Book Review
Stereophile|January 2022
The Secret History of Washington, DC, R&B
By John Swenson

R&B in D.C. 1940-1960 (Bear Family BCD 17052 16-CD, 2021) adds a new chapter to the Bear Family Records deep dive into American popular culture. Historian/collector Jay Bruder worked with a small army of researchers and editors to compile the beautifully designed book and its accompanying 16CD discography. The box unearths an obscure story about the musical history of the Black population in the nation’s capital between the era of big band swing jazz and early rock’n’roll. Though the music part of the package covers only about two decades—the last recording date is 1962—the history goes back to the end of the 19th century.

One of the great ironies of the story is that very little music was recorded in the District of Columbia due to lack of a music-business infrastructure, even though DC was where the industry itself began— arguably—with Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the Graphophone at Volta Laboratories in Georgetown. With recording labs based in DC, area artists were well represented at the dawn of the recording age, but, as Bruder notes, no commercial record company operated in the city between 1900 and 1944. “During the 1920s and 1930s,” he writes, “Washington artists had to leave town to make a record.”

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