Friday, March 21, 2008

American Field Recording Trips

In the early 1920s most of the major record companies recorded the women Blues singers in New York, during the periods that artists lincluding Bessie Smith, Ma Rainy, Ethel Waters and Ida Cox worked the city’s theatres. It was OKeh, an independent label started in 1918, that released Mamie Smith’s Crazy Blues (OKeh 4169) in November 1920; rather than one of the big two labels, Columbia and Victor.

In 1921 record sales reached 100 million for the first time and by 1923 Columbia was more active in the Race recording field than Victor. It was Bessie Smith, Clara Smith and Papa Charlie Jackson that gave Columbia the edge. Paramount were also on the ascendancy, they were the most effective of all the labels in exploiting the vast untapped market for recordings by black performers.

Paramount’s artists from the South headed north to the company’s recording studio in Chicago, the other labels all maintained studios in New York City. After the initial success of the classic Blues singers the labels had to look farther afield for artists to record. The first field trips were in 1923, with more taking place in 1924 and 1925. But it was the discovery, in 1926, of Blind Lemon Jefferson, which stirred the labels into a frenzy of field recording. Interestingly, although Blind Lemon was discovered in Dallas he, in true Paramount fashion, was taken to Chicago to record.

Scouts from the record companies travelled throughout the South in the search for new artists. These men would either arrange for an artist to travel north to a company’s home base or alert the company so that a mobile recording unit could record the artist the next time they were in the area. Neither were these field trips exclusively to record black artists, or blues singers. They recorded gospel and religious music as well as Hillbilly artists - the forerunners of country performers.

The mobile units visited cities for periods ranging from a few days to a few months, often setting up their recording unit in a hotel. The time taken to alert potential recording artists of the labels visit somewhat dictated the length of time they spent in any one city. Some artists would recall when a company made their annual or bi-annual visit to the town, and made sure they were around. Field recording also inadvertently encouraged the practice of artists adopting pseudonyms in order to record more sides for different labels.

Sporadic field trips took place late into the 1930’s, which is how Robert Johnson first made a record. The Library of Congress were also running their own, more academic, trips in the 1930’s and 40’s. The opening of local recording studios helped to put an end to the trips. This also gave raise to another phenomena that would drive the whole history of the Blues and Rock and roll, the local independent record label.

Field trips were a very important aspect in the history of the Blues and popular music. Without them the story of the Blues would have been very different, some artists would never have recorded; history would have passed them by.

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