On Some Black Swans

The jubilant and historic news of the election of Georgia’s first black Senator coincides nicely with the birthday of Georgia-born Harry Pace (1884-1943), founder of Black Swan Records, and so with real pleasure today we write about him, his pathbreaking label, and the artist for whom he named it.

Our journey begins with Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield (ca. 1819-1876), the most famous female African American singer of the mid-to-late 19th century. Born into slavery in Natchez, Mississippi, Greenfield was named after her plantation mistress Elizabeth H. Greenfield. Don’t judge her namesake too quickly! Influenced by Quakerism, Greenfield divorced her husband, freed her slaves, sent most of them to freedom in Liberia, and lived with our Elizabeth in Philadelphia, giving her a good education and leaving a fortune to her in her will. After the elder Greenfield died, authorities held up payment for over a decade as they tried to prevent her heir from receiving her lawful inheritence. To survive, she taught music. She made her professional singing debut at a private function in Buffalo in 1851 and this is where and when she became known as “The Black Swan” — in emulation of Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, who had toured the U.S. the previous year.

For the next couple of years Greenfield embarked on a tour managed by Colonel John H. Wood, who later opened important dime museums and theatres in Chicago and New York. Unfortunately, Greenfield was forced to perform for all-white audiences, a fact for which she apologized. atoning by giving to what were then called “colored” charities. In 1853 she performed for an audience of 4,000 people at New York’s Metropolitan Hall. The following year she gave a command performance before Queen Victoria thanks in part to the patronage of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Her repertoire included classical opera selections by such composers as Handel, Bellini, and Donizetti, as well as then-new American popular songs such as “Home, Sweet, Home” and the compositions of Stephen Foster. After her years of performing, she taught voice and operated an opera company in Philadelphia. She died in 1876, not long before Swan Lake premiered in Moscow. It is unlikely that the ballet’s authors were paying homage to her with the character of Odile, but it is a happy coincidence nonetheless.

Harry Pace (1884-1943) was raised by a single mother 35 miles east of Atlanta and was valedictorian of his class at Atlanta University. As a young man, he worked in banking and insurance, but he also had a creative and entrepreneurial bent. He opened a printing business in Memphis in 1903 with W.E.B. DuBois. In 1905 the pair published a magazine called The Moon Illustrated Weekly that only lasted a few months. In 1912, he met Father of the Blues, W.C. Handy. The pair wrote songs together and formed The Pace and Handy Music Company, which worked with Fletcher Henderson, William Grant Still, and others.

In 1921, he started Black Swan Records with Henderson as manager and Still as arranger. It is widely regarded as the first black-owned record label, which made the music of seminal blues and jazz artists available to mostly black record-buyers at that time. It is naturally named after Elizabeth Greenfield. The artists Black Swan recorded included Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter, Katie Crippen, Creamer and Layton, Trixie Smith, Eva Taylor, Lovey Austin, Louis Armstrong, Blind Blake, Cow Cow Davenport, Papa Charlie Jackson, Skip James, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Jelly Roll Morton, Ma Rainey, Charley Patton, Roosevelt Sykes, as well as Fletcher Henderson himself, and many others. They also recorded classical and “legit” theatrical singers in the mold of the label’s namesake!

After Black Swan folded, Pace founded the Newark-based Northeastern Life Insurance Company, the largest black-owned business in the northern U.S. Later he got his law degree and set up a practice of his own. He died in 1943, just as the kind of music he’d done so much to pioneer was starting to expand and explode to unimagined levels of popularity.

At any rate, we celebrate you today, Georgia — for many reasons.