In the South, the
lives of whites and blacks have always been closely interwoven.
In an economy based on cotton, their relationship was symbiotic.
Both needed the other for their livelihood. It was a relationship
unthinkable in the North. Francis Davis, author of The History
of the Blues states that "floods and boll weevil infestations
spelled disaster for everyone, landowner and sharecropper or tenant
farmer alike." He reports that in 1889, when a white mob
killed an approximated 25 blacks in Leflore County, MS reacting
to hearsay about a black armed uprising, many cotton farmers in
the county gave protection to any black who sought it1.
This account is an example of white recognition of the indispensability
of blacks as workers, but it was also around this time that whites
began to see the value of blacks as American cultural contributors.
Whites began recording the blues in the early part of the 20th
century thus extending the typical relationship between blacks
and whites in a positive direction.
Whites and blacks
began to work together for a common good; both were making money
and documenting history, whether they were aware of it at the
time or not. This section investigates the benefits of bringing
whites and blacks together in a business setting.
Once record companies
realized that blues was a moneymaker, they began sending out scouts
with transportable equipment to record the music. For example,
with the success of Blind Lemon Jefferson's second record in the
1920s, record companies immediately sent scouts to Dallas (Jefferson's
hometown) to look for more bluesmen. They also consulted blacks
when it came to which artists to promote and the language to use
in advertising copy (see examples). While these advertisements were most often
stereotypical of the image whites had of blacks, they did demonstrate
an effort by whites to understand the culture and music of blacks.
Even if it was for purely monetary purposes at this point, it
did provide a reason why whites should see blacks more as human
beings and less as sheer laborers2.
Many people today
complain that recording companies financially took advantage of musicians
because the artists were often denied royalties and copyrights.
However, Jeff Todd Titon points out in Early Downhome Blues
that the money made from the sales of the records made by
these artists was seldom enough to cover the cost of recording,
production, and distribution. The companies were not obligated
to pay the artists a flat rate for their services: however, by
paying a flat wage for royalties and copyrights the musicians
were guaranteed to leave with money in their pocket regardless
of how well their records sold. It was also very difficult to
supply these blues artists with royalties because during the early
1900s they usually did not hold a regular address. The artists
happily conceded to the immediate lump-sum payment agreement because
they suspected it would be very likely they would never see a
royalty check if the company was given an easy excuse for not
mailing it to them. The people who were most hurt by this system
were the truly popular bluesmen such as Blind Lemon Jefferson
and Blind Blake who brought in large amounts of revenue, but never
saw any of it after their initial award. However, the extra profits
of artists like these two compensated for the low sales of other
artists' records. Their misfortune made it possible for record
companies to go out searching for other talent and make other
2. Titon, 207, 214, 226
3. Titon, 221
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