David Gilbert: Pre-war Ragtime, From UNC Press to the Grammys

We are very proud that two UNC Press authors are nominated for Grammy Awards this year.

William Ferris (), noted folklorist who has written and contributed to several publications from UNC Press on Southern history, the oral tradition, and the blues, is nominated for Best Historical Album for “Voices of Mississippi” on .

David Gilbert is nominated for Best Album Notes for “The Product of Our Souls” ), a companion to his 2015 UNC Press book The Product of Our Souls: Ragtime, Race, and the Birth of the Manhattan Musical Marketplace.

Today, David Gilbert offers some background on his book and the companion CD project.

The Grammy Awards will be presented Sunday, February 10, 2019 in Los Angeles.


The Product of Our Souls, book and CDIn the second week of 1914, New York Age entertainment columnist Lester Walton described an unprecedented event. “Last Monday afternoon,” he wrote, “for the first time in the history of New York, theatre-goers witnessed the unusual spectacle of a colored orchestra playing in the pit of a first class theatre for white artists.” Walton explained that this unorthodox occurrence happened not once, but twice in a single afternoon. At both Hammerstein’s Victoria Theatre and the Palace Theatre, white audiences listened to a black band as it accompanied white dancers. “Such an unusual condition was due to the insistence of Mr. and Mrs. Vernon Castle, known in the Four Hundred as society dancers, that James Reese Europe’s Society Orchestra, play their dance music.”

The Castles surely demanded James Reese Europe’s dance orchestra because they admired its innovative sounds and Europe’s skill as conductor. Yet by 1914, Europe and his various iterations of African American music ensembles had been playing for affluent white New Yorkers for a decade. Through his organizing of New York musicians, his branding of the Clef Club Inc., as well as his own self-promotion and artistic ingenuity, Europe was already one of New York’s leading musicians.

Between 1905 and 1915, Europe established new levels of respect and cultural capital for black musicians in New York, especially among wealthy white New Yorkers. Simultaneously he transformed the value of their labor by getting them regular work and remarkably high wages—$20-$35 a night during a time in which black wage workers earned $1-$2 per day. When James Europe arrived in Manhattan in 1903, African American actors were just beginning to perform in Broadway theaters, but they could only do so behind the minstrel mask of blackface. The majority of black musicians in Manhattan, meanwhile, played for tips in restaurants and cabarets, holding no power to negotiate wages or working conditions.

In 1910, James Europe organized more than 200 black musicians into the Clef Club, a combined labor union and booking agency, becoming the first organization of its kind in New York City. By the time Europe desegregated Carnegie Hall with the 150-man Clef Club Symphony Orchestra in 1912, he had traded the burnt cork of minstrelsy for tuxedo tails, earning unprecedented esteem for his black musicians.

Over the next two years, Europe partnered with Manhattan’s dancing darlings, Irene and Vernon Castle, introducing ragtime song-and-dance styles to New York’s most elite clientele. When Europe’s Society Orchestra became the first African American band to record phonograph sides in the U.S., it introduced the thrilling and modern sounds of New York City dance music and African American-made ragtime rhythms across America.

The Product of Our Souls CDThis past summer, Archeophone Records released the first complete collection of James Europe’s Society Orchestra’s eight recordings for the Victor Talking Machine Company, which were made in late 1913 and early 1914. Yet not only did Archeophone-owner Rich Martin remaster these eight cuts, he also cleaned up 14 other songs that James Europe had written, but that were recorded by other artists prior to World War I. This remarkable collection ended up being a companion CD to my UNC Press-published manuscript about James Reese Europe and his creative community pre-Harlem Renaissance New York. As I worked on the liner notes for this collection, I contacted UNC Press to ask about letting Archeophone use the title and cover image of the book and was happy when we all agreed that this would make a potent pairing. At the time, no one would have guessed the CD would be nominate for a Grammy Award in the Best Album Notes category. But the big event is this coming Sunday, and I’m looking forward to meeting Rich and his partner Meagan in L.A. as we keep our fingers crossed for a victory.


David Gilbert’s first book, The Product of Our Souls: Ragtime, Race, and the Birth of the Manhattan Musical Marketplace, was published by UNC Press in 2015. The CD companion to the book came out in the summer of 2018 and his liner note essay has been nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Album Notes category.  You can read his previous UNC Press Blog posts here.  Check out this interview with him to learn more.