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  • Extra!Chicago Defender Race Records Ads Show South from Afar
  • Mark K. Dolan (bio)

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Figure 1.

Outspoken advertisements for blues records—termed "race records" by the industry—appeared by the hundreds in the Chicago Defender during the 1920s. These lavishly illustrated ads told of broken love affairs, loneliness, violence, and jail, in concert with travel to and from the South—by train, boat, on foot, and in memory—all this despite the Defender's editorial stance, which urged African Americans only to leave Dixie. Paramount advertisement, courtesy of the Chicago Defender.

[End Page 106]

In January of 1926, a record advertisement for Bessie Smith's "Florida Bound Blues" appeared in the Chicago Defender's entertainment section, showing the blues queen wrapped in overcoat and scarf, waving farewell from a southbound caboose. "It's so cold up North," Bessie complained in the ad, which told readers they could buy the record at Kapp Music Company, 2308 West Madison Street. Outspoken advertisements for blues records—termed "race records" by the industry—appeared by the hundreds in the Defender during the 1920s, opening a venue within the newspaper through which African Americans could encounter the artists. These lavishly illustrated ads told of broken love affairs, loneliness, violence, and jail, in concert with travel to and from the South—by train and boat, on foot and in memory—despite the Defender's editorial stance urging black southerners to leave the region. Practically every entertainment section featured two or three ads, juxtaposed with editorial content that promoted musical success through industry, frugality, and moral living. Curiously, the paper wrote very little about the performers in these ads. Only once during the decade, for example, was Bessie Smith the subject of a weekly musical column, yet the paper carried over a hundred ads for her records alone.1 While the Defender's founder and publisher, Robert S. Abbott, advised blacks to leave the South rather than to fix it, here was Bessie preaching about going back.

The Chicago Defender's well-known promotion of the Great Migration increased its circulation in the North and South in part by dramatizing black opportunity and achievement. With its masthead motto "Race Prejudice Must Be Destroyed"—a motto that survives on the paper to this day—the Defender became the first black newspaper with a national readership thanks, in part, to its extended network of advertisers, distributors, and black consumers, though the last was a new group that both editors and record company executives didn't fully understand. The paper circulated south in the arms of the Pullman porters who brought back copies of out-of-state newspapers and magazines for Defender staffers to pirate. Touring entertainers also carried the Defender, taking subscriptions and finding news. Children selling the Defender on the sidewalks took record orders, too.2

As the Defender vowed deliverance from southern violence, its record advertising recalled the South as home, enticing readers to participate in that memory—despite the racial stereotypes used to sell the music. As presented in the ads, music forged a new bond among readers by presenting the South as shared memory, though the musical approach and lifestyles associated with the artists challenged the Defender's message of racial uplift, that is, of advancing the race through hard work and right living. As the migration's promise fell short, readers needed a safety valve. Blues and its advertising offered this, a cathartic uplift that nudged and cajoled the paper's musical prescriptions.3 [End Page 107]


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Figure 2.

As the Defender vowed deliverance from southern violence, its record advertising recalled the South as home. Columbia Records advertisement, courtesy of the Chicago Defender.

Race records ads told a rival story, looking at the South from afar. Throughout the decade, references to the South appeared in 148 song titles, in ad narratives, and in the performers' names. Among women blues artists, Ethel Waters sang "Down Home Blues"; Mamie Smith, "Arkansas Blues"; Ida Cox, "Alabama Bound Blues"; Clara Smith, "Down South Blues"; Bessie Smith, "Gulf Coast Blues," Monette Moore, "Texas Man Blues"; and Bertha "Chippie" Hill, "Georgia Man." Among the bluesmen...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 106-124
Launched on MUSE
2007-09-17
Open Access
No
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