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Soundies: 1940s 'music videos' gave Black performers a time to shine in the Jim Crow era

"Soundies" are the music videos that came decades before MTV — even before television was widespread. A small subset of these soundies brought a more diverse reflection of 1940s America to the mainstream — partially contributing to, as some experts say, the foundation of the civil rights movement.

In the 1940s, the world was at war. And America was also deep into its Jim Crow era. The segregation housing policy known as redlining was in full effect. And the Civil Rights Act wouldn’t be passed for more than 20 years. 

But amid the turmoil, a short-lived gem in American cinema was created. Each week, eight of the three-minute films on massive reels, or soundies, were dispersed across the country. They featured musicians, dancers and even uncanny chicken impressions.

While most starred white people, a significant subset featured Black performers — allowing a unique opportunity for Black stars and stars-to-be to gain fans from both Black and white audiences.

Susan Delson is a cultural historian who wrote the book, "Soundies and the Changing Image of Black Americans on Screen One Dime at a Time."

“Soundies give us a different sense, a much broader sense, of who an American was back then. Not only in their depiction of Black people on screen, but also people of other races and ethnicities and gender," Delson said.

She was also a part of a team of experts that worked with Kino Lorber Studio Classics, UCLA and the Library of Congress to find, collect, refurbish and put into context 200 soundies. Nearly 2,000 soundies were created.

Each shows a slice of early 20th century American history and provided a platform for many artists. 

What resulted was a home-video package called "Soundies: The Ultimate Collection," released in July.

“Soundies envisioned Black Americans on screen in a way that Hollywood just was not doing very much at the time. Soundies picture Black people as stylish, smart, sophisticated and successful," Delson said.

Juxtapose that with the racist depiction of Black workers in Disney’s original "Dumbo," which hit movie screens the same year soundies began.

They played on massive jukebox-like film machines called Panorams. And due to war-related shortages, only around 3,000 machines were made. Panoram operators put them in large gathering spaces like bars, bus depots, clubs — usually in Northeast and Mid-Atlantic cities, but there were some in Arizona. 

Ina Archer worked on the Ultimate Collection and is a media conservator with the National Museum of African American History and Culture. She says soundies let performers tell stories where they could just be themselves; their race didn’t drive the plotline. They break expectations.

“And I think that these show you what the 1940s might actually look like, or certainly how the 1940s imagined itself, that period. So, take a couple of minutes and you might be really, really happily surprised," Archer said.

Archer describes a particular soundie called "Emily Brown" that features a Black policeman singing about how excited he is to meet a woman. 

“Emily Brown” is 1943 soundie performed by Bob Parrish and Chinky Grimes. Video provided by Mark Cantor as seen on his website,  Celluloid Improvisations.

“And then it changes to this wedding scenario where, you know, they're getting married and he is, and she's got this amazing wedding dress on, and he's so excited about her and the last, and it's kind of an operatic end. … It's just so like maybe not naïve, but so, and not aspirational, just so lovely and sweet-tempered and it's kind of achieved a little bit of, you know, perfect happiness," Archer said.

Out of all the soundies created, about 15% featured Black performers. 

“For African American cinema, before 1970, that is a remarkably intact archive. And it documents an era of Black entertainment history that we just don’t have very much on film in any other way," Delson said. 

A 1946 soundie called “Got a Penny Benny.” It was performed by the King Cole Trio, which includes Oscar Moore. Video provided by Susan Delson.

The Soundies Corporation released the reels each week, and the short films were created by a loose, de-centralized network of production companies not at all like Hollywood.

As Delson writes in her book, there were also soundies that used blackface and other harmful depictions.

But her research suggests such depictions were a risk to profits because many Panoram owners, as well as a significant portion of the audience, were Black. Films that had all-Black casts were incredibly popular among white audiences, as well.

“The Soundies Corporation was producing additional Black cast films because there was a demand for it. And that's the only type of film they ever made these extras of," Delson said.

Some of the performers, even 80 years later, are still household names — like Doris Day and Nat King Cole.

The original King Cole Trio had a soundie called “Got a Penny Benny.” The trio's success crossed state and racial lines; one 1947 newspaper said they were considered "one of the foremost singing and musical groups of the nation." 

Playing the guitar is trio member Oscar Moore, a star in his own right. And he spent his formative years in Arizona. 

Nick Rossi, a musician and historian, takes a particular interest in Moore.

“In some ways and arguably even more so than Charlie Christian, who’s credited as the father of modern jazz guitar, Oscar kind of took that influence ... and he turned it into a working model that a lot of us in the contemporary jazz world still follow," Rossi said.

He says Moore likely learned how to play guitar while growing up in Phoenix. And talent ran in the family.

Moore’s older brother John was a part of Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers. They had their own soundie, too, called "Along the Navajo Trail."

A 1945 soundie called “Along the Navajo Trail," which was performed by John “Shadrach” Horace and Johnny Moore’s 3 Blazers. Video provided by Susan Delson.

But all things come to an end. By March 1947, the war was over, and so were the soundies.

Mark Cantor, an archivist and historian who wrote "The Soundies: A History and Catalog of Jukebox Film Shorts of the 1940s" and also worked on the Ultimate Collection, says there were multiple factors. The post-war recession was just a start. 

“So, now this large population or segment of the population, Black people, brown people, Asian Americans, women, are out of work. They no longer have that disposable dime to watch the film," Cantor said.

Along with changes in musical tastes and the television boom, Cantor says there was a huge post-war shift from city to suburbs — which left many Panorams and their soundies behind.

But the soundies live on as a historical phenomenon and reflection of another time.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to remove a misidentified photo and correct the spelling of Wesley Prince's name in a photo caption, both provided by the New York Public Library. This story has also been updated to correct that soundies ended in 1947.

More photos: Oscar Moore, legendary guitar player, was raised in Phoenix

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Jill Ryan joined KJZZ in 2020 as a morning reporter, and she is currently a field correspondent and Morning Edition producer.