aeolian, Edison, Paramount —- recorded few black artists. And when they did, it was often limited to novelty songs and minstrel music.

Pace arrived in Harlem alongside the famous composer WC Handy, known as “Father of the Blues.” The two owned a sheet music publishing business, Pace & Handy Music Co., which created and sold original compositions from Handy himself and other Black composers. Pace also had his eye on the recording industry and seized an opportunity to build a brand new label, with exclusively Black artists. His mission was to uplift the race through music.

All he needed was a star. 



Advertisement for Ethel Waters’ Down Home Blues, Chicago Defender (June 1921)

Ethel Waters was making a name for herself on the cabaret circuit in Harlem. She was known as ‘Sweet Mama String Bean,’ she was tall, thin, and elegant. Her voice was smooth and sophisticated, a perfect fit for Pace’s new label. He invited her to the studio where she recorded a brand new song, Down Home Blues. As soon as the record hit the market, it was an instant success and sold more than 100,000 copies in the first six months. Pace promptly sent Ethel Waters and the Black Swan Troubadours on a nationwide tour, traveling to 53 cities in both the north, and the south. A dangerous venture for Black musicians in 1921.

Over the next two and a half years, Harry Pace would record dozens artists including Blues singers Trixie Smith and Alberta Hunter, jazz band leader Fletcher Henderson, and classical composer William Grant Still. Their roster was packed with talent of all genres, breaking stereotypes of what Black artists could do. These musicians would go on to have enormously successful careers and would change the sound of American culture.

This story was produced with grant support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Lily Auchincloss Foundation. Archival audio came from Yale University’s Oral History of American Music. Special thanks to journalist Paul Slade and his book Black Swan Blues. Thanks also to Mark Berresford and Bill Doggett for their research and collections of rare Black Swan Records.

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