As one of the first nonessential commodities marketed to African Americans, the race record industry provides historical insight into the cultural ethos and competing ethical values of black communities during the interwar period. Both ethnomusicologists and historians have discussed the ways race records articulate intraracial conflicts that were exacerbated by social factors such as migration and urbanization. But like all forms of mass culture, religious records served multiple purposes and were interpreted by listeners at varying registers. For many, religious recordings were spiritually edifying and liberating, just as they were wildly entertaining. And some may feel that these religious recordings contested the aesthetic values of the black middle class even as they reinforced prescriptive bourgeois behavioral codes. While the purpose of this essay is not to give voice to the listeners of religious race records, this essay does offer an initial attempt to illumine the broader cultural contexts in which these records, namely, recorded sermons, were both produced and consumed toward providing tenable interpretations of these recordings based on resonant religious beliefs and meanings of the historical moment. This essay is concerned with such questions as: What theological and political discourses were these preachers participating in on wax? What cultural symbols, explicit and implicit, did these preachers commonly reference? And what were the possible ideological implications of these cultural significations? Despite the many interpretive possibilities of recorded sermons and even the "folk" aesthetic that defines them, this essay suggests that the religious race record industry served as a productive force in encouraging systems of social control over raced, classed, and gendered bodies during the interwar era. And the industry's decision to focus on theologically conservative sermons stressing personal piety cast a powerful ballot in the cultural debates concerning the style, content, and purpose of black preaching in the previous century.
- ©© 2010 by The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture