New podcast tells the story of Harry Pace, forgotten blues pioneer
A hundred years ago, a young African-American businessman named Harry Pace released the Black Swan records. The label would only feature black music and in doing so would contribute to the social and economic prosperity of black people. Or that was the idea.
Pace got off to a rough start – his first set of outings grossed less than $ 700 and the business seemed to be sunk before it got started. Then Pace ran into a young black singer in Harlem called Ethel Waters and signed her on the spot. With the release of “Down Home Blues”, Waters transformed Black Swan and American music history. Just two years later, under intense pressure from white rivals, Black Swan went bankrupt and Pace sold the label, quit the music industry, and turned himself into a lawyer.
Her story is told in WNYC’s The disappearance of Harry Pace, a five-part miniseries from the makers of the Peabody Award America by Dolly Parton. It is presented by Jad Abumrad and Shima Oliaee and, like its predecessor, documents a person’s rise while telling a larger story about society and culture. As we would expect from the team that also hosts and produces Radiolab, the series is rich in detail and impeccably produced and researched. The story seldom ends where you think and offers a masterclass in storytelling.
Towards the end of his life, Pace seemed to make the conscious decision to disappear. When he died in 1943, no one other than his wife attended his funeral. Decades later, his great-grandchildren knew nothing about him and felt they were of Italian descent. As one contributor asks, “Why don’t we have three movies about this guy? “
Abumrad and Oliaee have brought together more than 40 experts and scholars, some from archival sources and others interviewed again, to piece together Pace’s life, but even they can’t fill all the gaps. Nevertheless, the bare bones of its history allow for remarkable listening. We learn how his mentor was black sociologist, historian and activist WEB Du Bois, who campaigned against lynching and the Jim Crow laws.
In his twenties, Pace quit a job at a bank to work with composer WC Handy, known as the Father of the Blues. The duo have collaborated on songs such as “Beale Street Blues” and “Saint Louis Blues”, the latter having been recorded by dozens of artists including Nat King Cole, The Beatles and Herbie Hancock.
After selling the Black Swan catalog and graduating in law, Pace tackled racist housing laws in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court and in so doing transformed the south side of Chicago. . But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of its history is the secrecy that surrounds it. It’s no exaggeration to say that Pace helped transform black culture but was ultimately silenced and forgotten. It’s not for nothing that presenters ask more than once, “Where are you, Harry?”