The Legends of the Rocking Dutchman - episode 23

The 1942 AFM recording ban

This transcript of the radio show is an approximation of what I said in the show. The real spoken parts may differ slightly.

And legends is what you're gonna get from me, and a little history lesson of a legendary time in American music history as today I will feature the 1942 to 1944 recording ban of the American Federation of Musicians. That strike proved to have an enormous impact on forties popular music and to the recording industry. And of course I'll play a lot of music that was released in these days, despite the ban. So let's keep the talk for later and start with a wonderful instrumental of 1943. Here is Charlie Barnet & His Orchestra with the Washington Whirligig.

01 - Charlie Barnet & His Orchestra - Washington Whirligig
02 - Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy - Take It And Git

Andy Kirk and his Clouds of Joy hit number one on the Harlem Hit Parade in October, 1942.

Today's feature on the Legends of the rocking dutchman is the 1942-44 recording ban of the AFM, the American Federation of Musicians, that started on August, 1 1942. The conflict was about a fee, a payment per play of any recording made by a union member, that should go to the union itself to compensate out of work members and to finance special projects. And though a good rationale of it was never made, and the strike was, and remained, and will always remain controversial, one of its merits is that we still have the MPTF or Musicians Performance Trust Fund, that allows to organize public music performances that in other countries would require publicly subsidized funds. Chances are fair that if you go to a city arts fair, or something like that anywhere in America, that the music is being provided by the MPTF.

Still, with that the benefit today, the battle was not won without substantial loss for all involved - including the musicians and the music.

03 - Bea Booze - See See Rider Blues
04 - Dinah Washington - Evil Gal Blues

You heard Dinah Washington with the Evil Gal blues from 1943 and before that Bea Booze with her version of Ma Rainey's Classic See See Rider, from 1942 that was a hit in the beginning of 1943.

Well you heard a lot of music already that was released and played during the AFM recording ban. How was that possible? Well, the record companies had to rely on the recordings that were made before, either unreleased or to be re-released. Actually, they weren't prepared very well since for a long time nobody believed the AFM would carry through their plan. So in the last weeks before that first of August there was a sudden recording frenzy - but that was all.

Of course the ill-preparedness was a major advantage for the union. Several of the big recording companies were actually multi-media enterprises that could well afford having their music department not earning anything for the company for a longer time. But Decca wasn't, and they saw themselves forced to give in to the union in the fall of 1943, and the small independent record companies would follow soon. And now they had a major advantage over the other record companies, as they could record and release new music where the others couldn't. The others lasted a year longer and effectively placed themselves out of business for that year.

05 - Lucky Millinder & His Orchestra - Apollo Jump
06 - Erskine Hawkins - Bear Mash Blues

That was Erskine Hawkins and his orchestra with the Bear Mash Blues and before that you got Lucky Millinder & His Orchestra with the Apollo Jump.

Now an exception to the ban on recording had been made for the so-called V-discs with the V standing for Victory. That were 12 inch 78 RPM records that were pressed only for distribution to the armed forces overseas. Now only few of these V-discs have survived the war and nowadays they're very much wanted among collectors. Let's play one of these. From V-Disc number 315, here is Duke Ellington with Things Ain't What They Used To Be. There was also a regular edition of it, but that was another take that sounds differently from this historical V-disc edition.

07 - Duke Ellington & his Orchestra - Things Ain't What They Used To Be
08 - Gus Gibson & Will Chastain - Milk Cow Blues

And that was another recording that had been made in the middle of the recording ban. From March, 1943 you heard Gus Gibson with Will Chastain on the guitar with the Milk Cow Blues, recorded in Fort Valley, GA. I don't think they were union members and the recording was done in a big series of recordings for the Archive of American Folk Song of the Library of Congress - it was definitely not a commercial thing.
Also from blues pianist James P Johnson exist several recordings in this collection. The backwater blues, that I'm going to play is not one of it - it's from the public and free archive. It's from 1943, recorded in New York and I don't know how it got recorded despite the ban.
Johnson was by then already a veteran in the music business. He'd backed up great blues singers from the twenties like Bessie Smith, Ida Cox and Ethel Waters. The Backwater Blues were recorded in memory of Bessie Smith who died in 1937.

09 - James P. Johnson - Backwater Blues
10 - Lionel Hampton And His Orchestra - Flying Home

Well - something completely different from the piano of James P Washington - that was Lionel Hampton with his big band wit- Flying Home.

Now I said that the recording ban had quite an impact on the whole music business. One of the effects was the demise of the big bands. There were several factors, actually, that helped the big bands to disband and the small combos to emerge. The country was at war. Band members were drafted in the army and gas was rationed and that made it difficult for the big bands to tour the country. And when the lights went out early in the evening, the dance halls and ballrooms where the big bands played, closed down. Small combos consisting of a piano, guitar, bass, drums or saxophone - often just two, three or four members - they took over in sparsely lit night clubs, playing new kinds of jazz like bebop, or specializing on the new trend, the jump blues.

Listen to Louis Jordan, one of the pioneers of the jump blues with Five Guys named Moe that was recorded in the summer of 1942 and released in 43 on Decca.

11 - Louis Jordan - Five Guys Named Moe
12 - Charlie Parker - Cherokee

Charlie Parker with Cherokee, an early recording of him where he already shows his virtuoso on the saxophone. It's often said that the recording ban made that the rise of bebop, a new style of jazz, was not recorded. That's true but you may wonder how much of that new experimental jazz would have been pressed in shellac. The big companies will probably not have been interested and before the strike, the independent record companies had a very marginal role.

It was the strike that helped change that because - together with Decca - they'd given in to the union's demands a year earlier than the big companies, putting themselves back in business way before the majors. And because of the big bands disbanding a lot of musicians had to find work in smaller combos - the whole music market suddenly had become more small-scale.

Next that I play is Dinah Washington accompanied by the Arnett Cobb sextet. Here are the Salty Papa Blues.

13 - Dinah Washington - Salty Papa Blues

As I said, the AFM strike of 1942 to 44 was highly controversial and so was the organizer.

AFM chairman James Petrillo is often characterized as a power-mad union boss and from today's viewpoint, organizing a two-year strike that would have so many consequences, just for the purpose of a fee to establish a union fund seems out of proportion. But it's unfair to predict the future afterwards, and in these days there were a lot of people who believed in the strike.

You may classify Petrillo as a reactionary force of his time. He'd long been opposed to recording music in general as it would keep musicians out of work, like playing records on a radio program instead of live performances. Well I'm glad that battle was never to be won.

There's a striking resemblance of what Petrillo stood for and what's happening in the music industry today. The technological changes of today have obsoleted the physical device that holds music. The CD, an invention of already thirty years old, has come to the end of its remarkably long lifetime now that a chip as large as a finger nail, to be put in any mobile device can hold a complete music collection that would require a cabinet in the CD era, or a warehouse of 78s.

The big music companies are fihting a battle against downloads that they'll never win. Internet bandwith widens and the whole world of music and any multimedia is available at a click of a mouse. And instead of fighting downloading and the posession of copyrighted electronic versions of music, which they will never win, they should focus on the challenges of the 21st century instead of sticking in the previous one.

Just today, my son and a friend, were recording their music, here in my house. My son provides the beats with a studio program and the other kid does the rap and I'm proud to see that they do tremendously well though it's not my music style. The result will be played on parties and made available on the internet where they will get the recognition and with that they will be able to earn a little money according to their musical potential.

My son doesn't dream about his name on a CD box - he moved into the new era that we're in today. And I firmly believe there's a future in music for him, if he proves to be good enough, and otherwise he will keep it as a hobby that will give hime and others a lot of pleasure. And that's what music is all about.

14 - Dinah Shore - Memphis Blues

And with Dinah shore and her Memphis Blues we end this little history lesson, here on the Legends of the Rocking Dutchman. I know it was a little bit more talk than you're used to, but anyway I hope you liked it and the music that came along with the story. And you know - I love to get a lot of mail so share your thoughts with me and send me an e-mail at

Or visit me on the web, where you can review today's playlist. Just do a google search on the Legends of the Rocking Dutchman and my site will pop up first. Time's up for now so byebye and I wish you all a great day. No, have a rocking day. And I promise you more great music every show, so be on the lookout for the next episode of the Legends of the Rocking Dutchman!