Gennett Records: The Unlikely Powerhouse of Early American Music

Gennett Records, a name synonymous with the jazz and blues recordings of the early 20th century, is often overlooked in the broader conversation of music history despite its substantial influence on the development of recorded music in America. From its humble beginnings to becoming a pivotal platform for many famous artists, Gennett’s story is one of innovation, opportunity, and eventual decline.

The 78 revolutions per minute (rpm) record, the primary medium for recorded sound from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century, was a crucial element in the democratization of music. Made from shellac, these records typically held about three to five minutes of music per side. Their development enabled the mass production and widespread distribution of sound recordings, revolutionizing how music was consumed and appreciated across the globe.

Recorded music began its journey in the late 19th century, largely due to Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph in 1877. Initially seen as a novelty, recorded sound soon became a significant part of cultural life, allowing people to listen to music without attending live performances. This period saw the rise of various recording companies, but many struggled with the technological limitations and copyright laws of the time, setting the stage for innovators like Gennett to make their mark.

Gennett Records was born from the Starr Piano Company, a family-owned business based in Richmond, Indiana. Founded by Henry Gennett, the label started as an offshoot designed to utilize the excess capacity of the company’s phonograph division in the 1910s. The decision to enter the recording industry was partly influenced by the geographic proximity to Chicago, where jazz was burgeoning, offering a ripe environment for growth and experimentation.

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Under the Starr umbrella, Gennett Records thrived as a hub for jazz, blues, and country music, recording some of the most influential artists of the time. Despite limited technical resources, Gennett was known for its willingness to record musicians who were turned away by larger labels, making it a crucial platform for African American and rural white musicians. Legends like Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, and Jelly Roll Morton all recorded with Gennett, and the label was among the first to capture the sounds of the New Orleans style of jazz. Moreover, Gennett’s recordings of Charley Patton, one of the most important early Delta blues singers, are invaluable to blues history.

Beyond the well-known jazz and blues icons, Gennett Records was also instrumental in the early recordings of country music, documenting the Appalachian and Midwestern folk traditions that were rarely captured by other labels of the era. This included artists like Vernon Dalhart and Fiddlin’ Doc Roberts, who brought the raw energy and emotion of rural America to a broader audience. Gennett’s extensive catalog thus not only highlighted the richness of urban jazz and blues but also played a pivotal role in the development of country music, capturing the eclectic sounds that shaped America’s musical landscape. The label’s willingness to explore and record a wide array of genres demonstrates its profound impact on the diversity and preservation of American music.

The label’s operations reflected a pioneering spirit in more than just artist selection. Gennett was at the forefront of mastering sound recording techniques that enhanced the acoustic quality, despite the rudimentary equipment of the era. Their catalog became immensely diverse, spanning gospel, jazz, blues, and country, showcasing the cultural melting pot of America at the time. However, financial limitations and the Great Depression significantly impacted the breadth and quality of their releases.

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By the mid-1930s, Gennett Records found it increasingly difficult to compete with larger, better-financed companies that had moved to electric recording technologies. The economic strains of the Depression and the evolving music industry, which demanded more sophisticated recording capabilities, led to the label’s gradual decline. By 1934, Gennett had ceased producing records, focusing instead on other business ventures within the Starr Piano Company.

Despite its relatively short life span, the legacy of Gennett Records is profound. It provided early recording opportunities that captured the foundational sounds of genres that would shape American music for decades. Many of these recordings preserved the raw, authentic expressions of artists who might otherwise have been forgotten. Today, Gennett is celebrated not just for its contributions to music but also for its role in cultural preservation and its fearless approach to recording a diverse array of artists.