Spinning Race: African American Music and the Transatlantic Record Industry

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 10:50 AM
Virginia Suite C (Marriott Wardman Park)
Celeste Day Moore, Hamilton College
In 1951, Big Bill Broonzy arrived in France for a month-long tour that included stops in provincial cities, small towns, and summer resorts. The blues singer and guitarist had enjoyed a successful career in the United States during the 1930s, but recording opportunities had dried up after World War II, when US record labels stopped selling “race records.” While his career floundered at home, Broonzy had become an underground sensation among French jazz fans seeking traditional “folk” music. Immediately following the 1951 tour, the French record label Vogue recorded Broonzy’s “Black, Brown, and White,” his first to directly address the problem of racism in the United States. Later that year, Vogue released a vinyl version of the single, which revitalized Broonzy’s career as a blues performer, and cemented Vogue’s role as the preeminent producer and distributor of African American music in Europe.

My paper examines the production, circulation, and reception of this record. By linking Broonzy’s career to the transformations that occurred in the French and European blues markets, this paper queries the role of the record industry as an agent of political and social change. On one hand, record labels provided a new venue for a wide range of African American musicians who not only found new opportunities to record but also new channels through which to form an aesthetic rebuke to American racism. At the same time, however, many African American musicians were excluded from the ensuing profits, even while their racial visibility authenticated the proliferation of mass commodities and ensured revenue for the growing French record industry. In calling attention to this structural contradiction and inequity, this paper considers how the mobility of capital through goods and people was framed by the simultaneous limits to mobility and expression imposed on African Americans in the global marketplace.