Black Swans – First Recordings of Black Classical Artists


Title: Black Swans
Artist: Various
Label: Parnassus
Format: CD
Release date: August 23, 2019


As many readers are no doubt aware, Black Swan was the first major record label in the country to be owned and run by African Americans for the exclusive promotion of Black artists. Founded in 1921 during the Harlem Renaissance by publisher Harry Pace, the company also involved other luminaries: a young Fletcher Henderson served as recording director and de facto accompanist, William Grant Still was hired as composer/arranger, and W.E.B. DuBois was an early investor. At a time when white-owned labels were developing “race” series and limiting Black artists to recording blues, jazz, and gospel music, Black Swan expanded its catalog to include classical singers and instrumentalists, documenting the performance practices of a phenomenal group of concert artists. Now, almost 100 years later, Black Swan classical 78s are very rare and most have never been reissued! This groundbreaking new compilation, Black Swans, includes the first recordings of black classical artists from the label’s short-lived 7100 operatic series, in addition to other rarities.

Before delving into the contents, we must give thanks to the amazing trio of sound recording historians who brought this project to fruition: Leslie Gerber, owner of the classical reissue label Parnassus Records; Tim Brooks, author of Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry 1890-1919, who generously supplied some of the rarest sides from his own collection; and Steve Smolian, noted audio restoration engineer whose transfer expertise has resulted in remarkably clear sound, and who also supplied recordings from his personal collection. Their labor of love will be much appreciated by those who purchase Black Swans.

The first part of this set is notable for the inclusion recordings from the exceedingly rare Broome Special Phonograph Records label. The Massachusetts mail-order company, founded by African American entrepreneur George Broome (who also managed Roland Hayes’ private recording venture), released a dozen sides of Black concert music two years prior to the founding of Black Swan. The label’s first releases from the fall of 1919 comprise the first five tracks of this set, which opens with the only known commercial recording by composer Harry T. Burleigh. In a deeply resonant baritone voice, he performs his popular arrangement of the Negro spiritual, “Go Down Moses.” Though Burleigh’s voice is not as melodious as the great Roland Hayes, who recorded this arrangement several years later, it is still a compelling performance. Edward H.S. Boatner, a New Orleans born bass-baritone who became Hayes’ protégé, performs two concert spirituals, including Burleigh’s arrangement of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” Another revelation are the two tracks featuring composer R. Nathaniel Dett performing his original piano compositions “Barcarolle,” from his second suite In the Bottoms, and “Mammy” from Magnolia Suite. These are the only commercial recordings Dett ever made, and while we might wish for a performance of his more popular and idiomatic “Juba Dance,” we can still appreciate these interpretations by one of the foremost Black composers of the early 20th century.

Five tracks are devoted to acclaimed soprano Florence Cole-Talbert. Though many may be familiar with her songs on Black Swan—delightful renditions of the “Bell Song” aria from Lakme, the popular parlor song “The Last Rose of Summer,” and Arditi’s “Il Baccio”—she also made two recordings for Broome—Dell’acqua’s coloratura showpiece “Villanelle” and the spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” the latter arranged by noted composer Clarence Cameron White. A trained violinist, White made his only solo violin recordings for Broome, performing his simple “Cradle Song” and the more interesting “Lament” from his Bandanna Sketches, which employs spiritual-based melodies.

The next set of tracks feature Hattie King Reavis, who seems to have been omitted from the liner notes, possibly due to a dearth of biographical information, and Chicago-based soprano Antoinette Smythe Garnes. Of the two, Garnes is the more accomplished singer, offering two popular arias recorded for Black Swan—“Caro Nome” from Rigoletto and “Ah! Fors’e Lui” from La Traviata—as well as Haydn’s “My Mother Bids Me Bind My Hair” recorded for Broome. However, Reavis, who apparently was also involved in stage productions, offers a rich contralto in her performances of Gounod’s “There Is a Green Hill” (which is actually track 13, not 14) and Dett’s arrangement of the spiritual “I’m So Glad Trouble Don’t Last Always” (track 14, incorrectly listed as track 13, “Make More Room”).

Though Roland Hayes was already a burgeoning concert artist in 1918, he was initially spurned by the major labels who saw no sales potential in his recordings. Instead, Hayes made a limited number of his own private pressings (perhaps as many as nine) using Columbia’s custom service. Seven are included here—three opera airs, three arranged concert spirituals, and one art song. Those who have only heard Hayes singing concert spirituals will certainly enjoy his early performances of the arias “Vesti la Giubba” from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, “Una Furtiva Lagrima” from Donizetti’s L’elisir D’amore, and “Sollene in Quest’ora” from Verdi’s La Forza Del Destino.

The set closes with Harry Burleigh’s performance of Faure’s “Les Rameaux” from a recently discovered 1944 broadcast on WNYC. Recorded near the end of Burleigh’s life, his voice is somewhat tentative, but this was a fine tribute to the composer by Mayor La Guardia, who included Burleigh on his weekly radio program.

Though a few of these recordings appear in the companion CD to Brooks’ Lost Sounds, and others have been added to YouTube by enthusiastic collectors, there are certainly enough rarities to warrant the purchase of Black Swans. An enthusiastic thumbs up, this is a must purchase for libraries and scholars of Black music who will relish this deep dive into the early recording history of Black concert artists.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss